Gawker essay experiment brings weekend audience, attention to new writers

Before last weekend many people had never heard of Kiese Laymon — until his essay, “How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America: A Remembrance,” appeared on Gawker’s home page and went viral in a matter of hours.

One hundred-thousand unique page views, 3,000 Facebook “likes,” and as many tweets later, Gawker may have just repositioned itself as more than a juicy gossip site.

Laymon’s essay describes growing up black in America or being “born a black boy on parole in Central Mississippi,” which could easily apply to black girls and just about anywhere in the U.S. really. In a telephone interview Laymon told Poynter he’s been writing the essay in different forms for the past 12 years, but that it took on a bit more urgency after Florida neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, proclaimed last month that it was God’s plan for him to kill unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin.

Laymon posted a version of the essay — an excerpt from his forthcoming book, “On Parole: An Autobiographical Antidote to Post-Blackness” – on his personal blog where a former student, Gawker Managing Editor Emma Carmichael, saw it. She contacted Laymon about republishing the essay, and though he often turns down similar requests, Laymon told Carmichael yes.

“I trust Emma. She talked with me about where Gawker is going, and I trust the vision,” said the 36-year-old Vassar College professor. While he didn’t immediately consider his essay serious journalism, Laymon talked about his writing style, storytelling and how to engage audiences.

“When I write I’m trying to write because there’s something I don’t understand, something I don’t know, something I can feel but can’t really wrap the words around. So I’m writing to discover that thing,” he said. “But because it’s not just solitary, because I’m showing it to somebody at the end, I’m also aware that I have to perform that discovery and let their sensibilities guide me along that discoverable road. I write to discover and then at the end, I must perform that discovery.”

His ultimate goal: To speak to people through his writing with the purpose of inviting them to speak back.

Check out the comments section of his blogGawker and Twitter to see what others have been saying about the essay. Laymon said readers have even found his email to send messages about how the piece has affected them.

A.J. Daulerio, who became Gawker’s editor in January, told Poynter in a telephone interview that he knew as soon as he read Laymon’s piece “it was too good to pass up.” He added that the site usually doesn’t get as much weekend traffic as Laymon’s essay generated since the Saturday it was published, and called it “remarkable.”

“Good is good, regardless as to whether it’s supposed to fit in with what the site is supposed to be or not,” said Daulerio when asked whether such serious personal essays fit with Gawker’s reputation as a gossipy website.

Carmichael, the managing editor who reads Laymon’s blog regularly, said his piece is the third long-form essay Gawker has published on a weekend. The first one published, by newly hired West Coast Editor Cord Jefferson, discusses why he left New York for Los Angeles; the second is Ali Waller’s rather light-hearted exploration of one woman’s foray into lesbianism; and now Laymon’s essay, which has been by far the most attention-grabbing.

Carmichael said Gawker editors had not yet formally announced plans about the essays because they wanted to first see how well they worked before making it a permanent feature. She told Poynter in a telephone interview that Laymon’s piece was originally scheduled to run the previous weekend, but editors thought better of it after the shootings in Aurora, Colorado.

Carmichael acknowledged that she didn’t expect the essays to “pop” the way they have because people don’t usually read on the weekend, but she’s excited that there’s an interest in this type of long-form narrative journalism. She’s also happy that Gawker can provide this type of material to a larger demographic than might find it on a personal blog.

“Gawker is a place where there is an immense amount of freedom to try new things and see how they work out,” said Carmichael, who graduated from Vassar in 2010. “And A.J. is really good at letting us try a lot of different forms of writing to see what sticks.” So far, she said, the essay experiment “has worked out quite well.”

Gawker hopes to run an essay every Saturday morning, Carmichael said by email. “We’ll likely put out a call for submissions soon.”

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