Gawker's demise is troubling for experiments in reader engagement
This is a column about Gawker.com's demise, but it is also a column about a plane ride I took last Friday. The two are related, though it might not seem that way at first.
I’ll start with the plane ride, which was from San Francisco to Raleigh-Durham. I sat next to a woman who brought an assortment of religious material to read on the plane. We made some initial chit-chat about disliking airplane rides, then we both settled in for the lengthy flight — she read her Kindle, I thumbed through my backlog of New Yorkers.
At some point, we began talking. She was a devout Southern Baptist from a rural part of North Carolina. Two of her children had attended seminary. I mainly asked questions, she mainly answered. Then she asked about my religion. I said I was Jewish. She asked about my relationship with Jesus Christ.
It wasn’t a mean-spirited question; she was genuinely curious and felt comfortable asking me. I said Jesus wasn’t part of my religion, but that I really liked learning about lots of religions and finding commonalities with people that I don’t generally have the chance meet outside of airplanes.
At some point, she mentioned she was a teacher. I had just read an article in my New Yorker about a robot that teaches kids how to code. I offered her the magazine. She took it, and we ended the flight thanking each other for an enjoyable few hours together.
Afterwards, I tried to picture us having a similar conversation online, through mediated commenting forums or underneath an article. I couldn’t. The reason we were able to have a healthy, respectful dialogue, I suspect, is that we were able to see each others' faces and judge nuances within our conversation, nuances that don’t necessarily translate to snarky online forums.
Which brings me to Gawker.com. Much has been written about Gawker.com over the past week, ever since the site announced that it would shut down under increasing financial pressue due to a $140 million verdict in a case secretly funded by the billionaire Peter Thiel. On Monday, the site officially closed.
Whether you think Thiel was a “vindictive billionaire,” as The Washington Post's Margaret Sullivan put it, “a sociopath trying to light your family home on fire” — that was Jessica Coen, previously of Jezebel — or simply a man trying to protect online privacy, as Thiel put it in his New York Times op-ed, that doesn’t detract from what Gawker.com did really, really well during its 14-year run: it knew its audience, learned (and hired and got tips) from that audience and experimented time and time again.
Remember when staff members were assigned “traffic-whoring” duties? Or how Gawker Media built the commenting platform Kinja as a way to test new methods of audience engagement? It was the type of publication that threw spaghetti at a wall to see what stuck, and developed designs that many other news organizations — some of whom criticized the site — copied to varying degrees of success.
Gawker.com wasn’t always engaged with its audience. When the site launched in 2003, it didn’t initially have a comment section. It wasn’t until September of 2005 that then-editor Jesse Oxfeld announced that “readers will be able to comment on every item posted to Gawker. Have something to add? Gossip of your own? Just pissy? Now's your chance to come stand on our soapbox.”
Foster Kamer, once of Gawker.com and now executive editor of Mental Floss, reminisced recently about the site in its earliest years:
...It was coded specifically to the young and smartassed of New York City, and the way they lived in it. It was surprisingly edgy, surprisingly highbrow, and unsurprisingly disdainful of the middlebrow. These people all seemed to know each other, and share the same understanding of the city’s unspoken young professionals’ mores, and all somehow had a line that was better, smarter, and more on-the-nose than the one that came before it.
The same was true for the earliest years of the comment section. The comments often made Gawker.com’s snarky articles better, and some writers were hired because of their contributions.
The site often experimented with new models for its comments. In 2009, Gawker Media tightened its commenting system, which led to fewer (but better) comments. At the time, Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton, a self-described “regular Gizmodo and Gawker reader” wrote “there’s a whole world of ways a news site can improve the tenor of its comments while keeping itself reasonably open. Gawker Media’s success is one example of how.”
Three years later, the company launched a new commenting platform, called Kinja, and expected its writing staff to interact with commenters. Nick Denton, Gawker Media's founder, told Gigaom’s Mathew Ingram that he saw comments “as having a lot more value than most publishers are willing to admit,” and the Kinja platform gave readers their own space to remix and add content. Lauren Bertolini, Gawker Media's then-senior director of product, told TechRepublic that she saw “audience engagement and participation” as “key to Gawker’s success.”
The move was also designed to bring in revenue, as Rebecca Rosen noted in The Atlantic in 2012.
But Kinja had its share of problems. People tried to game the system, and, after the platform launched, the staff of Jezebel published an open letter to Gawker Media about the platform’s “rape gif problem” which exposed staff members and commenters to horrific gory images.
Jezebel called for increased moderation powers, and eventually the site temporarily disabled image uploads before deciding to only allow posting gifs immediately from approved commenters.
Denton still imagined a future for Kinja beyond Gawker Media. “Nick had Facebook-size aspirations for it,” wrote former Gawker.com Editor-in-Chief Max Read last week. “In the future, it would be a public platform, designed to give anyone the ability to publish useful information — gossip, news, context — in an infinitely modular format: a stand-alone piece of writing that might also be a comment on another stand-alone post or embedded in a third.”
That was not to be. Last November, the company dropped plans to license Kinja, decided to double down on news and politics and stray away from its mainstay reporting of celebrity gossip. Six months later, the Hulk Hogan lawsuit would bankrupt the company, which was then acquired under auction by Univision. They’re keeping the majority of the Gawker Media blogs, with the exception of Gawker.com, which is shutting down for good.
Despite the lawsuit, Gawker.com continued experimenting until the end. In June, they launched a new Q-and-A platform that allowed readers to question writers seamlessly using the Kinja platform.
But all of that experimentation was ultimately cut short by a vengeful billionaire. When Thiel disclosed that he bankrolled the Hogan lawsuit, Mother Jones’ editor Clara Jeffrey tweeted “Be very, very worried.”
And I am. The media industry is struggling financially, and some rich people are stepping in to help. Many billionaires have “gained control of news organizations by buying them or starting them,” as Jim Rutenberg wrote in his Mediator column in May.
Not all them are altruistic. Rutenberg notes: “Billionaires do not become billionaires by being passive about their own interests...Once wealthy individuals are involved, those interests can appear to take over.”
Recently, Damaris Colhoun wrote a lengthy piece for Columbia Journalism Review on the long history of “a shadowy war on the press that’s being waged by wealthy individuals and companies, with a boost from social media.”
Reveal’s Will Evans looked at a growing number of lawsuits being filed by billionaires against media companies. In that piece, Peter Scheer, the executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, notes that Gawker.com is “not a very sympathetic candidate for First Amendment hero.”
It's really not. But Thiel’s lawsuit sets a precedent that could affect other news organizations who are struggling to keep their lights on.
As media companies consolidate and struggle to pay bills, commenting sections disappear. Gawker's left us yesterday, NPR turned its off last week, partly due to mounting costs and other outlets have pulled the plug in recent years. The result? Fewer news organizations have the money and independence to forge the type of back-and-forth engagement that Gawker.com did so well.
Gawker.com’s comments section was never the place to have the kind of dialogue that I had with my seatmate last Friday on the plane. Few, if any, news sites are. But as Greg Barber of The Coral Project said last week on Twitter, “Commenters and comment reader are our most loyal readers. Engaging with them makes sense for our business and our journalism.”
Engaging with readers may keep news organizations alive longer, but engaging with people who are not like us helps us empathize with others, see other people’s perspectives and eliminate the hostile climate that pervades so much of our national dialogue.
For the past decade-and-a-half, Gawker led the way in experimenting with comments that helped forge new relationships with readers. As we try to carry that torch forward, we can and should think about ways to increase out commonalities amid the snark.