Perhaps the most embarrassing aspect of filing for bankruptcy is the well-meaning condolence note from a friend. “I’m so sorry,” more than one has written. That sympathy is often followed by fear for what Facebook director Peter Thiel’s revenge campaign—a billionaire secretly funding lawsuits against publishers, editors, and writers for stories that disrespected him and his friends—means for the functioning of a critical press.
To those who have offered support, thank you. However, Gawker will be just fine, both in business and in spirit.
Here is the good news: The future of the business is secured by a provisional sale agreement with Ziff Davis, and by our filing on Friday for Chapter 11 protection. The legal battle, separated from the ongoing business, moves onto the next round. The spirit that animates Gawker remains strong. The free press is vigorous. And the power of a shadowy billionaire looks much less alarming now that it has emerged blinking into the spotlight.
The Future of the Business
Gawker Media’s audience comes for the stories, and the default response of our writers when faced with a crisis is to write more. A thank you to them, and to all the readers who dropped by our sites on Friday, when news of the sale broke, to chat with our editors. Your participation is what makes Gawker’s sites communities as much as digital media brands. To the six million people around the world who each weekday come to Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Deadspin, Kotaku, Jalopnik, Jezebel, and Gawker: As long as you keep reading, we’ll keep informing and engaging you around the issues you’re passionate about.
Around here, save for the kegs of beer that arrived early on Friday, it’s business as usual. Writers are writing, the tech folks are keeping the pages loading, the ad sales team is selling, the e-commerce scouts are finding you the best deals of the day. We appreciate the support that agencies and advertisers have already shown, whether it is motivated by Gawker’s enduring audience appeal or the principle at stake.
There may be other bidders before the sale is finalized, but if Ziff Davis is the ultimate acquirer, Gizmodo and the other Gawker brands will become part of one of the most profitable, revenue-balanced and well-managed of digital media groups. Ziff Davis, which owns the video game destination IGN, earned $92 million on revenue of $225 million in the last 12 months. The media operation, if combined, will have the biggest audience in two growing media categories, technology and video games, with a strong presence in lifestyle, too. Ziff Davis anticipates expansion in video, commerce and on social platforms.
I have long encouraged Gawker writers to be honest about the motives behind what they write, so I will be honest about mine: We believe a sale now will maximize value for all stakeholders, and it is important to that end that potential buyers, current employees, and advertisers understand that the business continues to operate as usual. The media market is consolidating, and there is significant interest in Gawker Media as the last sizable digital property that has not yet been folded into an established conglomerate. While most of the proceeds from other digital media deals have gone to financial investors, at Gawker Media Group, the founders and employees own the bulk of the equity in the company.
Yes, Peter Thiel’s covert legal vendetta has undoubtedly depressed Gawker Media Group’s valuation. His onslaught, prompted by items about Thiel and his friends on Gawker’s Valleywag, has been financially draining. Whoever buys us, it will not be for the sort of headline price that Henry Blodget or Arianna Huffington received when selling Business Insider to Axel Springer and Huffington Post to AOL. So be it.
Wherever it ends up, the purchase price will also reflect the editorial choices we have made. Nobody goes into the news business, certainly not the convention-breaking news we and our readers love, simply to get rich. Better to risk, to win some and lose some, than pursue the path of least offense—at least if you’re a journalist. We have always put editorial credibility ahead of short-term commercial considerations, resulting in what we have internally called the “Gawker Tax” on our advertising revenue.
That tax has generally been worth paying; it is a choice we made. It is because Gawker’s stories are transparently more honest and more real that we could grow without outside capital or bought traffic. It is why, overall, our sites have held audience levels in the face of well-funded competition and the shift to social platforms. And it is the reason we can present such an upscale and engaged audience to advertisers.
The proposition that journalism should be an honest conversation between writers and readers has permitted us to build a solid, even enviable, business: an award-winning native advertising studio; a commerce operation which will drive nearly $200 million in sales this year for partners; and the best news discussion system on the web. Without exceptional legal and professional fees related to the Thiel campaign, the business is profitable.
We have drawn and developed prodigious talent: Gizmodo editor-in-chief Katie Drummond, who came from Bloomberg and has invigorated the tech site’s coverage of Silicon Valley; the creative writers in our advertising department; sellers such as Michael Orell and Daniel Morgan who care about editorial quality as much as any writer; dedicated managers like executive managing editor Lacey Donohue and vice president of product Lauren Bertolini; the coders in our Budapest and New York offices; and a crack legal team (we have needed it) led by our president and general counsel Heather Dietrick, to pick a few people out of many at random.
Though our company is inevitably best known for Gawker’s most provocative stories, the other six brands—Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Deadspin, Jezebel, Kotaku, and Jalopnik—represent the bulk of the audience and the revenue. They and all the exceptional people who make them happen will thrive under new ownership, with management oversight and financial underpinning from a larger company. As Wired put it: “They’ve got great niche audiences. They’ve got domain expertise. Their brands are easy to understand, which makes them easy to pitch to advertisers. Someone’s going to take those assets and make money.”
The Legal Balance of Power
In some countries, in a dispute between a magnate and an irritating writer, there would have been bullets in heads by now.
“The muzzle grows tighter,” writes the Economist. Freethinking Bangladeshi bloggers, many of them gay, are being dispatched with machete blows to the neck. The newly elected president of the Philippines has said that rights of free expression should not protect a bad journalist from assassination. Donald Trump, who kept a writer in court for five years after he dared write that the real estate billionaire was not as rich as he claimed, is a few percentage points away from the presidency.
But this is the United States, and Trump is not yet in power. We remain confident that justice will be done in the Hulk Hogan case.
March’s state court verdict was an outlier. Judges in federal court and the Florida appeals court have repeatedly determined the Hogan story was newsworthy because it joined a conversation about his sex life that the wrestling star had already begun. Most legal experts expect the $140 million judgment, which even plaintiffs’ lawyers ascribe to a runaway jury, to be corrected by a higher court. As a result, there ought to be little lasting effect on the balance between privacy and the free press.
There are two other active cases against Gawker in which we are being sued by Charles Harder, the attorney underwritten by Thiel. One is from a Los Angeles journalist who came to us with a story about Tinder that evidently didn’t turn out as she’d hoped. In the other complaint, a Massachusetts entrepreneur who claims he invented email—about a decade after email was invented—says he should not have been called a fraud.
Neither has merit.
U.S. law does still protect free speech more than any other country’s. If there is a threat, it is in the extent to which that law is increasingly a battleground of moneyed interests. As Gordon Crovitz argues in the Wall Street Journal, tort reform should be a cause for the progressive media, not just conservative business owners. Florida last year finally put in place provisions for unsuccessful plaintiffs to bear the costs of lawsuits designed to suppress public participation. Some would support a revival of champerty, the old English prohibition on aristocrats backing and influencing third-party lawsuits. At the very least, there should be public disclosure over who is funding cases in public courts that use public resources.
But reforms or no, the basic fact remains: if somebody raises a topic, you have the right to join in. Gawker Media Group has taken full advantage of that right.
The Spirit of Gawker.com
Some have raised doubts about the long-term future of Gawker.com, the site which has drawn the most fire over the years, because of its insolent tone, love of juicy gossip, and tendency to unearth skeletons. It would rather make an enemy or alienate a source than lose a story. The site has published an impressive list of scoops; it has also made many enemies, at least two of whom have combined in Peter Thiel’s cabal.
Do not fear—or gloat—too quickly.
Gawker.com was established in the early internet years as a thought-provoking alternative to a stodgy mainstream press, which so often skipped over precisely the most interesting aspect of a story—the version that journalists tell each other over a drink. The site has been a manifestation of the journalist’s rebellious id, the impulse to question the authorized version of the news, to puncture hype and mock hypocrisy.
The flagship news site’s incredible run of provocative journalism has revealed vile trolls on Reddit, crack-smoking mayors in Canada, Tom Cruise’s role in Scientology, the personal pain of unemployment, long-forgotten sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby, Hillary Clinton’s emerging email scandal, and the ways the elite pass privilege down to their children, and their friends’ children. Here is a longer description of What Gawker Media Does. I hope that deep down, most other journalists would agree with Peter Kafka of Recode that the Gawker network has, stories about sex tapes notwithstanding, been “overwhelmingly a force for good.”
Where there is power, there will be gossip and criticism. The people require it. Bryan Goldberg of Bustle, himself a frequent subject of ridicule on the site, says Gawker.com is as indestructible as a New York cockroach. The brand is more famous than ever; if it does not fit an acquirer’s portfolio, Gawker.com will find an investor with a tolerance for controversy. I will happily contribute.
The Digital Press
The same independent and inquisitive spirit that animates Gawker is alive in the rest of the press. As Jonathan Mahler acknowledged in the New York Times, Gawker’s foundation has done more than any other “to loosen up the mainstream media.”
Over time, as bloggers and reporters have intermingled, the spontaneity of internet publishing has given a new energy to publications like the Times, and Gawker in turn has gladly embraced more of the practices and values of the newspaper press. Our writers and editor have adopted a formal editorial code. Gawker’s investigative reporters, under John Cook, who is now executive editor, have used FOIA requests to reveal how Hillary Clinton’s press minder manipulates journalists and twists arms, among many other exclusive stories.
Meanwhile, Gawker alumni are employed at almost every smart news organization, including New York Magazine, the New Yorker, New York Times, Vox, Wired and Business Insider. (Here is New Yorker staff writer Adrian Chen recalling Gawker as “a great place to become a journalist.”) Two of the three new David Carr Fellows at the Times got their starts at Gawker. Slate now requires a triple disclosure just to write about the company.
As odd as it may seem under the circumstances, it is heartening to witness just how extensive and uncowed the recent coverage of Peter Thiel’s secret financing of lawsuits against Gawker has been. Witness Wired’s over-the-top praise for the sensitive billionaire, the Taiwanese animators’ depiction of the him as an insecure supervillain, or the Economist’s jibe that he risks evolving from youthful genius to aging crank, his pursuit of immortality notwithstanding.
The recent spasm of disbelief and outrage over the revelation that his lawyer is now pursuing us over a much-lauded story about Trump’s hair—“a perfect example of the kind of chilling effect Gawker critics don’t seem to have taken into account when championing Hogan and Thiel’s victories,” the Verge writes—goes to show how Thiel’s strategy might have backfired. The next aggrieved billionaire may think twice before following his template.
We have a free and vigorous press to credit for uncovering the real motives of Gawker’s opponents. The purpose of Hulk Hogan’s initial lawsuit, to stop a racist rant becoming public, is now known, thanks in large part to media companies who asked the appeals court to remedy the trial court’s overly broad sealing of documents in the case. That Thiel’s role is also now public is thanks to a mixture of gossip, speculation, and reporting—the classic iterative process by which journalists, Gawker’s especially, winkle out a story.
None of this is to gloss over the enormous concentration of power among the emerging oligarchy. Silicon Valley industrialists are ruthlessly controlling of their public image, as Nick Bilton writes in Vanity Fair. “The system here has been molded to effectively prevent reporters from asking tough questions. It’s a game of access, and if you don’t play it carefully, you may pay sorely.” The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou had to withstand months of legal threats to dispel the mystique surrounding Theranos, a fallen Valley unicorn.
Mother Jones has drawn attention to the campaign by another billionaire, Frank VanderSloot, who sought to drain them financially through litigation. Thiel has shown how easily an aggrieved billionaire can hide behind fronts, dark money and special purpose vehicles. These cases have illuminated the concentration of privilege and money in American life, and the power exercised behind the scenes without any public accountability.
Yes, independent media like Mother Jones and Gawker are at a financial disadvantage in dealing with billionaire subjects. But that imbalance is now, at least, more widely understood. We are all talking about the exercise of power in the information age, out loud, in the open. That’s not capitulation; it is in itself a form of provisional victory.
The history of democracy—a form of governance that Thiel views as incompatible with liberty—can be viewed as a long-running street battle between the moneyed elite and the more populist institutions, like the press, that seek to keep them in check. The battle lines shift up and back, but the insistent presence of public debate and criticism have always served as a bulwark against rampaging power. Now, those age-old tensions are playing out on the internet. The rules of engagement will need to once again be rewritten. I hope the clash between Gawker and Thiel will produce at least as much light as it has heat.
Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo notes calls from the extremely rich to “not only be able to use their money without limit to shape the political process but to do so anonymously to avoid being ‘intimidated’ or ‘vilified.’” That the debate is happening at all is progress. If Gawker had to give up its independence for it to begin in earnest, at least the upstarts who come behind us will have a clearer understanding of the playing field, and the stakes.
If you take a long view, the system is working as it should. The courts will apply the law. The real story is coming out. It always does. All sides are facing criticism and examining themselves. And a debate about the limits of the free press, and the limits of unaccountable power, is taking place.
Peter Thiel will be, by the time the magazine profiles come out and the TV scripts turn into episodes, one of the classic characters of the Silicon Age. This is the ultimate Gawker story, a collision between power, celebrity, and the word. Only this time we are participants as well as observers.
We will each be caricatured, for sure; but we will also have plenty of opportunity to express our more provocative ideas. This is how a free society is supposed to work. A newly laid-back Jezebel has adopted an informal catchphrase, “It’s Fine.” To those who have written in with concern for our people, our business, and our mission, I have a similar response. It’s fine.