Tommy Craggs, the executive editor of Gawker Media, and Max Read, the editor-in-chief of Gawker.com, are resigning from the company. In letters sent today, Craggs and Read informed staff members that the managing partnership’s vote to remove a controversial post about the CFO of Condé Nast—an unprecedented act endorsed by zero editorial employees—represented an indefensible breach of the notoriously strong firewall between Gawker’s business interests and the independence of its editorial staff. Under those conditions, Craggs and Read wrote, they could not possibly guarantee Gawker’s editorial integrity.
On July 17, shortly before the post was taken down, Craggs informed the managing partnership that, “If we decide to pull the post, I think I have to quit.” Still, as we reported last week, four partners—CEO Nick Denton; chief operating officer Scott Kidder; chief strategy officer Erin Pettigrew; and Andrew Gorenstein, who serves as president of advertising and partnerships—voted to remove the post. When Craggs began informing others that he was indeed quitting, colleagues persuaded him to wait until Monday to officially make a decision. On Saturday, Read informed staffers that if Craggs quit, he would quit as well. Over the weekend, Denton and colleagues of Read and Craggs tried, and failed, to persuade them to stay.
Here is Craggs’ memo to the editorial staff of Gawker Media:
I want to give you some sense of what happened within Gawker Media on Friday, and what has happened since, as a means of explaining why I have to resign as executive editor.
On Friday, I told my fellow managing partners—Nick Denton, founder and CEO; Heather Dietrick, president; Andrew Gorenstein, president of advertising and partnerships; Scott Kidder, chief operating officer; and Erin Pettigrew, chief strategy officer—I would have to resign if they voted to remove a story I’d edited and approved. The article, about the Condé Nast CFO’s futile effort to secure a remote assignation with a pricey escort, had become radioactive. Advertisers such as Discover and BFGoodrich were either putting holds on their campaigns or pulling out entirely.
(This isn’t the place to debate the merits of that story, other than to say that I stand by the post. Whatever faults it might have belong to me, and all the public opprobrium being directed at Jordan Sargent, a terrific reporter, should come my way instead.)
That there would even be a vote on this was a surprise to me. Until Friday, the partnership had operated according to a loose consensus. Nothing had ever come to a formal vote, and the only time anyone had even hinted that the partners might intrude on a departmental prerogative was when Andrew Gorenstein wondered openly in a partnership meeting why Sam Biddle hadn’t been fired.
I’d learned of the vote via gchat with Heather Dietrick, who throughout the day was my only conduit to the partners, Nick Denton included. The only reply to my pleading emails about yanking the story was a sneering note from Gorenstein. That is to say, none of the partners in a company that prides itself on its frankness had the decency or intellectual wherewithal to make the case to the executive editor of Gawker Media for undermining (if not immolating) his job, forsaking Gawker’s too-often-stated, too-little-tested principles, and doing the most extreme and self-destructive thing a shop like ours could ever do.
All I got at the end of the day was a workshopped email from Denton, asking me to stay on and help him unfuck the very thing he’d colluded with the partners to fuck up.
No one told me the vote was actually happening, by the way. It just … happened, while I was on a plane to California. No one in editorial was informed that Nick had reached what he now calls the point of last resort; no one had explained what other resorts had been tried and had failed in the less than 24 hours between publication and takedown. The final count was 4-2 (with Heather’s nay joining mine, despite initial reports otherwise), and the message was immediately broadcast to the company and to its readers that the responsibility Nick had vested in the executive editor is in fact meaningless, that true power over editorial resides in the whims of the four cringing members of the managing partnership’s Fear and Money Caucus.
Will they ever explain themselves to you? I don’t know. This is from the partnership’s text message thread on Sunday [all is sic]:
Gorenstein: Im getting emails from Keenan at gawker re post vote
Gorenstein: In not dealing with her
Me: Yeah, God forbid you explain yourself
Gorenstein: I’m 1 of 5
Nick Denton: We will all need to be at the office tomorrow morning to talk with Edit. I propose a meeting before at 9am among the Managing Partners. And you can all expect to be asked why you voted as you did at the all-hands.
Gorenstein (still replying to me): Don’t give me that bullshit
Me: I won’t be attending
Me: I would encourage you to meet with all of edit, but knowing you people I doubt you will
Nick Denton: I encourage everybody to do so, also.
Me: So that’s what it sounds like when Nick has my back.
Me: By the way, Andrew, Keenan is a male. You all should get to know the writers you just sold out.
Me: They may not be around for long.
Then Nick accused me of being “self-indulgent” for making it “all about the writers being sold out” and for not being sufficiently attuned to the damage the brand would suffer.
But of course it is all about you, the writers. The impulse that led to Thursday’s story is the impulse upon which Nick himself built Gawker’s brand, the impulse against which Gorenstein sells his ads. The undoing of it began the moment Nick himself put the once inviolable sanctity of Gawker Media’s editorial to a vote.
One of the least rewarding parts of this job has been subjecting Max Read to a series of meetings that resulted in the creation of the company’s “brand book,” articulating for advertisers what it is that makes Gawker matter. As it happens, initial copy for the brand book—which you can read here (or here)—was approved on Thursday just hours before Gawker’s Condé Nast post went up.
The brand book was a preposterous exercise. The essence of Gawker has always been what happens when we get out of those meetings and go back to writing and editing the stories you do that no one else can do. You writers are this company. You are funny. You are smart. You are vital. You are honest and righteous and pissed-off and stupid, so galactically stupid, and you commit hilarious blunders and you perform great, honking prodigies of journalism that make me proud to have sat in a room with you. Often you do all these things in the same day. You are this company. Nick forgot that, and I hope he one day remembers it. You are, you will always be, the best argument for a company that no longer deserves you.
I love you all.
Here is Max Read’s memo to the managing partnership:
To the partnership group:
On Friday a post was deleted from Gawker over the strenuous objections of Tommy and myself, as well as the entire staff of executive editors. That this post was deleted at all is an absolute surrender of Gawker’s claim to “radical transparency”; that non-editorial business executives were given a vote in the decision to remove it is an unacceptable and unprecedented breach of the editorial firewall, and turns Gawker’s claim to be the world’s largest independent media company into, essentially, a joke.
I am able to do this job to the extent that I can believe that the people in charge are able, when faced with difficult decisions, to back up their stated commitments to transparency, fearlessness, and editorial independence. In the wake of Friday’s decision and Tommy’s resignation I can no longer sustain that belief. I find myself forced to resign, effective immediately.
This was not an easy decision. I hope the partnership group recognizes the degree to which it has betrayed the trust of editorial, and takes steps to materially reinforce its independence.
Read also sent the following memo to the writers and editors of Gawker.com:
I’m quitting today. Tommy is too. You’ll see his email shortly. (Keep it between us till I email the partnership, please!)
Here’s the email I’m sending, which I hope outlines clearly why I am leaving.
[Text of above email to managing partnership]
If there is a reason to stay at Gawker, it is all of you. I mean this both sentimentally and practically.
Sentimentally in the sense that I cannot imagine working with a sharper, smarter, funnier, weirder, finer group of humans than the ones I have been lucky enough to inherit, hire, and poach here. I hope I have made this clear enough, but I am consistently and constantly in awe of every one of you, of your skill and your inventiveness. When you are in the office this week, look around: You are working with a rare class of talent. You will want to remember what it was like to write alongside so many current and future stars. I hope at some point over the next week or so I will have a drunken opportunity to tearfully and inappropriately corner each one of you to inarticulately communicate to you my gratitude and admiration and love.
Practically in the sense that the future of the site, and in most ways the company, is now in your hands. Collectively, you have the ability to demand from management the editorial protections you deserve, and I hope you organize this week to do so. I still believe Gawker can be great, even when it abdicates its own core institutional beliefs, because I know that Gawker isn’t really some constellation of Brand Values that can be betrayed at whim. It’s you guys. My friends.
I think I’ve already said everything I need to say about The Post Itself in the email I sent around on Saturday. Ultimately my decision is about the process by which this happened. If the partnership had not conducted some kind of utterly opaque backroom vote to delete it—if we had simply posted Nick’s note, as much I disagreed with and disliked it—I think this Monday would be very different.
I will be at the editorial meeting with Tommy; I’m not sure I can stomach whatever town hall Nick has planned. If you’re around, you should come in. If not, let’s get a drink soon. Or go to Spumoni! Or Atlantic City.
The last year of my life, and especially the last six months, have probably been the happiest and most fun. I have never been prouder of my work. And it was easy because all I had to do was give this group of writers access to Kinja and a mandate to be weird and funny and mean and skeptical and fearless. I hope that you guys will remember it as fondly as I will. If another mad Hungarian ever wants to give me $10 million dollars to start a website it’s good to know I already have a perfect hire list.
Here is the email Read sent to staffers on Saturday:
(It would be nice if this—both the letter itself and the information it contains—was kept between all of us and not leaked anywhere.)
Sorry for going AWOL so quickly yesterday without warning. It was a weird day. I want to keep you all appraised of where everything stands (as far as I can tell) and what I’m thinking.
So, as I think most of you know, Tommy has prepared a resignation letter. He told me it contains the word “fart.” He was going to send it yesterday when he landed in California, but was convinced to wait until Monday, so it hasn’t officially happened yet.
We talked a little on the phone yesterday and he insists that his mind is made up. When the partnership group (himself, Nick, Heather, Andrew Gorenstein, Kidder, Erin Pettigrew) voted yesterday, Tommy made explicitly clear that he would quit if the post was removed. He feels like he’s bound to follow through on that threat; he can’t walk into partnership meetings knowing Gorenstein has the power to remove posts over his objections. John Cook says Tommy tied his dick to a rock and threw the rock off the cliff; Emma says it’s more like Tommy threw the rock on the ground and jumped off himself. The point is that Tommy’s dick was torn off in a gross way. Maybe this is a bad metaphor.
I obviously would be gutted if Tommy left, and am desperately hoping he can be convinced to stay, maybe if we can make assurances of editorial protections in a union contract, or some other kind of ironclad guarantee that his power will not be diminished. I will be calling him all weekend and begging him to reconsider. If you feel like it, you should email him something genuine and heartfelt and maybe a little bit thirsty and pleading. If you have any ideas of face-saving (or, better yet, power-saving) ways for him to stay, I’m all ears.
If Tommy quits, it’s very hard for me to see a way that I can stay and maintain any claim to integrity or control over my site. But I haven’t written a resignation letter and I haven’t made a decision yet. What’s done with the post is done; I don’t think I’ll be able to secure its re-instatement. But my feeling is that if I can get from Nick a public, written apology and guarantee that this will never happen again that would establish a sufficient level of editorial protection to carry us through union negotiations, and allow me to take the reins of the site with some shred of integrity and authority intact. I plan on speaking to Nick on Monday. I would ask that anyone thinking of making dramatic public resignations (or sending their resumes around) at least wait through next week and Hamilton’s proposed editorial meeting as we see how yesterday’s events shake themselves out.
Otherwise I’m not going to talk about this publicly or respond to Nick, either in private or public, in case you’re wondering why I haven’t written or said anything. He knows how I feel about his decision to remove the post; you all know how I feel; and the statement drafted for the sites yesterday sends a strong message that I don’t think I need to add to. I don’t want to be captured in some Kinja Works! PR stunt, and I don’t want to turn this into another one of the perennial Gawker Drama! moments. I mean, it is that, but it’s also an unacceptable breach of editorial independence.
A quick word about the post: Jordan reported out a true and interesting story that stands well within the site’s long tradition of aggressively reporting on the sex and personal lives of powerful media figures, and I—and Tommy—still stand behind that story, and Jordan’s reporting, absolutely. It was always going to land poorly with the army of Gamergaters and Redditors, and with the Twitter squad of smarmy media enemies we’ve made over the last 10 years, both groups of which are desperate for our collapse. To the extent that it failed to land with the people who are generally sympathetic to us—people we like and respect—I, and only I, should have protected us better, and I would have and will talk and think harder about how we assign, approach, edit, and package those stories. But that’s all we’re obligated to do: Listen to people we respect, and try to do better next time. Jordan is the rarest of all things, a funny writer and fantastic stylist who can also report the hell out of difficult and awkward stories—in other words, a perfect Gawker blogger. I am hugely proud of what he’s done for the site, and there is no one whose work I’d rather take a stand over.
If any of you are worried, please don’t be. This is a brief storm that Nick’s shortsightedness has extended. By the end of next week it will be a vague memory. I love you guys and am utterly confident in your ability to move through the now annual mid-summer Reddit freakout with grace and good humor. If any of you want to talk or get a drink this weekend, call or text me at [redacted]. I’m mostly gonna stay out of Slack and I’m staying the hell off of Twitter. I suggest you all do the same.
It is not yet clear who will fill the positions left vacant by Craggs and Read.
When asked to justify their votes for the post’s removal, managing partners Scott Kidder and Erin Pettigrew provided the following statements.
Hey Keenan — my vote was supporting Nick is making a tough call as Founder and Editorial Ethos of the Company. It wouldn’t cross my mind to autonomously suggest taking down a post — in fact, I can’t remember a situation where any Partner has — this was Nick’s suggestion and call.
As Scott clarified and Nick is expected to —
Nick made the recommendation and the decision to take down the post. He is the final standard bearer of editorial-decision making in the organization.
When I heard he felt this was an important decision for him to make for the company’s future, I lent him support.
Andrew Gorenstein did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Update, 12:20 p.m.:
Nick Denton sent the following memo to editorial staff on Monday afternoon:
To All of Edit at Gawker Media:
The Managing Partnership as a whole is responsible for the Company’s management and direction, but they do not and should not make editorial decisions. Let me be clear. This was a decision I made as Founder and Publisher — and guardian of the company mission — and the majority supported me in that decision.
This is the company I built. I was ashamed to have my name and Gawker’s associated with a story on the private life of a closeted gay man who some felt had done nothing to warrant the attention. We believe we were within our legal right to publish, but it defied the 2015 editorial mandate to do stories that inspire pride, and made impossible the jobs of those most committed to defending such journalism.
I’m sorry also that Jordan Sargent, reporting this story impeccably despite a personal drama, was exposed to such traumatizing hatred online, just for doing his job. And I’m sorry that other editors and writers are now in such an impossible position: objecting to the removal of a story that many of them found objectionable.
The company promotes truth and understanding through the pursuit of the real story — and supports, finances and defends such independent journalism. That is and remains its mission, and this story was in violation of it.
We pride ourselves on pushing boundaries and know that every story requires a judgment call. There was strong internal disagreement on whether the right judgment was made. I believe it was not and could not defend it.
Were there also business concerns? Absolutely. The company’s ability to finance independent journalism is critical. If the post had remained up, we probably would have triggered advertising losses this week into seven figures. Fortunately, though, I was only aware of one advertiser pausing at the time the decision to pull the post was made; so you won’t be able to pin this outrage on advertising, even though it is the traditional thing to do in these circumstances.
No, I was thinking in the broadest terms about the future of the company. The choice was a cruel one: a management override that would likely cause a beloved editorial leader to resign on principle; or a story that was pure poison to our reputation just as we go into the Hogan trial.
It was such a breach of everything Gawker stands for, actually having a post disappeared from the internet. But it was also an unprecedented misuse of the independence given to editorial.
Under Tommy’s leadership, Gawker and other sites have done more ambitious reporting. There have been many scoops we are indeed proud of: those arising from the Sony email hack, for instance, or the Bill O’Reilly or Hillary Clinton exposés. But even the best of our stories fail to get credit, in part because of Gawker’s reputation for tabloid trash, given another lift by the unjustifiable outing of a private individual in turmoil, in front of a potential audience of millions.
That post wasn’t what Gawker should stand for, and it is symptomatic of a site that has been out of control of editorial management. Our flagship site carries the same name as the company, and the reputation of the entire company rests on its work. When Gawker itself is seen as sneering and callous, it affects all of us.
From recent research, it is clear that the Gawker brand, for both flagship website and the company, is both confusing and damaging. A friend of the sites attests:
“First thing I’d say is being called Gawker is a big problem - all their other sites are more advertiser-friendly than Gawker itself. All the other sites are innovative, sharp, have a focused point of voice but not too snarky. Gawker itself is too snarky for me to recommend to advertisers, too risky. They’re really bitchy. The other sites are bitchy too but with Gawker itself it feels like it’s bitchy without a reason.”
The Hogan case has shown we can’t escape our past, and I can’t escape Gawker. Of the site’s qualities, some of its best and most of its worst were mine: the desire of the outsider to be feared if you’re not to be respected, nip the ankles till they notice you; contempt for newspaper pieties; and a fanatical belief in the truth no matter the cost. It is a creature of my own making. And even if it’s been seven years since I edited Gawker, I still have to represent it. Heather does in court and I do in the press. But not this time: for the first time that I can remember, I cannot stand by a story, or just agree to disagree, or keep silent.
This Geithner story was legal, but it could not be justified to colleagues, family members and people we respect. Nor was there any way to explain it to journalists and opinion-makers who decide whether we deserve the great privilege of the profession, the First Amendment that protects our most controversial work. The episode had the potential to do lasting damage to our reputation as a company, and each of our own personal reputations.
The insistence the post remain up despite our own second thoughts: that represents an extreme interpretation of editorial freedom. It’s an abuse of the privilege. And it was my responsibility to step in to save Gawker from itself, supported by the majority of the Managing Partners.
This is a one-time intervention, I trust, which will prompt a debate about the editorial mission, and a restoration of editorial independence within more clearly defined bounds.
To any that resign over the deep-sixing of the Geithner story, and to any that find a gentler editorial mission too limiting: I respect the strength of your convictions. This is a decision you’re taking to preserve principles you believed I still shared. And since you were abiding by a policy we had not formally superseded, we will treat all resignations as being constructive dismissal, subject to severance.
We need a codification of editorial standards beyond putting truths on the internet. Stories need to be true and interesting. I believe we will have to make our peace with the idea that to be published, those truths should be worthwhile.
And some humane guidelines are needed — in writing — on the calculus of cruelty and benefit in running a story. Everybody has a private life, even a C-level executive, at least unless they blab about it. We do not seek to expose every personal secret — only those that reveal something interesting. And the more vulnerable the person hurt, the more important the story had better be.
The editorial ethos of Gawker needs a calibration more than a radical shift. Gawker needs to keep being Gawker. 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.
As Heather says: Keep doing the great stories. Keep writing on the edge. Just make sure you’re proud of it. Make sure people you respect can be proud of it.
At 1pm, Heather and I will come to the 4th Floor to take questions and criticism from New York editors and writers. At 12.30 on Tuesday, we will hold an all-hands meeting again on the Fourth Floor, with out-of-town editors included and other people who are getting back to town. The Managing Partners will be present.
Last week’s story — and the drastic reaction — cannot become a habit. We are open to a full debate on editorial independence — and the evolved editorial mission that must define it. There are also some ideas about governance floating around. There’s plenty to discuss, but hopefully not too much text to write: we don’t need a bureaucracy; but we do need some clarity.
This is a company built on stories: from the very first gadget recommendation on Gizmodo in 2002; through to the Tom Cruise video that marked a newsier Gawker in 2008; the iPhone 4 story that made Gizmodo and broke its staff in 2010; to the heyday of the sensational scoop in 2013, when Gawker and Deadspin revealed both Rob Ford and Manti Teo in their lurid glory. This story, and the aftermath, look like a low-point right now. But it can also be the catalyst for necessary change. Gawker’s best stories are ahead of it.
Update, 12:45 p.m.:
Denton, for what it’s worth, was slightly more pointed about Jordan Sargent’s reporting in an email to Sargent on Friday:
From: Nick Denton
Date: Fri, Jul 17, 2015 at 1:47 PM
Subject: Hey, Jordan
To: Jordan Sargent
Cc: Keenan Trotter
Can you give Heather or me a call? You need to know you did nothing wrong. These are the stories we used to do. But times have changed.
Update, 1:48 p.m.
Jezebel editor-at-large Jessica Coen forwarded the following email she received from Nick Denton in January 2014 (when Coen was serving as editor-in-chief of Jezebel) to Gawker Media’s editorial listserv:
From: Nick Denton
Date: Mon, Jan 20, 2014 at 7:37 PM
Subject: This is the opposite of our policy
To: Jessica Coen
Cc: Joel Johnson
If the author believes this, she’s working at the wrong place. And should be guided to a more congenial work environment. We’re truth absolutists. Or rather, I am. And I choose to work with fellow spirits.
[Quote from post linked above] “Issue two is the reporting on the trans status of the subject. This is much clearer: Don’t out someone who doesn’t want to be out. The end. Everyone has a right to privacy when it comes to their gender identity or sexual orientation, and beyond this, the trans status is not relevant.”