Look upon her works, ye mighty, and despair. Gawker was a magnificent, maddening, belligerent, stupid, evil, brilliant, vital new media vigilante. It was online journalism’s class clown, schoolyard bully, cool girl, persnickety janitor and serial killer. British internet entrepreneur Nick Denton launched Gawker along with Elizabeth Spiers in 2003 and quickly established it as the raconteur of internet reporting. They posted half stories and unsourced rumors, and they were proud of it. “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news”, they reasoned, and their lack of scruples became a feature instead of a bug. Denton would famously say that the version of a story journalists shared over drinks was always better than the one that was actually printed. Denton printed the former. You know how in Spotlight, the reporters sat on a story for months, until they were sure they had the full narrative? Gawker’s the opposite, and they like it that way. Or, they liked it that way.
A brand that subsists largely on kicking hornet’s nests is bound to kick over the wrong one sooner or later, but who could have anticipated that the Hulk Hogan story would be lethal? Gawker has pissed off actors, politicians, fellow journalists, foreign dictators and smarmy intellectuals. But it took outing an eccentric tech mogul billionaire and exposing the race-fueled affair of a decades-past his prime professional wrestler to bring it low.
In 2007, Gawker’s now-defunct Silicon Valley beat blog Valleywag outed PayPal co-founder and self-styled conservative pundit Peter Thiel. Thiel vowed revenge, and found a vessel for his vengeance in Hulk Hogan, whose sordid affair with a friend’s wife was captured on video and published by Gawker. The precise details are a little unclear, but it seems Thiel approached Hogan, told him he might have a case against Gawker and funded his very expensive lawsuit — a lawsuit that would prove to be a mortal wound in Denton’s empire.
The viking’s funeral for Gawker is complicated because Gawker is complicated. They went places they could only go by bending ethical lines, and then gleefully put other journalistic outfits on blast for their own half-assed reporting. Gawker was one of the first outlets to recognize the seismic shift the internet would take on news media, and they adapted to it in some morally slimy ways. They punched up, but they punched unilaterally too. If this made for some straight up evil reporting (Gawker once outed the CFO of Conde Nast for reasons known only to Gawker), it also made for some wonderful reporting. They broke the Rob Ford story. They caught Buzzfeed plagiarizing Yahoo Answers. When Politico let a Clinton aide write his own item, Gawker was the one who cried foul.
But more than their reporting, Gawker was at its best when Gawker was interesting. They employed interesting writers, and gave them long leashes to write about interesting things. Emily Gould, Max Read, Caity Weaver, Adrian Chen, Sam Biddle, Ashley Feinberg and many others found ways to make their headlines pop off the timeline noise. They prided themselves on incisive political coverage, but were often better when they were musing on nothing at all.
Their voice — sneeringly cocky, disarmingly self-referential, dripping in irony and thrillingly pop culture savvy — was as influential as anything else Gawker did, imitated so many times that it’s almost become its own internet dialect. Its worldview was transparently left, but Gawker editors were quick to savage Democratic politicians, lest anyone get too cozy. Indeed, Gawker enjoyed making just about everyone uncomfortable which as they now know, is risky business. The fact that a wealthy elitist can go on a crusade against journalism that makes him uncomfortable and win is a thought that will keep all of us in media awake at night.The fact that some dude named Peter Thiel gets to shape a not insignificant portion of internet journalism based on whatever he likes should give everyone pause.
In the meantime, here’s a list of our favorite Gawker stories. Gawker would hate this, because Gawker hated lists, but Gawker isn’t able to do much about it right now, and we wanted to give some credit to some of their best work.
My 14-Hour Search for the End of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers – by Caity Weaver
There will be a lot of “Best of Gawker” lists coming out in the next few days, and they will all include Weaver’s famous 14-hour fever dream of an attempt to test the limits of a TGI Friday’s promise to supply her with “endless” mozzarella sticks. Not much you can say about it that hasn’t already been said. It’s perfect.
The Zimmerman Jury Told Young Black Men What We Already Knew – by Cord Jefferson
Black Lives Matter was in its nascent stage when Jefferson dropped a searing indictment on the George Zimmerman jury and America at large, clearly and furiously detailing the black experience in America at a time when it was even less popular to do so than it is now — and perhaps even more necessary.
Is Donald Trump’s Hair a $60,000 Weave? A Gawker Investigation – by Ashley Feinberg
Gawker’s final masterpiece was a staggering testament to investigative reporting that should be taught in classrooms. Feinberg dissected one of the great mysteries of our time — Trump’s unsettlingly alley cat-like hair — with blistering thoroughness, taking us on a vivid deep dive into the world of the rich and powerful’s fake hair.
Say this for Gawker: they were never sentimental. They never needed a public narrative to be true, and were happy to tear the public narratives down when they were bullshit. Sometimes it was petty, but in Dee Barnes’ case, it was sadly essential.
The Journalists of the Future are Thirsty Motherfuckers – Leah Finnegan
Gradient was not around when this piece dropped, and thus was spared the evisceration Finnegan foisted upon new media brands like Ozy, .Mic and Fusion. The final two paragraphs should be read and re-read over and over again by anyone who wants to get into writing.
On Smarm – by Tom Scocca
Scocca’s essay was titled “On Smarm” but it was really a contrast between smarm and snark. “Snark” was Gawker’s trade — a tool of outsiders against the establishment. “Smarm” is patronizing and conciliatory. Smarm is “all lives matter.” Smarm is, as Scocca opines, “the scolding, the gestures at inclusiveness, the appeal to virtue and maturity.” It’s as fine a defense of snark as you could hope to read, by the brand that understood it best.
The Most Deranged Sorority Girl Email You Will Ever Read – by Caity Weaver
Weaver’s gone on to some level of journalistic notoriety since leaving Gawker — she’s the GQ staffer behind that bombshell Kim Kardashian cover story — and this piece shows why. The famed Delta Gamma sorority’s University of Maryland chapter was the source of one of the great emails of our modern age, and Weaver’s notation of it is the purest distillation of internet writing, turning the already eye-popping email into a punchline to her own jokes. Delta Gamma till I die.
The Scourge of “Ya” — Affirmative of Pricks – by Kelly Conaboy
A slightly petty rant about how texting “ya” comes across as a way more vindictive way of saying “yes” than “yeah”, “yup” or even “yea” ends up getting into all the neurosis and second guessing of SMS, and how far we as a species have to go before talking to each other in text message is as reliable as face-to-face communication.
Burning Bridges That Never Really Mattered: Joe Dolce Edition – by Jessica Coen
A lark, but a charming one, was this final piece from Jessica Coen, on a conversation she had with the editor of Star Magazine, who was trying to strike a bargain over pulling an unflattering piece. A burning bridge it may have been, but such fires light the way.
What Are the Odds These New Media Brands Will Survive? A Power Ranking – by Max Read and Leah Finnegan
The best and worst of Gawker summed up in one post. It’s exhaustively researched, irritatingly bitchy, impressively thorough and (in a strikingly un-Gawker-y way) refreshingly self-effacing. Two years after its initial predictions, a distressing number of the new media brands profiled have been put to pasture (Grantland and The Toast), a few have done better than expected (Vox) and its own self-prediction, sadly, turned out to be only slightly too pessimistic. One thing Gawker failed to note — but we will — is that none of the outlets shaded therein would have existed if Gawker hadn’t proved there was money in new media.
RIP, Gawker. Enjoy your new internet, Peter Thiel.