Growth-mode Gawker aiming for traffic and staff bumps
As it continues to court a mass, if scattered, readership across its network of sites, Gawker Media leadership is looking for a sizable rise in unique U.S. visitors a month by the end of 2014, and to possibly double its staff by the end of 2015, editorial director Joel Johnson told employees at an all-hands edit meeting in late April.
“Right now, we are, across all eight core titles or so, doing about 60 million uniques a month. I want to, by the end of 2014, aim to get up to 100 million,” he told the crowd at the meeting, a video recording of which Capital recently viewed.
A slide accompanying the presentation noted that Gawker was then receiving about 63 million U.S. uniques per month and about 105 million global uniques.
“I think it's ridiculous on one hand, and I think it's very unlikely that we're going to be able to do it, but I want to give us a goal that is maybe a little bit beyond our grasp and try to get there,” he told staff. “Something more like 80 is probably more realistic, [but] 80 just seemed a little, I don’t know, sad.”
Reached for comment on Friday, Johnson said that he had indeed scaled back on his initial estimates.
"I amended my stated goal to 80MM US uniques since that was my actual goal, and I was trying some stupid inspirational attempt to aim higher than I intended to land. (We're up around 68MM now so 80MM should be simple enough.)," he wrote.
Gawker has never made a secret of its ambitions as it has risen from Manhattan media troublemaker to a network of niche-focused sites that apply its roguish sensibility to topics ranging from sports to women’s issues. Founder Nick Denton spent the first part of 2014 positioning his company as a sort of anti-Buzzfeed, and there’s his Kinja commenting platform that he hopes will do nothing short of reshape the very nature of online discussion. And while Denton has always seemed to take a particular glee in publicly critiquing and encouraging his own operation (and tweaking the competition) along the way, concrete growth plans at Gawker have been harder to come by.
In order to achieve its goals, Johnson announced plans for the company to increase its editorial staff by the end of the year from 120 full-time staffers to 150 full-time staffers and 24 active members of its “recruits” farm system. A slide accompanying Johnson’s presentation declared that hiring is the site’s number one priority, and he told his staff that they had an effectively unlimited hiring budget.
“If things go right, we could double our editorial staff by the end of 2015,” he said.
“What we’re saying now is: don’t worry about your editorial budget, find the right people and bring those people in, and we’ll make a place for them,” he told his editors.
Since the meeting, Gawker.com alone has hired a number of new staff writers—Allie Jones, Aleksander Chan, and Andy Cush—and a senior editor, Jason Parham.
To deal with the influx of new staff and encourage cross-site collaboration, Johnson announced that Gawker would shift to a “hot seating” arrangement, with staffers working off laptops anywhere in the office, instead of desktop computers. The plan prompted questions from staffers worried about where they would store their personal effects once they no longer had desks. Two months after the April meeting, it still has not been implemented. One source told Capital that the idea has not been brought up again since the meeting, and that the overcrowding seemed temporarily resolved once Jalopnik staffers volunteered to work from home. On Friday, Johnson told Capital the plan is up in the air, but didn't elaborate.
Johnson also announced changes to Gawker’s internal employee evaluations. Currently, he explained, Gawker operates on an eCPM traffic model, and he expects all employees to have eCPMs under the general maximum of $20. This means that for every $20 an employee is paid per month, they should bring in at least 1,000 unique (U.S.) visitors per month. He said he hoped to add a metric that would measure Kinja engagement to modify raw eCPM, since he was asking people to spend more time in the comments and focus less on traffic.
Traffic is important to Gawker, but it is not its only priority. The site is also interested in developing Kinja—the comment and content management system that its has spent millions of dollars and many years building. The promise and peril of Kinja was a central theme of the meeting.
One editorial staffer asked Johnson about previous plans to create a “new process that would prevent tech from implementing stuff that would break everything, occasionally.”
“Has that happened?” he asked Johnson, prompting laughter from the audience.
“There are definitely processes that have been put in place to fix or completely ameliorate that,” Johnson replied, briefly pausing. “Obviously, it has not completely worked.”
Johnson said that the tech team recently purchased a new staging server in Budapest, which should allow them to demo new features before implementing them on the actual site. But in general Johnson said, new features breaking the site is just a fact of life.
Denton gave an impromptu speech defending Kinja toward the end of the session. He acknowledged he had underestimated the cost and time required to develop and implement the system. Kinja has been Denton’s dream for years, and he seems determined to use all of Gawker’s resources to make it a reality.
“I tried to do this ten years ago with three people—one of whom is actually still working with the company—and the big learning of the last ten years is that it actually requires, you know, $40 million in revenue and tons of profit, money in the bank, a big office in Budapest,” he said.
Denton promised to be more realistic about the pace of Kinja’s development.
“I’m going to try, with the benefit of what I now know, to be more realistic when it comes to the future," he said. "I always feel like the future is just two weeks away. It always feels like, just two more weeks and then we’ll be done!”
CORRECTION: Due to a transcription error, an earlier version of this article mischaracterized Johnson's belief in his goal for Gawker to reach 100 million U.S. uniques per month by the end of 2014. He said he thought that it was "unlikely," as the story now states.