Gawker’s Denton: ‘This is not the company I built’
"This is the very, very worst version of the company," Gawker Media founder and C.E.O. Nick Denton told his editorial staff during a contentious all-hands meeting on Monday afternoon. "This is not the company I built."
Denton argued with Gawker's editors over their decision to publish a post on Thursday night about a married, male, publishing executive who allegedly tried to hire a male escort. It was irresponsible for the editors to publish the post without considering the harm that it could do to the executive, he said.
"I don't want some guy blowing his brains out and that being on our hands," he said.
Denton also criticized his editors for failing to consider the impact that the story would have on its author, 27-year-old staff writer Jordan Sargent. Sargent, Denton said, is now "shell-shocked" after receiving so much criticism and abuse online in response to the post.
"It's the responsibility of the company and it's the responsibility of the editors to protect their writers from that shitstorm," Denton said.
Denton said that he is not necessarily opposed to reporting that famous media figures—Anderson Cooper or Apple C.E.O. Tim Cook—are gay, if their sexuality is an open secret in Manhattan media circles. But that's not what happened in the case of this post, he said.
"I can’t think of a single instance of an outing that was as egregious and poorly handled as this one," he said.
At times, the meeting got heated. Gawker's editorial staff is upset with Denton and the company's six-person managing partnership for removing the post on Friday, over the objections of Gawker's editorial leadership. Many see the removal as an example of the company's business side interfering in editorial decision-making, and both Gawker Media executive editor Tommy Craggs and Gawker editor in chief Max Read resigned in protest of the decision on Monday. Denton said that the managing partnership, which includes business-side employees, does not make editorial decisions. As founder and C.E.O., he does make editorial decisions, but only on rare occasions.
"This is an extreme, extreme case. I believe it was kind of a travesty of the editorial independence. It’s not something I wanted to be associated with," he said.
There is only one other time when he has made a similar decision, he said. When Gawker was ordered by a Florida state court to take down its post about Hulk Hogan's sex video, it removed the video but left the text of the post up. The state court's order was later overturned on appeal, so Gawker could legally have republished the video, but it has not done so.
"I made the tactical decision that the Hulk Hogan story should remain up, but not the video, even though we could have the video up," Denton said.
Denton criticized the editorial staff for adopting what he called a "maximalist interpretation of editorial freedom."
"We let that idea gain roots, that freedom is the freedom to do whatever the fuck you want," he said. "Actually it’s not."
Gawker writers have the freedom to write and report worthwhile stories, even those that other professional media outlets will not touch, he said. But they do not have the freedom to post whatever they want on Gawker.
"You’ll be freer posting at Ratter.com. You’ll be freer posting at Reddit," he said.
In a gchat with Capital, Denton expanded on his thoughts on editorial freedom: "What I can't accept is an unlimited and subjective version of editorial freedom. It is not whatever an editor thinks it is; it is not a license to write anything; it is a privilege, protected by the constitution, and carrying with it responsibilities."
Denton said during the meeting that Gawker must have an official editorial policy based on the standard that stories published must be both true and meaningful, not merely true. Gawker cannot publish gossip like Page Six does, he said.
"Gawker’s supposed to be better that that. It’s supposed to be good gossip, it’s supposed to be juicy gossip, it’s supposed to be revealing gossip. ... I’m not saying we should never do these stories, but there has to be a point, and there really wasn’t a point to justify Gawker running this," he said.
In the past, Denton denied that Gawker writers were journalists, preferring to refer to them as bloggers. But now he's embracing the label and some of its ethical considerations.
"We actually have to recognize that we are journalists. Some measure of newsworthiness is appropriate," he said.
This may be a major departure from the editorial philosophy that animated 2007-era Gawker, but Denton wants everyone to stop living in the past.
"I’ve been told that there’s a lag, some of my ideas from seven years ago are still being treated as sacrosanct when I’ve actually moved on," he said.
But what about Denton's ideas from last year?
Jezebel editor-at-large Jessica Coen tweeted a screenshot of an email that Denton sent her on Jan. 20, 2014, in which he called himself a "truth absolutist." In that email, Denton was responding to a Jezebel post that stated that journalists should never out people who do not want to be outed.
Denton told Capital that he disagrees that people should never be outed.
"I don't believe that everybody has a right to privacy when it comes to sexual identity. For instance, I think we were right to refer to Anderson Cooper's homosexuality. It was gossiped about. And he was a public figure who made himself available for interviews, but had journalists guided away from questions about his personal life," he said.
The all-hands editorial meeting ended after about two hours, but will continue tomorrow after Gawker's remote editors fly in to New York. In the meantime, Gawker and Jezebel have "gone dark" with no posts for the rest of the day, and each of the other Gawker Media sites is voting whether or not to go dark.
Many Gawker editorial staffers remain convinced that Denton pulled the post to appease advertisers, with one telling New York's Gabriel Sherman that they fear Denton wants to turn the company into a slightly edgier version of Vox Media.
In a gchat with Capital, Denton said that he did not want to turn Gawker into Vox.
"Nah, Vox is already Vox. Gawker will be Gawker. Our explainers will be juicier. And stories bolder," he wrote.
In a memo to editorial staff this morning, Denton compared Gawker to both Vox and Ratter, the gossip blog network founded by former Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio.
"If you’re wondering whether a more explicit editorial policy will turn us into some generic internet media company, I’d say no: I see Gawker Media occupying a space on the online media spectrum between a stolid Vox Media and a more anarchic Ratter; close to the edge, but not over it," he wrote.
But the real risk to Gawker may not be that Denton will turn the company into Vox, but that he will eventually leave.
"You don’t know how long I’ll want to run this show," he said toward the end of the all-hands meeting. "If you were wise, you’d ensure that the editorial policy or stand or ethos that you have among yourself is, at minimum, codified or maybe even included in the union contract."
This article has been updated to add quotes from Denton, and to correct Jordan Sargent's age: he is 27, not 26. Also, an earlier reference to Ryan Seacrest has been removed. In addition, identifying information about the publishing executive has been removed.