2011 February 10
Mr. Bigger: Dishing with Gawker's Nick Denton
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(NEW YORK) Just as you were coming to grips with your latest redesign, Gawker Media’s Nick Denton has changed the Web game once again with a radical front-end makeover. One page, one post, one goal: to ride the magical scoop dragon to the top of the traffic food chain. And get this—he’s coming for your ads! Herewith, the original Sultan of Snark snaps his towel at old media’s bogus apps and desperate declarations, “single-digit billionaires,” and the e-newsletter you should edit. (The rest of the Web? It’s all his.) BY CHRISTOPHER TENNANT
You’ve got a fancy new redesign that does away with the cascading blog format in favor of a single lead story. What’s the big idea?
We started to see on Gawker beginning in 2008 that the scoopy stories were just doing so much better than the average blog post. [points to Gawker’s traffic stats onscreen] See those spikes? Tom Cruise and Scientology, Heath Ledger, the Montauk Monster, Sarah Palin’s leaked e-mails, the iPad security breach—every single time there’s a huge traffic spike, it doesn’t go back to its former level. And what that tells us is that scoops mean growth. Have you ever seen one of those ComScore charts media buyers use? They’re totally revealing. You see one, and you just get it. If you’re a media buyer, you’re gonna say, “Give me the top 10 or 20 sites that match my criteria.” You’re not gonna scroll all the way down the list to, I don’t know, the Awl. No one’s even going below the fold! You need to be big, and the big, in turn, just keep getting bigger.
Which forces everyone else to play catch-up.
Right, except they can’t, so they fall away.
Wait, what’s the big idea again?
That bigger stories matter a lot more, and therefore it’s ridiculous to give every story similar weight in a blog flow. It might have made sense before when you were just writing little bits of Elizabeth Spiers media gossip—none of which was much more interesting than anything else—but when you’re breaking stories, you want to splash them just like a newspaper does. The redesign actually owes a lot to the iPad. It feels a little app-like. In fact, it really owes more to the Reeder app on the iPad than it does to traditional Web design. Websites really should look a lot better than they do. Most of the Web looks sort of shitty. Not that we believe in iPad apps.
No? Talk to me about that.
They’ve provided fantastic inspiration, but we’re believers in the Web. The Web is indexable, we know how it works, and it’s sharable. How do you make an app work with Facebook? I mean, I’m sure you can, but it’s tricky. Everything with the iPad is tricky.
Do you think we’re all getting bamboozled by Steve Jobs?
Well, yeah. [laughs] Everyone is just so desperate! They’re like terminal cancer patients who’ve been persuaded by some quack in Switzerland to spend the last of their money. That’s a seriously bad analogy under the circumstances, by the way, but you get my meaning.
I’m assuming you had internet TV in mind when you began this redesign? I read on Gizmodo that it’s the future!
Put it this way: The distinctions between a cable TV network and us will disappear over the next five years.
And your costs are a hundredth of theirs.
Of course, they’ll still have a lot of things going for them. They have loads of original content. Most of what we run is curated.
How long did this redesign take you?
Fifteen months. It’s certainly our most substantial so far. It makes all the other ones look sort of petty in comparison. [pulls up old Gawker home page] I mean, look at this! It’s just embarrassing.
As the rest of the Web gets junkier and junkier, why continue to give your content away for free?
Because we can make good money through advertising.
Couldn’t you do both?
Somebody else can do that. I don’t want to do that. I’m not saying free is for everybody, but when the Times talks about putting up a pay wall, I think, Okay, that’ll be good. We’ll get more traffic and sell more advertising.
Are you going after different advertisers?
We’d like to go after more fashion advertisers, high-end advertisers, the kinds of advertisers that have no interest in advertising on the Web because it looks too junky; the kind of advertisers that are actually drawn to the iPad because they like the user experience.
How’s the response been to the new look?
It’s gonna be fine.
From the kinds of advertisers we want, yes. We don’t want the direct-response advertisers. Most of the Web has been about direct response—shitty creative, with performance measured by how many people are clicking through and buying. The truth is, no one clicks through. Unless they’re stupid.
What brands would you like to land?
A few of the watch brands. Lexus. They’ve put some decent money behind the iPad.
I thought we were talking fashion.
I mean, we’re not gonna go straight to Gucci! Not that our audience is really that different than New York magazine’s.
What’s your pitch?
We’ll provide them with the kind of environment that they feel more comfortable in—all of the advantages of the Web without the junkiness.
What about Brett Favre’s junk?
They can target away from that.
They can choose to show their ads only on certain sites, or only against certain types of content. We’ve gotten pretty good at that.
Any advice for all the editors grappling with their websites? The ones who didn’t come up with the idea of starting a blog network 10 years ago?
Original content still works. Look at TMZ. They’ve built quite a big online and TV business on the basis of four great scoops.
What about the ones who don’t want to sling gossip?
I think e-mail newsletters are great. It seems the laws of scale don’t apply quite so strictly.
Newsletters? But what if I’m the editor in chief of an iconic fashion glossy read by the world’s most stylish women?
What’s wrong with a newsletter? You can make it look good. It’s just a delivery mechanism.
But all my fabulous friends won’t see it!
Is that true? I think a lot of middle-aged people use e-mail more than they use the Web.
By the way, why haven’t you started a fashion site of your own?
There isn’t a huge audience for it.
But everyone and their kid sister has a fashion blog.
There are lots of things we do that other people don’t do, and lots of things we don’t do that others do. For us, certain categories like travel and fashion and personal finance seem to work better as sections within other sites—fashion within Jezebel and personal finance within Lifehacker, for example. They don’t work well enough as standalones.
Because there isn’t a revenue model?
No, there’s a revenue model. There just isn’t an audience.
Not a big enough one. That’s why we do fashion as a vertical within Jezebel.
I don’t think of Jezebel as a fashion site, per se.
It says right there at the top, “Celebrity, Sex, Fashion…” My general feeling is: Come for the relationship advice, gossip, and party pictures, and stay for the runway photos. We’ve got Jenna Sauers, a former model, who writes very interestingly on the fashion industry. It’s by no means an anti-fashion site, though I think they’re a little hostile to some of the excesses of the traditional fashion industry.
So you don’t think there’s an audience for straight-up fashion?
I don’t think there’s a fashion demo. I think there are women who happen to be interested in fashion and other things, like relationships and parties, but the audience for a blog about clothes and the industry just isn’t large enough. For us, at least.
But wasn’t the Web supposed to be all about niches?
Yes, that was the original idea, and it was wrong. Felix Salmon, who’s now at Reuters, wrote a good piece about the end of micropublishing, which I think was actually triggered by our decision to fold Valleywag and Defamer into Gawker. His point was that micropublishing hadn’t played out and that the reason it hadn’t was because of that ComScore chart I referred to earlier. That chart is why sites die. The major agencies won’t even look at you if you’re under 10 million. I mean, sure, you can get advertisers. You can have a high-end fashion site and have direct contact with the brands and get money directly from Marc Jacobs. But you won’t get anything from the agencies. And the big money is still spent through the agencies. So if you want the big money, you have to provide the scale they need.
Do you ever go on sales calls?
No. I’ll do brown-bag lunches sometimes. I’ll go to advertising conferences.
The big-picture stuff. So what do you do all day?
When I edit a site, that’s my focus, like when I was running Gawker.
And since then?
I spend a lot more time on product than people realize. In the last few months the new layout has been my top priority.
It’s quite a departure. Was it difficult to get everyone on board?
It’s a struggle even here to get a good design solution as opposed to a committee-driven one, so I wonder how these magazine and newspaper groups that have to balance the wishes of their editors, the head of digital, the various sales teams, both in print and online, the owners, and the analysts ever get anything accomplished. I’ve actually become more humble in many ways. People ask me what I would do if I were running a magazine, and I honestly don’t know. I have no idea! Most of the issues print publishers are facing have to do with internal politics and transitioning away from legacy businesses, which I haven’t, fortunately, had to work my way through. So I’m full of admiration for people who do, under such difficult circumstances, manage to effect change.
Do you think you’ve made the competition work harder?
Oh, definitely. Sometimes I think Wired, in particular, because of Gizmodo, is forced to go with ever-hypier cover stories, like “The End of the Web,” which, at the end of the day, I don’t think they were that proud of because it was so misinterpreted. It was the kind of story that magazines now have to do because it’s the only way they can differentiate themselves. The high-impact declarative.
So, think pieces. That’s all you’ve left us with.
Well, we’re also doing more of those.
An item like the one Gawker posted a few weeks back about Men’s Health editor Dave Zinczenko
using parts of his writers’ stories for his column on Yahoo!—where does that kind of thing fit into the current content model?
I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I assume it’s doing okay. We got it through a tip, put it to him, and I’d say his answer was less than satisfactory, at least from his point of view. I guess I’ll never be able to go to the Lion again. It’s a shame. I’d like to.
Yeah, I like Dave. He’s fun. Of course, he still believes that somehow he can e-mail me and get a negative story line shut down.
I thought you didn’t fraternize with those types!
Well, I ended up fraternizing with them. I went to dinner with Zinczenko and Dan Abrams and would have happily gone again, though I doubt I’ll be invited. I’m at peace with that, though.
So, prose before bros, basically.
You know, one of the things people still don’t realize is that the way we’re set up—and this has been a choice—I actually can’t interfere. I can’t supply a list of people not to cover. I can’t even imply one, because it would be leaked within five minutes and totally destroy my credibility internally. It’s literally impossible.
It’s a runaway train you’re helpless to stop.
Exactly! Or at least that’s what I tell people.
It’s a good line.
The “calling bullshit” element of the Gawker Media brand has survived mostly intact despite your push toward traffic glory. Have your targets just gotten bigger?
We’re certainly a little less excited about exposing some infelicitous language by a junior writer at some magazine people barely read and more interested in Tom Cruise and Scientology and Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. And, frankly, the new media titans rather than the old media titans. Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin—people who run companies with market caps in the tens of billions, not the single billions. Most of the New York tycoons are single-digit billionaires.
They no longer interest you?
Unless they’re dating someone really hot, or they’re really hot themselves.
Do you feel any remorse about Jersey Shore? If I recall, Gawker was one of the first major sites to fire up the bandwagon.
I think sometimes we act as a bridge. Something will already be on the blogs, and then we’ll pick it up, and then the mainstream will pick it up.
Where are “the blogs” these days?
A lot of them are on Tumblr. We get tons of story ideas from Twitter. Sometimes Facebook, which is probably my primary news source.
How important is it to be first?
I try not to put too much emphasis on being first, actually. Often there’s a great story out there that hasn’t been packaged properly, like the hipster grifter story that the New York Observer did, which, within one day, we made ours. Not by copying what they did, but by moving the story forward in a way the writer couldn’t.
Through sheer relentlessness.
Yes, real-time relentlessness.
It seems to be the defining quality of your empire. Is it something you look for in your writers?
I think I have a reputation, somewhat undeservedly, for being a good talent spotter, but now all the sites hire from their own circles. Gizmodo, for example, is now the golden gadget site—if you’re an ambitious young tech writer, it’s probably where you want to work. They come to us now.
Last year you were profiled in both New York and The New Yorker. Did anyone surprising come out of the woodwork?
There was one guy who’s now, I think, the Labour Party spokesman in the U.K. who came out with a nickname for me from college. I think that was in the New Yorker piece. Apparently, I wore pants that were too short and everyone called me “Floods.” Anyway, I have no recollection either of that nickname—nor do any of my friends—nor of knowing that guy in college. So that was sort of amusing.
Both magazines had been after you for a while. Why did you finally relent?
I think it was a reasonable time to do it. Before, it always felt premature. The pieces would have been these “Gawker: Is It Real?” stories.
So you feel like it’s real now?
Yeah, it seems real.
It certainly looks real. You’ve got art on the walls and everything!
Yeah, it’s part of the Gawker Artists Project. We don’t run crappy network ads, so if we haven’t sold a space, we’d rather run a piece of art.
Speaking of ads, your head sales guy just left. Why do you think you have these messy professional breakups?
I don’t think we do.
I meant you. I think that you have them personally. It’s not a criticism, I was just wondering if you had any insight into it.
The average tenure of a Gawker site leader right now is four years, so that’s an old story. It used to be that the deal given to writers was: We’ll pay you shit, you’ll work hard, you’ll get famous, and you’ll land a job at a magazine. But that’s no longer the case. There are no longer those great jobs at magazines, we no longer pay people so badly, and they no longer have to work so intensely. So turnover has declined. I think that was also primarily a Gawker issue. The people who ran it in the early days often had literary ambitions, which came into conflict with my desire to make a big site. There’s a certain class of literary journalists in New York that carried a lot of respect—and still carry some respect—so much so that people would create publications just for them to indulge themselves. But the Web doesn’t allow for that.
Are you dating anyone?
No, not seriously. I’m on the market.
Maybe you can pick up a fashion boyfriend this week. You could teach him how to build a decent website!
And what would he teach me? How to pluck my eyebrows?
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