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The Gawker meltdown, explained

Gawker founder Nick Denton.
Gawker founder Nick Denton.
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

In 2014, The New Republic — a respected political magazine — self-destructed. A new editor-in-chief was appointed, existing editor-in-chief Frank Foer was pushed out, and a majority of the publication's staffers, many of whom are excellent journalists, quit in response to Foer's ousting. They cited loyalty to Foer and expressed fear that the New Republic was in danger of ruining its own legacy.

At the time, you could have learned all this on Twitter, or eventually from The New Republic itself, but really, everyone in the media world knew they had to go to Gawker.

It wasn't because Gawker had the news first (the New Yorker's Ryan Lizza had tweeted a mass-resignation list), or because it had better reporting than other outlets. People went to Gawker because they could rely on the site to explain what had happened in the voice of a really judgmental, nosy friend — the kind of person you want to sit next to at a wedding, the kind of person who will tell you who's slept with whom and what kind of crazy diet the bride is on. The kind of person you want to hear talking about other people, but you never want talking about you.

"Never give a journalist an opportunity to Take A Stand. Unless maybe you want to clean house without all the messy firing," Gawker's then-editor-in-chief Max Read wrote about the New Republic's implosion. He was snarking on the smugness of the people who were leaving the place.

"New Republic brand ambassadors haven't been this self-satisfied since the magazine was publishing racist pseudoscience on its cover!" he added.

But this past week, Gawker's journalists Took A Stand. The site ran an awful story outing a married Condé Nast executive, and then the business side of Gawker Media overruled the site's editorial staff and took down the post.

Gawker had become the type of story Gawker reports on. A meltdown was brewing. On Monday, July 20, Read and executive editor Tommy Craggs resigned.

But behind this flashpoint is a broader struggle within the company: Gawker's founder and CEO, Nick Denton, believes the site's editorial ethos needs to change. Gawker's writers and editors disagree.

Gawker outed a married man who isn't a public figure

Read and Craggs's resignations are rooted in a controversial story about a Condé Nast executive who allegedly tried to pay a gay porn star to spend the night with him in a Chicago hotel.

On the evening of Thursday, July 16, Gawker writer Jordan Sargent published screenshots of several text messages that were allegedly exchanged between the executive and porn star Brodie Sinclair, a.k.a. Leif Derek Truitt. The messages contained discussions of payment and the logistics of the meeting, and later devolved into a form of extortion. Gawker's report alleged that Truitt pressured the executive to aid him with a housing dispute; he believed the executive could pull some political strings to help him out, and threatened to go to the press if he refused.

In publishing the story, Gawker played into Truitt's game of blackmail. Several journalists and media outlets quickly expressed outrage and disgust in response. As Gabriel Arana wrote for the Huffington Post:

The piece evinces a subtle homophobia, since part of what the reader is expected to do is recoil in horror at the thought of a married man hiring a gay escort. Beyond cruelly wrecking an innocent man’s life, the only thing Gawker and Sargent achieved was a temporary traffic boost. It’s a flagrant abuse of the incredible power those of us in the media have.

However, some Gawker journalists, including Read, defended the piece:

On Friday, July 17 — less than 24 hours after the story was published — Denton announced that it had been removed from the website. The managing partnership of Gawker Media had voted 4-2 in favor of the retraction.

"This was a decision I made as Founder and Publisher — guardian of the company mission — and the majority supported me in that decision," Denton wrote in a statement. "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."

Gawker's management team — not its editors — decided to delete the story

At most news organizations, the way retractions typically work is that you see an editor's note explaining why a post has been changed or deleted, usually for editorial reasons (the post ended up not passing scrutiny) or legal ones (a court order demanded the post be removed). But that's not what happened at Gawker. After Denton announced that the story would be removed from the site, the Gawker Media editorial staff responded with a post saying that the original story was taken down against their wishes.

Media organizations including Gawker have editorial and business sides — and there's an understood delineation between the two; the idea is to avoid conflicts of interest and instances where business decisions (like acquiring or pleasing an advertiser) affect what the publication covers. Denton is not considered an editorial figure by Gawker staffers, and thus his move was seen as overreaching his boundaries.

"Today’s unprecedented breach of the firewall, in which business executives deleted an editorial post over the objections of the entire executive editorial staff, demonstrated exactly why we seek greater protection," Gawker's editorial staff wrote in a statement. The "greater protection" they're referring to stems from their June decision to unionize.

The staff added:

Our opinions on the post are not unanimous but we are united in objecting to editorial decisions being made by a majority of non-editorial managers. Disagreements about editorial judgment are matters to be resolved by editorial employees.

Staff writers from other Gawker Media websites, including Jezebel and Deadspin, also weighed in, clarifying that someone could disagree with Gawker's controversial post while also vehemently opposing Denton and the managing partners' decision to take it down.

"Many on the Jezebel staff were rubbed the wrong way by the piece Gawker ran last night," Jezebel writer Erin Gloria Ryan wrote. "[T]aking something down entirely after publishing — no matter how distasteful —is dishonest. It’s something we’ve reamed other sites for. And non-editorial employees should not be making editorial decisions that make us look like hypocrites."

What makes this situation unique is that readers aren't usually privy to the editorial, advertising, and managerial goings-on of a large media organization. Prior to this incident, there wasn't any visible sign of tension between Gawker's editorial and business sides. And while the fallout isn't a tick-tock, moment-by-moment account of what happened, it offers a lot more transparency than we generally see at most news organizations. Gawker in particular lives by a credo of putting its editorial decisions out in the open; for example, Denton as well as his staff have been relatively forthright about firings and resignations.

Two top editors were so upset they decided to resign on principle

On Monday, July 20, editor-in-chief Read and executive editor Craggs officially resigned from Gawker Media over management's decision to remove the post without consulting the editorial staff. Craggs's account of why he left was searing:

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.

He also said that, behind the business side's decision was the fact that "advertisers such as Discover and BFGoodrich were either putting holds on their campaigns or pulling out entirely."

Read echoed Craggs's statement, explaining that he felt Gawker's business concerns had become more important than editorial independence:

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.

Is outing a closeted man whom no one knows really the hill Gawker wants to die on?

For the most part, no. While some Gawker editors and writers relentlessly defended the outing story, it seems increasingly like the fracture point rather than the root of Gawker's problems.

Going by Craggs and Read's accounts of what happened, Gawker Media wants its content to be appealing to advertisers, and the company's management is strangling and tempering its editorial coverage to get to that point. There's a fear among some editorial staffers that Gawker is selling out and abandoning the fearlessness it's long been known for.

Gawker originally made its name as a publication with vinegar coursing through its veins; its writers pride themselves on honesty, calling bullshit when they see it. They aren't afraid to be mean or snarky by half in order to make a point. When these talented writers are at their best, they're not being mean for the sake of being mean — they're drawing attention to issues that deserve examination. Indeed, Gawker features editor Leah Finnegan recently wrote a piece criticizing media coverage of young news websites like Mic, Ozy, and Fusion.

"These are the words of some thirsty-ass motherfuckers who don’t really give a shit about 'journalism' or 'social justice' but clearly love being quoted in the Washington Post, a paper of their corrupt pop-pops," she wrote.

In retrospect — after Craggs and Read's resignations revealed their ire about business interfering with editorial — Finnegan's piece about journalism and its importance, even if written in a prickly way, takes on a new meaning; she sounds like a ship's captain shouting orders while the boat sinks.

Why does the media care about this so much?

There are many reasons! Gawker is a successful media organization, stories about editorial ethics are generally of interest to reporters, and journalists are naturally nosy. Ergo, a lot of the chatter about Gawker is being driven by its peers in the media.

However, it'd be naive to say there isn't also a degree of schadenfreude or rubbernecking in play. Historically, Gawker's network of sites has been quick to lambaste media corrections (including Vox's) and to chronicle anything having to do with various struggles, layoffs, and ethics at other publications (see: Gawker's deep reporting on BuzzFeed's editorial standards and instances of deleting published posts). Now that Gawker has found itself in a similar situation, people want to see how the website responds.

Gawker, more or less, has become a story that Gawker would cover. And every journalist the site has ever made fun of or called out is tuning in to follow the story as it unfolds.

What does Hulk Hogan have to do with any of this?

While Gawker's editorial upheaval spins, the site is facing another problem. Gawker Media is currently involved in a heated $100 million legal battle with wrestler Hulk Hogan for publishing a sex tape featuring the legendary WWF star. If Gawker loses the lawsuit, it could force Denton to sell the company.

That lawsuit was weighing on the managing partners' minds. Denton specifically mentioned the Hogan lawsuit in his memo to the staff, stating that he didn't want the outing post attached to Gawker's name while they were headed into a trial about violating someone's privacy. Denton wrote:

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.

Gawker's real problem isn't the tension between its business and editorial interests — it's a question of the site's future identity

According to outgoing executive editor Craggs, he fears that Denton is positioning Gawker Media to be more like Vox Media, and Gawker more like New York Magazine's Daily Intelligencer blog reported on Craggs and Read's explanation of their departures to employees, where Craggs explained his belief that Denton is positioning Gawker to be more like Vox:

"This is Nick’s Reichstag fire," Craggs, Gawker Media's executive editor, told staffers. What he meant, a source told me, is that "this was the pretext by which he can Vox-ify Gawker."

In the piece, an unnamed source at Gawker confirmed Craggs's assertion. "Vox-ifying Gawker" sounds like a weird scientific experiment involving a chamber, a ray gun, and floating brains, but editorially it seems to imply that Denton wants to turn Gawker into a less snarky, more earnest site. And on the business side, Craggs's fear seems to be that Denton is positioning Gawker Media to be more like Vox Media, which hints at Denton wanting to sell a stake in the company and make it more attractive to outside investors.

Denton denied these allegations in an interview with Capital New York, promising "juicier" explainers than the ones you'll find on Vox. However, a brief survey of Gawker's "explainer" content reveals several pieces that focus on weather phenomena.

"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," Denton told Capital over Gchat.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle of Craggs and Denton's disparate assertions. But there is one underlying theme here, and that's the fight over Gawker's identity. Craggs has one idea of where the site needs to go, and Denton has a different one. And Gawker's shifting ideology is caught between the two.

Gawker has always been more than the stories it publishes. It's an attitude, an air, a mentality on how to approach the news of the day. This ethos doesn't always mesh well with the advertisers who keep the checks from bouncing.

What's next for Gawker?

Denton held an all-hands meeting on Monday, July 20, during which he reiterated that Gawker's outing of the Condé Nast executive was embarrassing and a complete misstep. Denton explained that Gawker's writers were adhering to a "maximalist interpretation of editorial freedom" instead of treating journalism like a privilege or a responsibility.

"This is the very, very worst version of the company," Denton told his staffers, referring to the post he'd ordered removed from the site. "This is not the company I built. … I can’t think of a single instance of an outing that was as egregious and poorly handled as this one."

In response to Craggs and Read's resignations, as well as Gawker Media's decision to pull the post, Gawker and Jezebel both went "dark" after Craggs and Read made their announcements and did not post any full stories for the rest of the day.

On Tuesday, Denton held a meeting with the editorial staff, some of whom tweeted what was happening. Finnegan offered a skeptical, detailed play-by-play of the topics the meeting covered: