Nick Denton, publicity cat.

Media criticism.
July 11 2006 7:19 PM

Nick Denton, Publicity Cat

How the Gawker Media guy reaps so much media attention.

Nick Denton
Nick Denton

The publicity hound scratches the closed door, yips, and slobbers in hopes that someone—anyone—will notice him. But the publicity cat is stealthy, remaining in sight and just out of reach. Not necessarily unfriendly, he dispenses only as much attention as he needs to, which usually means he leaves them wanting more. Classic publicity hounds: Larry Ellison, Arlen Specter, and any celebrity who appears regularly on Larry King Live. Classic cats such as Steve Jobs, Bill Bradley, and Bob Dylan feed the media beast, but only on terms advantageous to them.

To our shortlist of classic cats, let's add the much-quoted Nick Denton, whose Gawker Media produces an entertaining and sardonic group of blogs. From his vantage as a former journalist (Financial Times), he understands what reporters need for their stories about the culture and business of blogs. Denton's usually there for the press, especially the business press, when he's got a new blog to launch. He's given smart quotations to the New York Times,the Wall Street Journal,the Washington Post, the Guardian, Business Week, the Independent, Mediaweek, Fortune, Adweek, PR Week, the San Francisco Chronicle, Wired, and Los Angeles magazine, just to name a few publications. Perhaps his greatest publicity coup came in 2003, when he got the New York Timesto write about Kinja, his blog about blogs that nobody has ever visited and nobody ever will.

The cat does, however, discriminate. New Yorkmagazine ran a cover package about blogs in February and sensibly pegged its feature by Clive Thompson to Gawker Media's rise. But Denton refused to be interviewed by Thompson and instructed his staffers not to talk as well. He has also stalled The New Yorker's ambitions to write about him and his blogs by refusing to cooperate. The operating rules here seem to be to avoid publications that may dilute his publicity by lumping his blogs in with lesser properties, which maybe be the case with the New York snub, or that may ding his mystique (The New Yorker).

An instructive example of Denton's skill at managing the press came earlier this month, when he talked at length with New York Times media columnist David Carr, perhaps the best-read writer in Mediaville ("A Blog Mogul Turns Bearish on Blogs," July 3). Denton had just announced plans to trim a couple of blogs from Gawker Media's dozenish roster and make a few personnel changes. Was this really news, good or bad? Top editorial staffers leave Gawker Media all the time, and this isn't the first shedding of a site. Oddjack, about gambling, left the building in November.

So, what were Denton adjustments doing in Carr's column? The entrepreneur spun it there as he had on his personal site, as hatch-battening before the burst of the blog bubble. Carr doesn't so much buy all the self-disparagement as let it float. Denton tells him, "Better to sober up now, before the end of the party."

End of what party? Denton has scoffed at the financial prospects of blogs from the beginning, a point that both Carr and Thompson highlight. Unlike most Web "visionaries," Denton never declares in favor of any new-media utopia. "While I love the medium, I've always been skeptical about the value of blogs as businesses," Denton wrote to discourage competitors on his personal blog two years ago. One year ago he shared an equally dour comment about the blogging "revolution" with the Times:

The hype comes from unemployed or partially employed marketing professionals and people who never made it as journalists wanting to believe. … They want to believe there's going to be this new revolution and their lives are going to be changed.

Denton garners attention for additional reasons, ranked here from least important to most: 1) Charming and approachable, he puts people at ease and makes himself a sympathetic source. 2) By portraying himself as a nasty, libeling, privacy-invading, copyright-infringing scalawag, he's good copy, even though his blogs about electronic gadgets (Gizmodo), tech and life (Lifehacker), and cars (Jalopnik) are embarrassingly ethical and fair. 3) He's British, and the press loves to make pets out of Brits. 4) He's accessible, providing a link on Gawker to his contact points. 5) He responds to queries promptly, or at least he did to my request for a photograph of him. (I declined to ask Denton for an interview. Oh, and this disclosure: He spoke at the Slate retreat last month and we chatted for a few minutes.) 6) The press loves to write about people who write about the press. 7) He made a mint in earlier cyberenterprises, so he's not just talking out of his hat about the Web. Finally, 8) He's the most (only?) interesting boss in a niche business.

Jason Calacanis, who sold his competing set of blogs to AOL for $25 million in 2005, observed in Wired that Denton is "an English guy who likes to downplay things." Calacanis didn't mean it as a compliment, but by underselling his product instead of overhyping it, by rationing his quotes instead of blowing lip music at anybody who requests it, he builds credibility with reporters.

Denton has a lot to downplay. Not to denigrate the growing blog biz, but it doesn't deserve a fraction of the column inches it receives. Internet advertising dollars account for maybe $13 billion of the total $143 billion advertising bill from 2005. Blog entrepreneur David Hauslaib of Jossip  estimates that Gawker Media could be pulling in $10 million to $15 million in yearly revenues if the company enforces its advertising rate card. In the context of big business, that's pennies.

Denton's skills at media manipulation include a knack for pulling off stunts. In early June Gawker got the press on both sides of the Atlantic (New York Times, Observer) writing about its prank on Hello!, the U.K. celebrity magazine. Hello! had purchased pictures of Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and their infant Shiloh for $3.5 million, and Gawker obtained and published a shot of the cover before the magazine reached the newsstand. Also, People had purchased the U.S. rights to the photos for $4.1 million. Denton had to know going in that Hello! and People would scream copyright infringement and send ugly letters from their legal departments demanding that the pictures comes down, which Gawker could then milk by reprinting on the site with its cheeky responses. You can't buy publicity like that. Gawker declared victory over Hello! and People—probably as it originally intended—when it published a "fair use" thumbnail image of the People cover once it reached newsstands. Will Hello! and People ever sue? Denton believes they won't because it will take too much energy, and I reckon he's right. For Gawker's take on the episode, see "The Battle of Shiloh."

In rolling out his blogs, Denton conforms to a design maximized to reap publicity. His first stop was New York City, where the flagship beguiled the elites (and attracted media interest) with steady servings of media news and gossip. From that national platform he added his first regional blog, Wonkette, which tweaked the powerful and under-written-about in Washington, D.C. Then he went on to Los Angeles, where Defamer riled the entertainment industry, and most recently he dropped into the Silicon Valley with Valleywag. At every juncture the local media, which couldn't be bothered to write about sex scandals, the secret shames of the rich, binge drinking in the halls of power, or other forbidden knowledge, has pissed itself wet writing about the Gawker sites.

Denton claims he's in the blog business for the fun of it and to shake up the staid newspaper industry. When the Washington Post presents a prim offering titled "The Reliable Source" in lieu of a true gossip column, and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times don't even suit up to take the field, he has a point. Denton believes that reporters spike gossipy copy about the rich and powerful because they want to stay on the right source lists and still get invited to all the "in" parties. Where such colorful copy exists, it's probably fretful editors doing the suppressing, not reporters, and here we discover the richest source of publicity for Denton to tap. Secretly, many reporters wish they were Denton, free to the point of anarchy to write whatever they wish. What better proxy for their secret rebellion than to write expansively about Nick Denton's wild adventures?

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.