June 15, 2016

Gawker Media has been shaken up by lawsuits, controversial stories, strategic shifts and staffing changes. But one thing has remained relatively consistent since its founding: a no-B.S. back-and-forth with its readers.

When the company debuted a new system for anonymous commenting in 2012, founder Nick Denton used the occasion to emphasize the importance of Gawker’s tipster network. Three years later, then-investigations editor John Cook said the company was fueled by a steady stream of leaks and called a new, no-fingerprints tipline “increasingly crucial” to finding stories discreetly.

So perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the company’s latest editorial innovation is one that puts readers directly in touch with the site’s writers. Last week, the staff of Kotaku — Gawker Media’s video game-focused website — held a question-and-answer session with readers using Live Conversation, a new tool that gives commenters (generally relegated below posts) prime real estate alongside the company’s bloggers.

The tool facilitates conversations like you’d see in Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” section, but it doesn’t use Reddit’s voting system. Instead, the exchanges are moderated on Kinja, Gawker Media’s content management system, which allows staffers to approve individual comments or users. Approved users can then green-light additional comments.

The project was born from a desire to speed up the back-and-forth between bloggers and commenters, who had to continuously reload the page to ask and answer questions, said Lauren Bertolini, vice president of product at Gawker Media.

“One of the pieces of feedback we heard was, there wasn’t any good way to do it in real-time,” she said. “Because you get a question, you have to refresh the page, and traditional commenting setups don’t really allow for that. So we thought, ‘how could we build a live tool that readers could ask questions and then either our staff could answer them or we could invite a participant in to answer them?'”

(Source: Kotaku.com)

(Source: Kotaku.com)

The Q-and-A tool was built to have two states: A “live” state, where bloggers are actively answering reader questions, and a “complete” state, where the finished conversation becomes part of a final post, Bertolini said. This is accomplished through a badging system that distinguishes between the two versions. The finished version — the one without the live badge — is compatible with Facebook Instant Articles and Google AMP.

“At that point, the conversation is actually part of the post,” Bertolini said. “It’s no longer a separate discussion section.”

Gawker isn’t the only media company to experiment with live question-and-answer sessions. Others, including Product Hunt, have also played with the format; livestreaming tools like Facebook Live and Periscope have made these back-and-forths popular, quick and seamless.

Live Conversation was designed for the current trend in media toward distributed journalism — stories, video and audio published exclusively on social networking services like Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram. But it was also created with an eye toward the industry-wide shift to branded content. It allows advertisers to hold discussions with readers inside “Partner Posts,” Gawker’s native advertising program.

Engaging with Gawker Media’s readers can sometimes be dicey. The company was targeted by the antifeminist Gamergate movement in years past, an attack that saw Gawker endure barrages of invective and lost advertising revenue. In 2014, Jezebel, the company’s website geared toward women, was terrorized by an anonymous user (or users) that posted violent pornography in the comments section. That episode resulted in a revamped system that hides by default comments not submitted by approved users.

Lawsuits have sapped Gawker’s coffers and forced the company to scale back its ambitions to be a editorial technology company. The company is now focusing on creating products specifically for Gawker and a limited number of partners, Bertolini said.

“When we think about our product, it’s building storytelling tools, conversation tools and working with our team to create things around our commerce offerings,” Bertolini said, “We’re trying to be focused.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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