Gawker's media revolution is intrinsically tied to corporations

A tumultuous few weeks in the media world for the likes of Nick Denton at Gawker, the Financial Times, and Reddit demonstrate how quickly the landscape is changing and that commercial realities affect all media.

What a curious and extraordinary week it has been for media.

In fact, what a curious and extraordinary time this is for media per se, as trends around consolidation, ethics, and the dividing line between Church and State dominate headlines.

Consider this small selection of media stories from recent times:

  1. Two of Gawker Media’s most senior editors quit after a story is taken down on the orders of the site’s owner Nick Denton amid statements that it’s time for Gawker to grow up and become "more gentle" to assuage concerns by advertisers. The incident occurs as Denton prepares to go up against Hulk Hogan in a $100 million lawsuit over the publication of a sex tape on the media news and gossip blog, which has also been taken down pending the legal case.
  2. Reddit fires director of talent Victoria Taylor, the vast online community’s seemingly pivotal overseer of the site’s high-profile and extremely popular Ask Me Anything sessions and the point person for Reddit’s important cabal of unpaid moderators. PR pros and publicists say they are adopting a watching brief for the time being before they engage with the site any more.
  3. BuzzFeed has taken down thousands of posts from its archive and also removed articles criticizing advertisers such as Dove, which were then reinstated in an embarrassing about-turn. The travails were, of course, reported in gleeful detail by its rival Gawker.
  4. The Financial Times is set to be acquired by Japanese newspaper publisher Nikkei. Less than one hour before the statement announcing the acquisition was released by Nikkei, the FT itself sent out a "Breaking News" alert saying its parent company Pearson was in advanced talks with German media group Axel Springer about selling the FT.

These developments are not confined to the new sexy digital media and blogging outlets in the US – the same trials and tribulations are being addressed throughout the world and also by mainstream or traditional media:

  1. In the UK, the publication on the front page of the country’s leading tabloid rag The Sun of a picture from 1933 of the Queen giving a Nazi salute when she was a young child gets the Royal Family frothing at the mouth about exploitation and the stealing of private archive material. The paper claims the pictures are of historical importance and that it’s in the public interest to bring them to wider attention.
  2. Also in the UK, The Sun’s News UK stable mate The Times removes a controversial article from its website about the recent death by suicide of singer Nick Cave’s 15-year-old son Arthur after a barrage of online complaints.
  3. Again in the UK, establishment bastion The Daily Telegraph has attracted the attention of press regulators and come under fire from media commentators and its own columnists and journalists because stories have been spiked because they are negative about the newspaper’s large advertisers.

Fittingly, one of the best analyses of developments at Gawker, Reddit, and BuzzFeed I’ve read was in The New York Times, the self-proclaimed newspaper of record and still considered by most PR pros as the gold standard in terms of measuring the value of a media hit for a client.

Jonathan Mahler laid out the issues clearly and intelligently and put them in perspective, comparing Gawker’s trials with those of Reddit and fellow blog behemoth BuzzFeed. All three new media phenomena face the reality of transitioning from purely drawing in the largest-possible amount of traffic to turning that traffic into revenues that will support the long-term viability and success of the platforms.

Just over a month earlier, in another piece by Mahler, Denton had proclaimed that a "revolution was coming." Over a joint and a glass of red wine with his husband, Mahler, and executive editor Tommy Craggs, Denton explained: "It’s not 100 percent guaranteed, but the existing corporate structure is looking pretty hollow."

He was talking about corporations and business in general, but either way that statement is looking a little problematic in light of subsequent developments. After Denton ordered the story about the sexual proclivities of a media executive at rival Condé Nast – which owns Reddit – to be taken down, Craggs was one of those senior editors who decided to quit in protest. 

Mahler's piece went on to say Gawker brought in $45 million in advertising revenue last year, with profits of about $7 million, so maybe the revolution in corporate structure has been put on ice for a while. And maybe Denton is a little more concerned about the impact of Gawker’s editorial freedom on advertisers than he claimed over that glass of red wine.

Meanwhile, at Cannes (I know, sorry, I do go on about it too much…) there were a number of interesting content deals involving both new and mainstream media owners - ranging from Vice Media linking up with Unilever to the Daily Mail Online hooking up with Snapchat and WPP – that further test the modern media model and the limits of editorial freedom.

I’m not going to get into the minutiae of the Gawker situation in terms of the navel gazing and soul searching recent events caused within its highly opinionated editorial staff and from its never-backward-in-coming-forward user community – that has been more than adequately covered elsewhere.

But I will say that nothing focuses the mind of a publisher or editor like a high-profile and potentially financially ruinous legal case hanging over their heads. And I’d also note that taking down a story is never a good idea if you’re trying to argue the case for something else staying up being in the public interest.

Denton’s reference to a "Gawker tax" as being the price his media outlet pays in lost advertising revenues for being controversial and willing to attack anyone in the most visceral of ways is another sign of a brand suffering growing pains and coming to terms with the realities of commercial life.

Every media owner, however well established, is wrestling with an environment where closer links with advertisers, native content, sponsored events, and special project solutions units are the order of the day to replace print advertising revenues that are just not being replaced online.

The trick in these circumstances is to keep your editorial integrity and credibility for independence while finding new ways to produce attractive content in partnership with sponsors and advertisers – all the time ensuring the relationship is clearly labeled and defined. But it’s a complicated and thin line that all editors and publishing teams are navigating.

What does it all mean for PR pros?

  1. The media is changing at a faster pace than ever before and all the old assumptions and traditions are up for grabs – nothing is set in stone anymore.
  2. It would be nice to think The New York Times will continue to be the most important newspaper brand in the world, despite its slimming down in recent times and loss of many senior correspondents – so don’t underestimate the power of so-called traditional or mainstream media.
  3. This might seem obvious, but it’s worth saying anyway: Think carefully about the media environment into which you are selling your stories, and make extra sure the fit is right for your brand or your client.
  4. There are more chances than ever to come up with innovative ways to work in partnership with media outlets that would once have shut you down on the spot for suggesting such "heretical" liaisons. They need the money and, more importantly, they are much more open to interesting ways of working with brands and agencies.
  5. Gratuitous plug: You must read PRWeek assiduously to follow all the latest developments and implications in the modern media environment into which you sell your brands’ and clients’ stories – and for tips on the best ways to do so.

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