Jessica Coen catapulted from TV studio assistant to editor at one of the most popular - and stinging - blogs around. And, finds Hamilton Nolan, this influential 25-year-old still has plenty more to say
The phenomenon that is Gawker.com lends itself to analysis. It is, after all, a huge vacuum for time - a productivity sink for office-bound 20-somethings in the same way that outer space is a temperature sink for active molecules. And nothing whiles away a long afternoon at the office better than meandering thoughts about the true meaning of an aggressively flippant website, edited by a 25-year-old woman, that draws more than a million visitors every month and can make the media elite weak in the knees.
With that in mind, two analyses come to mind. On a macro level: the media elite "cubicle monkeys" are obviously not quite as hard at work as they'd have you believe. And on a micro level: the dream of getting a job that allows you to make money, work from home, and defile the high and mighty all at once is still alive. God bless New York City.
Jessica Coen, who has edited (or, currently, co-edited) Gawker for more than a year, is hardly a born-and-bred Manhattan insider. She grew up in Royal Oaks, MI, in a house littered with copies of Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and other publications.
"The main thread throughout my life has been wanting to write," she says. "I grew up in a very magazine-happy household."
She got a degree in English from the University of Michigan and, after graduation, signed up with Teach for America, hoping to be assigned to a school in New York. Instead, she was sent to a high school in South Central Los Angeles, where she taught for a year. After that, she landed a job as an executive assistant at a major TV studio, and began writing her own blog to keep sharp and combat boredom.
Meanwhile, back in the bowels of the New York blogosphere: Gawker Media chief Nick Denton was looking for a new Gawker editor to replace the departing Choire Sicha. Denton and Sicha had been reading Coen's blog, and it piqued their interest.
"She was just unhinged enough to not be too careful about what she was saying about her life out in LA," Sicha recalls. "She would always just go a little too far. And I thought, 'I like that girl.'"
They noticed that she had mentioned her plans to move to New York. Denton e-mailed her about "some projects you might be interested in," and ended up offering her the editorship of Gawker - the blog world's equivalent of being drafted by the Yankees.
"It could not have been more random," Coen says.
After a bit of internal debate, she accepted, even though it meant losing the deposit she had already paid to Columbia University's journalism school to secure her place for the upcoming semester. And instead of toiling as a waitress or small-town stringer while waiting for her big break, Coen catapulted to the top of the new media heap. She has already been invited back to Columbia to speak. Twice.
Of course, the high profile of Gawker itself does not necessarily translate into nonstop schmooze parties and swag bags for Coen. She works from home, usually rolling out of bed in her Lower East Side apartment at 6:30am, and getting to work immediately.
"The nature of the job is very isolating," she admits. "[But] I'm sure if I were working in an office, I'd be complaining - so I'm not going to complain."
But with all of the millions of blogs in the world, many of which also feature snide comments about celebrities and media criticism, why is Gawker so popular? (Specifically, it's the 13th most popular blog in the world, according to Technorati.com.) Coen herself is at a loss to explain it.
"I am very bemused and constantly amazed by it," she says. "I think it has more to do with the state of media in general right now, and people having a distrust and a disillusionment... Gawker is highly personalized. [Co-editor] Jesse [Oxfeld] and I are very honest about our biases. We're not trying to push anything or promote anything. We have no stake in anything."
Lockhart Steele, Gawker Media's managing editor and Coen's nominal boss, credits Gawker's prescient decision to update several times a day - which, at the time, was rare in the blog world - as well as the public's general fascination with the topics Gawker
covers. But he is reluctant to read too much into it.
"The whole idea of blogs being the future of media - I think frankly that's a total joke," he says. "Blogs exist, in large part, because people have jobs that they are bored with."
Steele notes that each of Gawker's past editors have had a slightly different aesthetic. Coen, the third, may be the most biting of all.
"She's not looking to make friends or get to know anyone in this [media/ celebrity] community," he says. "She comes at it with a pretty hard edge."
That edge has sliced, grated, and minced not only easy targets like the Olsen twins, but also Coen's media and gossip contemporaries. Lloyd Grove is depicted as a clueless, outside-the-loop, credulous hack; Judith Miller as a corrupt, money-hungry, credulous hack; and the entire crew of the New York Post's Page Six (which has written negative items about Coen more than once) as deranged, Republican, credulous hacks.
When contacted about Gawker's recent performance, the site's first editor, Elizabeth Spiers, who since moved to Mediabistro.com and then left to write a book, replied only, "Here's what I think about Gawker since my departure: I read it every day."
As Coen has propelled the site even further toward the promised land of exquisitely rendered, angry sarcasm, its readership has steadily grown, along with her cadre of tipsters throughout the media world. "I will have the guy in the mailroom at one magazine; I will have the editor-in-chief at another magazine," she says.
Coen describes PR as an "evil, brilliant" industry, which is as close to a compliment as the constellation of publicists who pitch fluffy client social news to Gawker in hopes of building a buzz could ever hope to get. Coen may one day move on to another platform, but she will take her bloody hatchet of Gawker-esque wit with her.
"I haven't said all I have to say," she says. "I'm not done."
Unnamed TV studio, executive asst.
Teach for America