Gawker’s Zimmerman gets his own corner

Neetzan Zimmerman. (Gawker)
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Gawker's editors are cooking up a plan to give Neetzan Zimmerman, Gawker’s in-house savant of viral material, his own subvertical on the site. And when they do, his editor, John Cook, knows what he would like to name it. 

“I was trying to get him to go for traffic.gawker.com,” Cook said on the phone.  “But I don’t think he’s going to go for it.”

Under this plan, Zimmerman would get both his own landing page and an intern (Gawker calls them "fellows," and pays them by the hour) whom he can train in his “dark arts,” a phrase that comes up a lot among legacy editorial types discussing Zimmerman and his counterparts in the increasingly brutal game for attention spans on the Internet.

Gawker Media has been playing around with such fare. It's how it has presented its resurrected Defamer and Sploid brands (defamer.gawker.com and sploid.gizmodo.com). There is thestacks.deadspin.com for longform sports journalism, as well as sillier fare such as rankings.gawker.com. That they'd give their most popular writer his own doorway make sense. 

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Proprietor Nick Denton, whose flagship blog has reaped tens of millions of unique visitors from Zimmerman in the 18 months he has worked there, likes to call his writer's work “ethical viral engineering,” as he did praising him in a memo to staffers this week that otherwise led with some unpleasant business. 

“The bad news…” Denton wrote in a memo to his staff. “We got overtaken by Buzzfeed in November," he continued. "They surged to 133m global uniques. Damn. That’s impressive. And Upworthy — even smarmier than Buzzfeed — is nipping at our heels.” 

He went on: “Buzzfeed and Upworthy may be the most shameless, but we’re ourselves not completely averse to crowd-pleasing.”

Enter Zimmerman, Gawker’s most bankable, and until very recently, most mysterious byline, and the site's best weapon in the viral wars. 

Zimmerman, whose output is important enough to have garnered him a short profile in The Wall Street Journal, spends each weekday four miles removed from Gawker’s Elizabeth Street newsroom in the Upper East Side apartment he shares with his wife. He wakes around 7:30 every morning, usually without the aid of an alarm clock. His body, fearing that he has wasted too much time sleeping, coaxes him to rise and reach for the iPad 2 that he keeps on his nightstand. 

While still in bed and dressed in his pajama pants, possibly the Homer Simpson-themed pair he favors, Zimmerman first checks Twitter to see what has transpired in the five and a half or six hours that he has slept. Feeling sufficiently up to snuff on what the breaking news sites and late night crowd on West Coast have been up to, and with a Cliff’s Notes sense of the Internet’s tone that day, Zimmerman eventually moves to his RSS readers (he currently prefers Feedly, The Old Reader, and Mr. Reader) where he sets about combing through the 700 or so items that have accumulated since he cleared it out in one of his last acts before going to sleep the night before. 

He scans each individually, looking for those that will later become one of the 15 posts or so a day he publishes at Gawker, where, in the months of September, October and November he was personally responsible for 16 million, 12.6 million and 17.3 million unique visitors, respectively, according to its own calculations. In the same months, with about 20 other writers working with Zimmerman, the site as a whole posted total uniques of about 22 million, just under 20 million and just shy of 25 million. 

Most months, Zimmerman’s work betters the draw of the site’s other two dozen or so contributors combined. The traffic-obsessed Denton made his individual writers’ statistics available for public consumption in June, an on-again, off-again habit of his, and the pea soup-shade that demarcates Zimmerman’s output on the company graph has each month since cut a monster swath across field. There are blog networks that employ tens of workers who cannot match Zimmerman’s audience. Joe Weisenthal, executive editor of Business Insider and a traffic guru in his own right, recently told one of his writers to be more Neetzan-like, by which he meant find weird stuff and find it first. 

What Zimmerman does, generally, is find and repackage stories, or what he calls “pieces of content,” from certain corners of the Internet -- a sub-Reddit here, a little trafficked Croatian blog or local news affiliate’s Facebook there -- that are perfectly primed to go viral and let Gawker reap a cascading flow of Facebook and Twitter shares. 

“I like to think of it as a stream of consciousness, as the stream of consciousness of the web, and you need someone to actually say the words,” Zimmerman said when asked to explain what he calls “the system,” his proprietary method of culling and posting. “I mean if you blurted out everything that you thought, you’d be a crazy person. So I think of myself as more that link between the stream of consciousness and what actually comes out of your mouth when you’ve actually had a chance to think about what it is you want to say.”

Zimmerman, who is 32, spoke over a late breakfast at a gastropub on Third Avenue near his home. He wore dark gray slacks and a fan made “Doctor Who” T-shirt under a zip up sweater. He is shaved-head bald, has a close-cropped beard and wears rectangular black frame glasses in front of deep-set brown eyes. Zimmerman grew up in Israel on a kibbutz in the hills of the Galilee region, and his English has a proper, maybe even Anglicized, tinge. His bearing is both shy and assured.

Last spring, when A.J. Daulerio hired Zimmerman away from The Daily What, the popular Tumblr he founded, the then Gawker editor named him “Editor, The Internet,” and tasked him specifically with handling “the business” side of traffic as Daulerio recently wrote in an email.

“It stuck and was strangely accurate,” Daulerio wrote of the originally ironic title. “His impact on the site was immediate, to the point that most of the other staff had a tough time keeping up with his output and speed and, frankly, his approach. I think the first couple months after he arrived he was doing about 85 percent of the daily content on Gawker.”

When Zimmerman founded The Daily What in 2008, it was the culmination of a lifetime of Internet experimentation. Thanks to a modem his grandmother purchased for him as a young teen, he was among the first wave of Israelis on the web and had tried his hand, he said, at nearly every web medium available from the earliest bulletin boards through to Geocities, Angel Fire, Live Journal and the like. He moved to the U.S. after completing his mandatory service with the Israel Defense Forces and took a job in direct mail marketing at a Boston publisher. Most days, he was able to finish his duties in just a few hours, leaving the rest of his time free for experimenting first with a prototype site he called King of Anything and then with The Daily What, a compendium of everyday web ephemera. He built up enough of a readership to sell the operation to Ben Huh’s Cheezburger Network in 2010 for a “comfortable” five figures, as Zimmerman has said, and go full time. 

“With The Daily What, he was so excited to be finding things and sharing things,” said Edith Zimmerman, founding editor of The Hairpin (who is not related) who was an early reader. The two struck up an email correspondence after she wrote to The Daily What trying to determine who or what was behind it. 

“I figured it was a system of people that were writing this blog because it was so good and so relentless,” she said. “It just never stopped.” 

This is a common reaction to Zimmerman’s output. Daulerio was similarly surprised to learn The Daily What was the work of a single person when he first began to try poaching one of its writers. 

“It’s not really a job for him, it’s a calling,” said Cook, Daulerio’s successor at Gawker. “It pains him to leave uniques on the table. We’ll often talk [at the the end of the day] and he’ll complain that he left five posts on the table.”