Little confession: I dropped out of college and moved to New York because I wanted to write for Gawker.com.
In 2005, the site was helmed by Jessica Coen and Jesse Oxfeld. Mark Lisanti was writing Defamer. This Andrew Krucoff guy ran some mysteriously combative, cabal-blog called Young Manhattanite; he was Gawker’s "mascot," and the first true career casualty of Gawker.com (who was also, hilariously, the guy they called when everyone else was too hungover to report to work). Editorial operations were overseen by this other blogger guy, Lockhart Steele. And they had some mysterious boss casually referenced as a bigheaded British imperialist slave driver overlord.
The Gawker of that era felt like independent FM ’90s radio — a conversation through a two-way signal, and at that time it ostensibly wasn’t, at least, not literally. The site, which at that point had been around for almost three and a half years, didn’t introduce comments until September 23, 2005. But up until that point, it was a conversation made in concert with a distinct subset of people (other "bloggers," and a network of tipsters) with high-caliber wit and personalities either too dysfunctional or too bored or generally lacking in the kind of pedigree required to fit in working in finance or, to only a slightly lesser extent, that era’s Conde Nast.
In other words, it was coded specifically to the young and smartassed of New York City, and the way they lived in it. It was surprisingly edgy, surprisingly highbrow, and unsurprisingly disdainful of the middlebrow. These people all seemed to know each other, and share the same understanding of the city’s unspoken young professionals’ mores, and all somehow had a line that was better, smarter, and more on-the-nose than the one that came before it.
And this "blogging" thing they were all doing was wildly unhinged, experimental, impractical, and, according to any of mainstream publishing and journalism’s practitioners of the moment, kind of sacrilegious. It also made me feel like I was missing out on something important. I was running the arts coverage for a college newspaper at my state school and not having fun, and that looked, above all, like fun. And while I wouldn’t go as far to say I dropped out of college because of Gawker, it certainly helped me realize I was wasting time being there.
Gawker lost the farm doing the very thing it was designed to do
Gawker was funny, abrasive, and filled with voice. It was insular, self-referential, and too smart for its own good. The sound was crystal clear — that of mischief, a love of writing, a love of city life, a misfit community upending and infuriating the entire media business, celebrity culture, upper-crust culture, "cool" culture, and anything else in New York that took itself too seriously. Those people, who were so regularly infuriated by Gawker, also clearly couldn’t stop reading and listening to that voice. They were as hooked on it as anyone. If not more.
Which, really, was just perfect and hilarious to me. Because behind that voice, it was pretty evident, were a bunch of people just making this shit up as they went along. It was also the sound of a voice telling me to get my ass to New York, and to get to work.
And now, that’s all over. Gawker.com, soon to be under the ownership of Univision, will be shut down, after being sold in a bankruptcy auction along with the rest of the Gawker Media portfolio, as a result of a professional wrestler and reality star winning a kangaroo court trial, backed by a billionaire with a grudge to push. To say it’s depressing would be a vast and pathetic understatement, and that goes without mentioning the people who work on the site right now, who are going to be either given new jobs, or forced to find them.
Gawker lost the farm doing the very thing it was designed to do: Show the powerful for what they are, which in this case, is petty, vindictive, and another angry gossip subject who didn’t like what was printed about them, mostly because it was true.
On the one hand, there’s no possible way any of us could’ve imagined this fate. On the other, how could it not end like this?
The instruction I got before taking over Gawker.com for the weekend: "You’ve got the keys, bring 'er back full"
Of course, it took me another three years and change once I moved before I wrote for the site. For one thing, I wasn’t writing. I was wildly intimidated by the city, and paralyzed with fear that I’d totally fucked up a comfortable collegiate life and alienated my family and a few close friends for no good reason.
I had to get fired from a job bussing tables at Schiller’s (I heard bloggers hung out there, so). I had to get screamed at by a literary agent for two years as an assistant. I had to get screamed at by a Broadway producer as his right-hand for another year. I also actually had to get to the point of frustration with my life, sometime during my agency years, that I’d start (A) tipping off Gawker/Defamer and (B) blogging, myself. I started a blog that was, for some reason, specifically designed to torture Krucoff & Friends at Young Manhattanite. I started pitching some freelance stuff, and successfully pitched at Radar — Radar! — to Alex Balk (Alex Balk!).
I finally got a job in media working for Chris Mohney — Chris Mohney! Who himself got his job at Gawker by starting a blog specifically designed to torture Gawker! — after nearly having an aneurism over his edit test. The job was as an editorial assistant at an independent legacy fashion magazine trying to transition into a more diverse, digitized media property in 2008.
By the time I actually started a gig at Gawker, I’d experienced so much of the culture of ennui and id that the Gawker I’d moved to New York for spoke to that I felt, well, ready (LOL). The only problem is: In those three some odd years, Gawker had changed. A lot.
For one thing, Gawker.com added comments, which I hated — a peanut gallery felt cheap and incomplete, an undermining addendum to genuinely decent writing. For another, Coen was long gone, Oxfeld was long gone, and the next iteration of the site ("the rage of the creative underclass") had erupted in a spectacularly public fashion, including but by no means limited to inter-office romances and existential wonderings about the mandate of Gawker.
Then it erupted again in 2008, as the media economy was caving in, with a bunch more layoffs — Sheila went to a bar. Maggie Shnayerson, whose reporting for Gawker basically won rights for Viacom permalancers, was out, too. So many of the people I wanted to work with there had already left. And this new Gabriel Snyder guy was in charge, and he wanted to turn Gawker into a "national presence" or something, and who the fuck was he to do that?
Probably the most important and pivotal editor in that site’s history, and — I really don’t mind saying — the best. Unrelated to that fact, in May 2009: My potential boss.
I was called to get a drink with Gabriel Snyder at Tom & Jerry’s, which I assumed was just some kind of routine who-is-this-kid?-meeting people like him regularly took to source up. As it turned out, I’d been referred to him for a trial run at Gawker’s weekend editor spot.
The sole piece of instruction I got from Gabriel on running the site was "you’ve got the keys, bring 'er back full." I had no idea what that meant, and was utterly terrified. I’d never covered news in any kind of serious way. My high count for daily posts was, um, two. I was expected to write somewhere around 16 posts a weekend, eight a day. And my immediate audience was the frothing, pissed-off commentariat of former weekend editor Ian Spiegelman, who’d inspired a following as devoted to memorializing his run as they were to scaring off new weekend writers.
The main aim of the job, which I didn’t understand until later, was to make sure Gabriel didn’t have to read Gawker on the weekends unless absolutely necessary or, for whatever reason, if he wanted to. More important was making sure Nick didn’t send Gabriel any emails about the site on the weekends. Basically: Don’t fuck it up, don’t break it, and hopefully nobody will notice anything else.
I got an ulcer working for Gawker.com. I loved every minute of it.
My first Saturday, I woke up at 5 am off of two hours of sleep, and proceeded to write for the next 17 hours. I remember three things:
- I figured my first weekend would probably be my last, especially given the run of post-Ian Spiegelman replacements who preceded me. It was suggested by friends both in and outside the building that I should open my "run" with a joke about already having fucked up the site with a photo of the marbles I’d drunkenly thrown down Nick Denton’s apartment stairs from a party earlier that year, and I did. This was how well I thought it was going to go.
- One of my first posts that day was about a dog who swallowed a bag of alphabet fridge magnets. This is how well it was going.
- The White House Press Correspondents’ Dinner was that night. Nick wrote me an email that I should cover it, and my heart was pounding every time I looked at that email (which I didn’t answer, because I thought that was a good way to hide from him). I did, and I finished my thirteenth post of the day sometime just before midnight, closed my laptop, and proceeded to fall asleep, with the lights on, my clothing on, and the laptop still on, searing my thighs with the heat of having been redlined all day. That night would be the first time I ever grinded my teeth in my sleep. I’d do it every night after for another year.
Without an alarm, I was up again at 6 am the next day, and barely eked out seven more posts. When the new night editor—another (albeit far more seasoned) blogger I’d become friends with at that point, Brett "Cajun Boy" Dykes — took over for his first Gawker night shift, he opened his run with the joke that I was being put on an IV and an oxygen line. Fair game: It was the single most intense two days of work I’d ever had in my life. My adrenaline hadn’t stopped surging for, give or take, 40-someodd hours straight, sleep included. I was sure I’d already been canned. To my surprise, Gabriel didn’t email me all week, so I started the next weekend, Saturday, 5 am, just as terrified as before.
I’d end up writing for the site for another 10 months on weekends, while working at BlackBook during the week. Over a ten-month period, there were maybe three nights I didn’t have work the next day. It was fun, and insane, and insanely rewarding. I figured out how to work the tips line. I broke my own stories. I even prepared a few features, did some party reporting. The pace never stopped being breakneck. My friends were sincerely concerned for my health.
My last weekend was after Gabriel had been summarily shanked by Nick, and my friends and I decided to get drunk and run the site in one big, long, dumb, overwrought goodbye to my run. It yielded the first ever Paul Krugman link to Gawker (on this), a throwaway post about Vajazzling that’d comically go on to haunt proceeding editors, a headline Eli Valley wrote that I still laugh about today, and some other supremely dumb, irresponsible shit.
After that last weekend, on my third free Sunday afternoon in almost a year, I ended up taking my first trip to an ER, at Beth Israel — a growing ulcer I’d somehow kept at bay basically, apropos of nothing, decided to spew enough stomach acid up my chest that I almost stopped breathing. Appropriately, they put me on an IV of Pepcid and morphine. Brett’s joke finally landed.
Of note: I was offered a full-time gig by Gabriel a few times before my run was up and he was ousted, mostly, I suspect, out of mercy and concern for my well-being. Whenever it came up, I waffled, and gave some excuse about being perfectly comfortable with my current situation (which was like being asked mid-lobotomy if you’d like your brain closed up, and responding nah, I really like it here).
The truth was that I didn’t take a five-day-a-week gig at Gawker because I was worried I’d fall short of the mark, even with the smaller workload. I’m sure, in retrospect, I would’ve been fine. But I venerated the value of the work going on at Gawker by everyone else, and always felt like my contributions were a sideshow to theirs, at best. I loved the site, and was perfectly happy ruining it at my own, metered pace, where I couldn’t mess too much shit up or, more importantly, disappoint Nick and Gabriel too regularly.
Gawker.com was valuable — it is valuable
So of course this is how the ship goes down. Gawker got gutted over a press freedoms case. And not just a press freedoms case, but one mounted by Hulk Hogan, backed by the world’s richest Donald Trump supporter, a technologist utterly devoid of charm or humor, who wants to live for eternity, and also apparently endanger truth, dissent, and any kind of objective morality using only his obscene wealth while he’s at it. Gawker Media goes down in the manifestation of what would in virtually any other circumstance be an unhinged conspiracy theory. It’s a spectacularly awful end, but it is, as per Gawker Media’s spirit, definitely and at the very least, still spectacular.
The site was valuable — is valuable. It’s a consolation prize that its archives won’t be scrubbed, but still, a consolation no less: Those posts were and remain of importance. They afflicted the powerful and made them uncomfortable and probably still do, to this day.
Gawker was — in the moments I most loved it, and most hated it, before, during, and after the time I worked there — a North Star of sorts, a high bar that was ethereal in the sense that limitations didn’t apply to its mandate. It was salacious and highbrow, literary and lowbrow, silly, serious, a high practitioner of the parenthetical wit, bracingly and searingly dedicated to cutthroat critique, a place where nothing was sacred but the story, and to that end, a proponent of the truth, whether you liked what it had to say or not.
And yes: It wouldn’t be unfair to describe the tone as by and large dickishness. Resent it if you want, but Tom Scocca’s Snark vs. Smarm binary — maybe the single best piece of writing ever published on the site — lays out the mandate for Gawker (and the evolution of its tone and purview, and its increasing necessity) better than anyone ever will. Though former executive editor Tommy Craggs gave it a pretty decent shot in a tweet on Thursday afternoon:
One argument for Gawker is that all those alums writing all those mealy-mouthed "to be sure"s never wrote like that when they were there.— Tommy Craggs (@tcraggs22) August 18, 2016
Tommy’s being a dick. Tommy’s also right. Even where all the above is concerned.
That sums it all up pretty well.
And you should know: Despite what so many people probably want to think about its inner-workings, intellectual rigor and respect was demanded in even the dumbest of ideas. My favorite communiqué from Nick to me came mid-shift on a Saturday, and almost made me throw my laptop in rage through a plate window and quit. I can recite it by heart: "Your kneejerk contempt is embarrassing. Come in Monday morning for a lesson in professional blogging."
It was infuriating for so many reasons, but mostly, because he was right. And that’s how it usually went.
Long live Gawker Media. Here’s hoping we remember what the darkness covered up before the torches it held there got snuffed.
Foster Kamer is executive editor at Mental Floss.
This essay is adapted from two posts that originally ran on Medium.
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