In public memo, Gawker founder advocates for a more humane company
On the eve of its move into new Manhattan headquarters, Gawker Media is discarding some of its edgier elements in order to become a more tempered news organization.
That's according to Gawker Media founder and CEO Nick Denton, who this afternoon sent a memo to staffers that laid out a way forward for a company that has been grappling with its identity in the wake of an exposé that proved divisive among staffers.
The memo, which was published in a public Google Doc and immediately dissected online, sets forth Denton's vision for a new editorial ethos that takes into account the impact a story will have on its subjects. Everyone, Denton, writes, is entitled to a private life that should only be violated if the story is sufficiently interesting.
"At Gawker Media, it is not enough for a story to be true; it has to be true and interesting," Denton wrote. "It should be interesting not only to an in-house editor, but to our reader communities. And that interest should be worth the hurt inflicted."
The balancing test articulated by Denton in the memo reads as a response to a story published two weeks ago that described an alleged attempt by Condé Nast executive David Geithner to hire a male escort. The story met with harsh and immediate criticism online and was subsequently taken down by Gawker Media's managing partnership over the protests of many editorial staffers. Tommy Craggs, the executive editor of Gawker Media, resigned in protest, as did Max Read, the editor of Gawker.com. Denton is now offering buyouts to staffers who do not want to continue under a gentler regime.
In his memo, Denton seeks to establish a safeguard to protect Gawker Media's editorial independence. As of today, he writes, the company's executive editor can only be overridden if both Denton and Gawker Media's president are in agreement. This is significant because Gawker Media's president, Heather Dietrick, was one of two votes against removing the Geithner post two weeks ago. Many editorial staffers resented that business-side executives had a role in making a major editorial decision.
"To clearly define the church-state divide at Gawker Media, I am making the following change: An Executive Editor can only be hired, fired or overridden with the agreement of both the Founder and President," Denton wrote. "No business executives will participate in the decision, even in an advisory capacity as occurred this month. Minutes of discussions will be distributed within 30 days."
The tumult at Gawker Media comes as the company is preparing to defend another one of its controversial posts in court. In 2012, Gawker published an edited video showing professional wrestler Hulk Hogan having sex with Heather Clem, the ex-wife of shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem. If Gawker Media loses the lawsuit, the $100 million invasion-of-privacy judgement could gut the company's finances and force Denton to sell equity in the company. Denton has drawn a distinction between the Hogan story — which he believes is worthy of publication — and the Geithner post, which he has said is not in line with the company's editorial standards.
"The Hogan story is an entirely different story," Denton told CNN Chief Media Correspondent Brian Stelter Sunday. "The Hogan story, this is a story about a public figure, a massive global celebrity, who talked incessantly about his sex life."
The memo also outlines a path to fill the power vacuum left in the wake of Craggs' and Read's departure. Dietrick will lead the search for Craggs' replacement and the company plans to announce interim leadership sometime this week. Until then, Executive Managing Editor Lacey Donohue will report to Dietrick; this week, Leah Beckmann announced she had temporarily taken the helm at Gawker.
Also on the table at Gawker Media is a potential name change for the company. On Sunday, Denton told The New York Times that Gawker Media might be rechristened in order to distance Gawker itself from the responsibility of the whole company's reputation. He added the caveat that such a name change won't occur "any time soon."
In the meantime, Gawker Media's staffers will set about creating new editorial guidelines for the company. According to Denton, the discussion will begin among a small group of staffers, some of whom are representatives of Gawker Media's union. Those guidelines will then be pitched to the newsroom at large in late August.