Journalist Q&A: Nick Denton, Gawker Media (Extended)

Nick Denton, founder of the Gawker Media blog platforms, talks about the evolution of gossip media in the US and PR's role in blog commenting.

Name: Nick Denton
Title: Founder
Outlet: Gawker Media
Preferred e-mail address: (Kevin Prince, PR manager)

PRWeek talks to Nick Denton, founder of the Gawker Media blog platforms, about the evolution of gossip media in the US, criticism surrounding the Gawker redesign, and PR pros' role in blog commenting.

How, if at all, did your past experience in business and financial journalism influence your decision to start a blog network?
When I was at the Financial Times, I was struck that the most entertaining stories were the ones that never made it into the paper. You'd hear them over a drink after deadline talking about how the chancellor of the Exchequer, who had just given independence to the Bank of England, had dandruff. Blogs, being less formal, were able to cover the story behind the story, and that was often more interesting than the official version of the news.

Has any of your past experience been unexpectedly relevant in the last year or so, maybe as a result of consumer or online trends?
The only stories I remember from my newspapering days are the gigantic scoops. I was looking through my cuttings the other week and realized that in eight years at the FT, I produced maybe only eight really memorable stories. And I do try to remember that when we pursue a particularly controversial story, like Apple's loss of the iPhone prototype or Brett Favre's sexual sketchiness.

In the end, it's only the controversial stories that anybody remembers. And people remember the story and they forget the controversy.

Have Americans loosened up to gossip that at one point might have been described as taboo? Or have we become more squeamish?
The Internet has definitely opened up certain topics - the outing of closeted executives and celebrities, for instance. Websites like ours have so often referred to Anderson Cooper's or Barry Diller's homosexuality that it's become absurd for magazines to skirt the subject.

I like to think that contemporary news outlets cover scandal in a different way. There's more voyeurism and less censoriousness, especially because writers' own personal lives are now themselves more subject to examination. It's increasingly preposterous for a writer to stand in judgment when they're themselves being monitored and judged by commenters and bloggers.

How has Gawker's readership evolved since 2004, when you told us in a Q&A that it's someone who is “25 to 34 years old, urban, an early adopter, and online- and media-savvy?”
The profile has remained remarkably constant. Our audience is still overwhelmingly metropolitan. The typical Gawker reader is both richer and younger than the Web average. There are just many more of them than there were.

The Web is full of generic middle-market portals and sites that have bought their traffic or manipulated Google into sending it. I'm glad we've never succumbed to any of those temptations.

After all, it's those young and influential consumers who have disappeared from network television and newspapers. It's the most elusive of demographics and the one that marketers will spend the most budget and effort to reach.

What inspired the recent redesign? It seems you're sticking to it despite criticism. What's the end goal?
Exclusives from the Tom Cruise Scientology marketing video to the iPad security breach have driven much of our growth since 2008. It was absurd that in a blog format our strongest stories would fall down the page. That's why we decided to devote the largest part of the front page to the best stories, not simply the most recent.

Will the criticism influenced the new design approach?
We are removing the hash-bang URLs in response to feedback. It's a technical change, but it will restore some lost search traffic and make it easier again for readers to share items on Facebook.

Which topics or blogs are getting the most traffic? Is there a particular brand you plan to update or invest more in?
One of our hottest titles right now is Kotaku. Under Brian Crecente, it had already become a must-read within the video-game industry. We brought over Joel Johnson from Gizmodo to punch up the graphics and extend the appeal to more casual gamers. Take a look, even if you're only interested in video-game culture from an anthropological perspective.

Where do Gawker and Jezebel stand in the mix?
Gawker has broadened out substantially and become a national news and entertainment site, especially since we merged in Valleywag and Defamer, our tech and Hollywood titles.

It's clear that reader interest has shifted from magazine editors and executives, who provided much fodder in the early years of Gawker, to tech entrepreneurs. We've been ahead of that shift.

How important are comments in shaping coverage and helping the brand?
They're critical to the vitality of the site. A site without comments is like a restaurant without the buzz of conversation. The excellence of the chef is irrelevant if the place feels dead.

However, we can do so much more to improve the quality of discussion on the Web. I want the subjects of stories and their allies to feel comfortable enough to respond to a story in the comments. They're usually too scared of being torn apart by the regulars. It's a problem everywhere on the Web, but we have a solution. We're going to give commenters the power to “bump” obnoxious replies to another thread. They won't be able to censor discussion, but we'll provide some kind of protection from the mob.

I'd welcome feedback from PR pros, actually, because I'd love to get their help in the evolution of stories. Publicists should be in the comments, making clarifications, moving the story forward. That's always been part of the potential of Internet discussion – that stories continue to evolve after the writer has filed the piece. We have some software development to do first, though.

Do you find that PR pros have become more or less helpful over the years?
There's the same variation in PR skills. Some speak the language of media; some in corporate boilerplate. What's changed is that the Internet is even less forgiving of turgid corporate pap than the newspapers were.

What's the next big step for you, for your Gawker network?
If you classed our network as a newspaper, we'd now be the second or third in the US by size of online audience. That's gratifying, of course, but it's also disturbing to our self-image. We have relished the role as scrappy outsider. But we're going to have to adjust to being part of the new media establishment. I'm not entirely sure how that will work.

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