Wednesday, September 28, 2005

No one ever failed by underestimating the taste of America.

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The Gawker King

Nick Denton Is Either the Luce or Hefner of New Age, But He’s Building Web Empire on Gossip, Sex, Smarts;
Inspiring Tale of Skinny Bloke With Oxford Honors

By: Tom Scocca
Date: 10/3/2005
Page: 1

On Sept. 21, Arianna Huffington, the Los Angeles social catalyst, former California gubernatorial candidate and self-appointed anti-Drudge of Web hostesses, tore off her shoes, jumped up on Nick Denton’s coffee table and anointed him: Mr. Denton, said the Amazonian queen of L.A. society—a world that one of Mr. Denton’s 14 Web sites assesses and reports on—is “the Rupert Murdoch of the blogosphere.”

Mr. Denton, her 39-year-old host and the publisher of Gawker Media—the combination steroid and tonic that both inflates and slaps down societies in New York, Los Angeles and Washington, as well as the borderless society of Web-porn fans—was ostensibly welcoming Ms. Huffington to New York. Really, he was throwing his own coming-out party, and had opened the doors of his Soho apartment—a sprawling, high-design affair with massive open kitchen, ebonized wood floors and windows—to some of the mob that clicks on the Gawker site five, six, seven times a day, looking for names, gossip and the kind of Internet astringency that Alexander Woollcott and his crew of gossip-wits would almost certainly have been sprinkling on the blog world if they were around to click and cluck in 2005.

It was hardly the Algonquin Round Table: Mr. Denton had gathered erstwhile rock idol Michael Stipe and New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni in a crowd of hundreds, his own staff photographer ready for the close-ups.

Ms. Huffington’s speech had the smooth, professional cadences of Los Angeles copy laid out on a teleprompter. It was a contrast to Mr. Denton’s introduction, moments before, when he’d cleared away his chessboard and climbed up on the table himself, newly trimmed down and glammed up.

He pulled out a much-folded piece of paper and began to read excerpts from a hostile notice that the celebrity-heavy Huffington Post had gotten on its debut. His hands shook just a little. Nikki Finke had declared the site “horrific,” adding that Ms. Huffington—“the Madonna of the mediapolitic world”—had “undergone one reinvention too many.” The disaster that was the Huffington Post was “unsurvivable.”

“I think contrition is in order from the doubters, including Nikki Finke,” Mr. Denton said. The partygoers applauded.

But the contrition could have been self-administered. Like so many rising press lords, electronic or not, Mr. Denton had gotten in the business of celebrating what his own publication had recently stomped: Gawker.com had sneezed at the Huffington Post’s debut, “When important celebrities have a platform from which to dispense their well-informed opinions, everyone wins!”

Within two days, many of the party guests—and selected others in the outside world—would receive e-mailed invitations to join an exclusive-but-not-too-exclusive group of readers who would be allowed to post comments on Gawker.

One of them was Nikki Finke.

The comments group, Mr. Denton wrote in an instant message, is “like the effort to create a New York nightlife institution. Invite in too many people, and the cool kids will move on. You want them to bring their friends, but not too many of them.”

Nick Denton was building a media elite for the electronic age, as he has for two decades. For, one way or another, he’s been engineering social circles since he was at Oxford in the 1980’s. “He likes to be the center of the carousel,” said Financial Times business columnist John Gapper, Mr. Denton’s former boss at that newspaper and his co-author on a book about the collapse of Barings Bank. “Somebody said, at university what Nick was very good at was [running] a club.”

Later, in London in the 90’s, Mr. Denton created a networking group for tech-industry members called First Tuesdays—which he and his co-founders sold for a reported $50 million in 2000.

But Mr. Denton doesn’t wallow in society and publicity. “He’s not doing it because he wants to be Donald Trump or he wants to be on the front pages of things,” Mr. Gapper said.

Instead, it’s the editorial products—particularly the gossip sites Gawker and Defamer and the political-gossip site Wonkette—that carry the aura of celebrity. They have filled their conceptual niches so well as to seem obvious and inevitable, despite the eldest being less than three years old.

Mr. Denton prefers to be an electronic presence himself. Asked, via instant message, to meet up and discuss Gawker Media, Mr. Denton gave phone numbers for staffers instead, then offered to conduct his share of the conversation via IM.

“IM is so much more me,” Mr. Denton wrote.

“You know,” he added, “I haven’t met a couple of our writers.”

The Blogosphere is a long way from 1970’s Hampstead, in London, where he was raised by an English father, a Hungarian mother, and the splashy gossip magazines like Private Eye that were churned out of British presses. “Father an academic, mother a psychotherapist,” he wrote in an e-mail.

He went to University College, Oxford, and majored in economics. “Economics? Required maths, but socially acceptable.”

After college, he became a stringer for The Financial Times in Budapest, then ended up as a reporter for the paper, covering investment banking.

At The Financial Times, Mr. Gapper noted, he had an air that set him apart from other staffers.

“Nick is a semi-detached character in a lot of ways,” Mr. Gapper said.

He was a dedicated reporter—“not a great writer as a stylist, I would say; he’s very good at working contacts and very good at extracting information out of people.”

But Mr. Denton was clearly treating the job as a job, not as a lifelong commitment. That “pissed some people off,” Mr. Gapper said, as did Mr. Denton’s tendency to drift onto other reporters’ turf if they were covering topics that interested him.

Mr. Gapper said that he had personally found Mr. Denton a pleasure to work with, and an ideal co-author. When a shared task is divided up, Mr. Gapper said, “he will do exactly what needs to be done and a bit extra.” And when it came time to sell the book, Mr. Gapper said he found himself in awe at his partner’s skills.

“He is, I think, the most brilliant marketing person I’ve ever met,” Mr. Gapper said.

And there was one particular topic that had caught Mr. Denton’s attention, Mr. Gapper said. “One thing I can say about Nick is that very early on—very early on—he understood what blogging would be.”

In the mid-90’s, when even publishing a link to an outside article was a controversial move, Mr. Denton was interested in aggregation. As Mr. Gapper recalled it, Mr. Denton’s belief was that on the Internet, “I’m going to want X’s view of what’s interesting.”

Mr. Denton shuttled between San Francisco and London during the dot-com boom. He created an information-aggregator company called Moreover Technologies.

“Nick saw the potential in blogs,” said Meg Hourihan, a co-founder of Blogger.com and a former partner of Mr. Denton’s at Gawker Media. He was more enthusiastic about Blogger, she said, than the company’s own founders were.

“I was crazy about Blogger,” Mr. Denton instant-messaged. “Tried three times to buy it.” When the financial backers of Moreover vetoed his bid for Blogger, he wrote, he quit the company’s board.

“But, whatever,” he added. “We would probably have messed it up.”

This is the story of blogs: Once upon a time, there was the Mainstream Media. The Mainstream Media lived in a tall, impregnable castle, where it paid people to write and paid other people to edit the writing. It printed the results on paper and tossed it down from the balconies, ordering the public to buy and read it.

Then a bunch of people—unpaid, many of them dressed in sleepwear—discovered that they could publish their own writing on the Internet, for free or close to it. Armed with their opinions and raw strength in numbers, they laid siege to the castle: amateur against professional, democracy against autocracy, new against old. The Mainstream Media retreated to an upstairs bedroom and barred the door, as the masses streamed into the throne room, waving Dan Rather’s head on a pike.

It’s a stirring story, but it doesn’t very well provide for a Rupert Murdoch of the Blogosphere—and even less so for a Frederick W. Taylor, who is the figure Mr. Denton also calls to mind. Gawker Media has 14 sites, spanning gossip, gadgets, sports, pornography and sundry other niches. What separates them from outsiders’ blogs, whatever the topic, is a unified and stripped-down industrial approach.

There is no Gawker Media newsroom. The writers are freelance contractors, paid a base rate per posting and bonuses for drawing traffic. They rise early and post throughout the day, following scheduled quotas. When they take a vacation, guest bloggers are brought in to keep the factory lines running on time.

“Writing Gawker,” said co-editor Jessica Coen, “there’s no way I’d have time to read something like Gawker, the way people do.”

Mr. Denton’s managing editor, Lockhart Steele, is largely charged with making sure the copy flow goes uninterrupted.

“You know The New York Times is going to be on your newsstand every morning,” Mr. Steele said. Gawker Media operates on the same principle, replacing amateur bloggers’ intermittent, as-the-mood-strikes postings with a steady, predictable feed.

“People read blogs obsessively,” Mr. Denton said. He had relented on his electronic-communications policy for a live lunch at Balthazar, directly across Spring Street from his condominium, in a building he shares with Harvey Weinstein and Kelly Ripa.

The daily targets have grown from six posts to 12 to 24 to as many as 40—in the case of Gizmodo, the gadgets blog and the oldest of the sites. “I think that 40 a day seems like a lot,” Mr. Denton said.

Yet while his operations are futuristic and virtual—unencumbered by the cost or inconvenience of paper—in his background and ethos, Mr. Denton is a classic old-fashioned journalist, of a particular subspecies.

“I’ve always been a magazine junkie,” Mr. Denton said. He grew up, he said, on the British press: The Spectator, Private Eye, The Economist, The Guardian. In college, he edited the campus magazine Isis—“I think Tina Brown edited it in her day,” Mr. Denton said.

“Weblogs are way less alien if you come from a British journalism background,” Mr. Denton said. It is, he said, a “more rumbustious media culture.” Its echoes are most noticeable now at Sploid, his news site, which strips down all the world’s events to screaming tabloid-beyond-tabloid headlines. (Britney Spears having a baby becomes “Forgotten Whore Makes News Again.”)

At The Financial Times, however, Mr. Denton encountered a more reserved media culture. The best stories he heard there, he said, were “the stories the journalists tell each other privately.” Over drinks, he said, his fellow scribes might say that someone had a “weirdly lopsided face”—things that would never make it into print. The polite edition of the facts, Mr. Denton said, struck him by comparison as “fundamentally dishonest.”

Honesty—brute honesty—was a theme that Mr. Denton hammered away at, directly and indirectly, in person and electronically. When the talk turned to Fleshbot, his pornography blog, Mr. Denton bristled at the upscale attitude of erotic-themed sites such as Nerve.com. “It’s porn, for God’s sake!” he said. “It’s supposed to get you off, so don’t pretend it’s art!”

Likewise the gossip sites: “It’s not supposed to be uplifting!” Mr. Denton said.

Gawker Media does approach some things with delicacy. Fleshbot, for instance, is omitted from the company’s main media kit—though its omnivorous gay/straight/classy/sleazy approach is a prime example of the Gawker format, and Mr. Denton said he was proud of the site. “It also helps me when people ask me what I do,” he instant-messaged. “‘I’m a porn publisher,’ I answer, which deters the bores, and intrigues the more interesting reprobates.”

“Most everyone at Gawker is a misfit of some sort,” Mr. Denton instant-messaged. He ran down a list of his present and former employees’ characteristics: “rumored to have been fired … for being high on the job”; “never went to college”; “only wears 1960s clothes”; “notoriously unemployable.”

And Nick Denton? “You have the gay, Jewish, atheist, surprisingly right-wing,” Mr. Denton wrote. “Or you ought to, from the clips.”

Brutal, reporter-over-drinks-style honesty would—and has, especially in blogland—also note that Mr. Denton’s face, though not lopsided, is mounted on a gigantic head, a head worthy of Linus Van Pelt or Antoine Walker. It would also touch on Mr. Denton’s match.com singles profile, recently propagated on the Web, in which he described himself as a successful entrepreneur seeking a partner able to “take me down a peg or two when I deserve it.”

“It’s hard for me to get outraged, given how many times we’ve done that,” Mr. Denton said at lunch. He predicted, without visible dismay, the arrival of a “world entirely without privacy”—along with 15 minutes of fame, he said, “everyone gets their own 15 minutes of cringing embarrassment.”

But is he rich? The principal taboo subject, in dealing with Mr. Denton, is not sex but money. The $50 million sale price of First Tuesday, for instance—“the number was wrong,” Mr. Denton instant-messaged. Also, he warned, the “deal was a mix of cash and stock, and stock was worth a lot less than assessed value.”

Still, he forwarded along an entry from his own blog in which he described the results of cashing out as “an unexpected windfall” for him and his partners. And at Balthazar, discussing his vetoed bid to buy Blogger, he said, “That’s why I’ll never work with venture capitalists again”—adding that Gawker Media is “self-funded” with the proceeds from First Tuesday.

Mr. Denton may soon be even more free from ever needing venture capitalists: On Sept. 26, blogger Tom Foremski’s SiliconValleyWatcher site reported that Moreover Technologies is on the verge of being bought by a “much larger multi-national company.”

As for Gawker Media’s figures, forget it. Mr. Steele once publicly suggested a blogger could make $2,500 a month with Gawker, a number picked up by the Web site I Want Media and propagated—ending up this month on the cover of New York magazine, in the form of an assertion that Ms. Coen was making $30,000 per year.

To demonstrate the imperfect public understanding of blogging as a business, some Gawker readers sneered at Ms. Coen for making so much money, while others sneered at her for making so little. “Someone screamed that I was fucking pathetic with my $30,000 salary, at Nick’s party,” said Ms. Coen, who said (and blogged) that the figure was wrong.

The actual numbers are rumored to have gone up to the point where they’re in line with print-industry salaries. And after initially hiring journalistic novices, Mr. Denton lately hired staffers with established print careers in Mr. Steele and Ms. Coen’s co-editor, Jesse Oxfeld.

It also seems reasonable to guess that Mr. Denton is bringing in revenue, given the number and frequency of ads on the site. The only concrete information he would give, however, was that a $4 ad buy—the minimum for Gawker on the company’s rate card—would be good for 1,000 appearances. At 5.5 million page views a month, if each page carried one bottom-shelf ad and if a good half-dozen reasonable objections were ignored, that would mean more than $20,000 in monthly revenue. But it would probably be quicker and simpler to use a dartboard.

“I do find bizarre the level of interest in the finances of a private company,” Mr. Denton instant-messaged. “A small private company …. Without an office, even.”

In his humility, Mr. Denton sounded like a man cruising the Jersey Turnpike on a motor scooter that appears to run on bathwater: Why are you interested in my little scooter? It doesn’t carry anywhere near as many people as your gasoline-powered S.U.V.

If you’re interested in measurements other than money, however, Mr. Denton has lots of information to show you. Lots. All the sites—even the ones that aren’t thriving—have traffic monitors, and Mr. Denton compiles the results on his own home page.

Sitting on the banquette at Balthazar, frothy coffee drink in a tiny cup at his elbow, he angled his laptop to show the charts: the steady upswing of Gawker and Gizmodo; the post-election dropoff of Wonkette; the unfaltering launch and rise of the do-it-yourself Lifehacker.

The traffic numbers, Mr. Denton said, tell all. “I didn’t like Wonkette when it first came out,” Mr. Denton said. He thought the site featured “too much satire and not enough gossip,” he explained. But the numbers said people were reading it.

“No one can really argue with the data,” Mr. Denton said. “I can’t argue with the data. The writers can’t really argue with the data.”

One of his bloggers, he said, keeps the traffic chart as a screen saver. As for Mr. Denton, “my own personal mood is dependent on two things: how many times I’ve actually worked out, like gone to the gym, in a week. The other thing is traffic.”

And what do the data say about the blog revolution? Mr. Denton scrolled on his laptop through the history of the last few months, as expressed in traffic on various Gawker Media sites. “I think it was Paris Hilton in March,” he said, pointing at a spike. More spikes, on more sites: “I’m completely blanking on what the story was … oh, Jude Law …. That bump there was Kate Moss …. Political news, they had spikes for Katrina …. Geneva auto show …. ”

Mr. Denton switched to a page showing how readers had arrived at his various sites. One had been led there, the tracker showed, by a search for “Recent Relationship Pitt and Jolie.”

“You can’t pretend to yourself that people actually have highfalutin taste,” Mr. Denton said. “ … Nobody ever searches for ‘Inequality in America.’

“I’ve stopped reading blogs,” Mr. Denton said. He’d stopped what now? “I’ve stopped reading all the blogs about blogs,” he qualified. “It just annoys me too much, so I don’t read it.”

Instead, he settles down at Balthazar, thumbing through the paper papers.

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