As Gawker grows, one exec advocates an end to feuds

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Joel Johnson. (Vimeo)
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Peter Sterne

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A decade-plus into its existence, Gawker Media in 2014 is a very different organization from Gawker circa its 2003 founding, when it entered the Manhattan media fray elbows out, aiming spitballs at the Condé Nast cafeteria.

For proof, one need only turn to the company's Wednesday all-hands edit meeting led by editorial director Joel Johnson, and offered up for view in a public Vimeo post.

According to Johnson's marching orders, the company shouldn't be in the business of shivving rivals but instead be looking for ways to partner with them.

“I don’t think we’re going to get to where we want to be as a company if we are in a constant dick-measuring contest with our peers, frankly,” he said, still managing to strike that edgy house style while preaching a kinder, gentler ethos.

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He named Buzzfeed, The Guardian, and Reddit as examples of media companies he admires and might like to team with.

“I don’t like feuding or sniping at Buzzfeed. I think that The Guardian is an independent newspaper that does great work and are also technologically building lots of really cool products that we should team up with them on and do it,” he said. “Reddit fucks up all the time and their user community is very fedora-heavy and weird, but they also are really trying to do collaborative journalism.”

Whether Johnson's playbook can take hold is another matter. As recently as March, Gawker founder and owner Nick Denton was calling Buzzfeed pointless. And lately, staffer Hamilton Nolan has been jabbing at the ribs of ostensible rival Vice Media.  

Elsewhere in the quarterly update, Johnson told staff that the company, though suffering from "institutional PTSD" due to past failures, has continued to recreate itself as a media and technology outfit focused on producing content and its proprietary platform system, Kinja.

The turning point, Johnson said, came in the aftermath of Gawker’s disastrous site redesign three years ago, which caused traffic to plummet.

“The redesign that we did three years ago was a clusterfuck—it was technologically not very well structured, it was way too ambitious, the timing was wrong, we pushed it out before it was ready—but it is important and I want you guys to really know that lessons were learned from that,” he said.

That failure led the company to build up its tech department and convinced Denton that he had to delegate some of his control of the company.

“It took him about a year, but Nick really did learn something from that,” Johnson said. “I think he denied that the problems were too bad for a while, at least until the traffic recovered, but he learned that if we’re going to have a bigger mission, if we are going to try to be a platform company as well as a publication…he’s going to have to change his management style, he’s going to have to change the way he deals with everybody else.”

That realization led Denton to hire Johnson as editorial director of Gawker Media last December.

“The fact that I’m here, me specifically and this job, is a testament to his great unclenching,” Johnson said.

Since being named to the position Johnson has brought a more structured approach to the editorial department. He's institutionalized a generous benefits and bonus system, for example, and embarked on a hiring spree.

As a private company controlled by Denton, Gawker Media does not disclose its revenue or profit numbers, but during a previous all-hands meeting in April, Johnson said that the company has more than $40 million in annual revenue. On Wednesday, he said that the company spends almost all of the revenue it takes in. The company now has more than 150 editorial staffers, plus a large tech and product team working on Kinja.

Once a scrappy New York gossip blog, Gawker Media has become a relative power in the New York media and technology spheres.

“The question we should always be asking ourselves is, how do we, as we are now an institution, not fuck that up?” Johnson said. “How do we not become corrupt or become the thing that we used to rally against? We have to make that decision, because we are continually getting more power as we get more audience; it’s concordant with size.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article, and its original headline, mistakenly attributed a paraphrased passage about Gawker ending its "petty feuds" with other media organizations to Johnson. He did not use the phrase. His words were "I do think it's important that we embrace collaboration with other organizations, other media organizations too. I don't like feuding or sniping at Buzzfeed."