Gawker's key to success in politics: Keep being Gawker

The gossip website said this week that it's turning its gaze to politics. It should stay true to its roots to make an impact.

Gawker did something that shocked people this week – and not with a salacious blog post.

Its parent company told staffers that it is eschewing media and entertainment gossip for the copy-rich world of politics, just as the 2016 presidential election is about to get real.

And why not? The early stages of the 2016 race, with the rabid anti-establishment bent in the Republican Party, have been eminently deridable, often looking more like a Saturday Night Live sketch – bad hair and all – than a race for the White House.

Here’s how Gawker founder Nick Denton put it in a widely circulated note to staffers.

He has a point.

The 2016 election, at least on the GOP side, has drifted widely off course, with the party that always seems to opt for the safe bet looking like it just might throw its support behind a wild card such as Donald Trump or Dr. Ben Carson. It’s so bad, party elders are reportedly wistful for a third Romney candidacy, which is to say they’re really worried. (A general election runner-up hasn’t won the presidency since Richard Nixon).

It makes for good copy for journalists. Yet there are a few reasons to be skeptical about Gawker entering this arena. One is that the political media environment is beyond crowded, busting at the seams with traditional reporters, data-driven websites, bloggers, and combinations of thereof. From left to right, there’s not much daylight left for a newcomer to plant its flag. Another challenge is that in the political world, the biggest scoops tend to come from the reporters on the ground, whether in Washington, DC, or on the campaign trail. (Though Gawker has had its share of political scoops over the years, most notably in my mind its 2008 piece on Sarah Palin’s personal emails).

Despite the challenges, Denton’s strategy should be simple: let Gawker be Gawker. The website’s snarky tone has been often imitated, but never duplicated at the same scale. And while its sloppy and wrong-headed post about the personal life of media executive David Geithner was a black eye, its management at least decided to correct course.

Another positive for Gawker is the return of Alex Pareene last month as editor-in-chief. (He’s already fired shots across the bows of BuzzFeed and Vox). Pareene’s writing is irreverent, but often just as insightful and unique. A lot of journalists covering politics try to be funny; Pareene actually is funny.

That unique voice is Gawker’s greatest strength as it makes this transition. Political media in 2015 is too often mundane, unoriginal, and humorless. It’s too much of the minute and not enough of the moment. It’s a black-and-white world that could use some color. And Gawker is nothing but colorful.

Frank Washkuch is news editor at PRWeek.    

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