Gawker Prepares To Get On The Campaign Bus, And Maybe Get Kicked Off

The company closes websites and lays off staff as Gawker's focus shifts to politics.
Gawker Media chief Nick Denton announced major changes for his flagship site and throughout the company. 
Gawker Media chief Nick Denton announced major changes for his flagship site and throughout the company. 

NEW YORK -- Gawker editor Alex Pareene said he's not worried about his reporters losing out on campaign access or micro-scoops as the site, once known for puncturing the egos of Manhattan's media machers, shifts its focus to politics.

"If they burn someone’s press secretary, it’s not going to be the end of the world," Pareene told The Huffington Post. "We don’t have to rely on access. We’re going to be putting people on the trail, but we’re not going to be a Beltway, access-driven political site."

Pareene once pilloried political elites as a writer for D.C.-based blog Wonkette, which Gawker sold in 2008, and later for Gawker and Salon, for which he famously wrote an annual hack list. He became executive editor of Racket in 2014, a Matt Taibbi-led satirical site that was shuttered after a long incubation period, and returned to Gawker this year as special projects editor. 

He was recently named Gawker editor, and on Tuesday, the company announced a re-tooling of its flagship site amid broader changes in direction and resources. Gawker Media executive editor John Cook said the company would close sites focused on Hollywood (Defamer) and Silicon Valley (Valleywag).  

While the biggest change coming to Gawker flagship, some Gawker Media sites will benefit in the reallocation. Sports site Deadspin is getting two new staff writer positions, and women-focused site Jezebel will hire an editor for a health, beauty and self-care.

The shifting of priorities comes four months after Gawker faced a huge backlash for reporting that a little-known publishing executive had solicited an escort, a story later scrubbed by management. Gawker Media's executive editor and the flagship site's top editor left as a result. 

Gawker founder Nick Denton on Tuesday outlined the realignment in a memo in which he said the company needs a clear focus to compete in "today's crowded and confusing digital media world." Gawker, he wrote, is "a news company, with industry-leading advertising and technology colleagues providing critical support for our journalistic mission."

Cook acknowledged in a separate memo that the "shift in focus will necessarily mean that certain kinds of stories that Gawker has trafficked in in the past will go by the wayside, and we can’t reshape the site’s focus without shifting personnel." Gawker had broadened its coverage in recent years to include general news, culture, and celebrity gossip.

The New York Times  reported that 10 Gawker Media staffers would be laid off. One of them, Taylor Berman, told HuffPost that colleagues received no advance warning about the layoffs, which included two months of severance pay. "Most staffers found out which of their colleagues had been fired after the dismissed staffers' Slack accounts were deleted," Berman added. Gawker COO Scott Kidder, who has been with the 12-year-old company for a decade, also announced he was leaving. 

Yet Gawker is now hiring. Pareene said the now politics-geared site is seeking an experienced reporter who may feel constrained working at an outlet with a more neutral or measured style. He said Gawker also is looking for a senior editor and, in keeping with the site's tradition, hopes to cultivate new voices. 

Every new Gawker editor inevitably shifts the tone of the site, with coverage often following his or her interests and obsessions. Pareene said that since Gawker would already trend in a political direction under his stewardship, management decided to go all-in. Now, he said, Gawker has "an opportunity now to be a distinct voice in a crowded media landscape." 

The Gawker reporter will not be objective, explicitly partisan, or "in the tank for any candidate," Pareene said. "I think people are going to be open about their views, and we all have our views, but institutionally we’re not for anyone."

He indicated a willingness to antagonize the presidential campaigns when necessary. "If Sam Biddle gets kicked off the bus for a great story," he said of the former Valleywag editor soon heading out the trail, "that’s worth it to me."

Gawker won't be the first bomb-thrower on the campaign trail. Following in the tradition of Hunter S. Thompson, reporters like Taibbi and the late Michael Hastings have taken politicians and the press to task. Still, critical looks at the campaign circus more typically have come in the form of magazine articles or longform pieces online rather than sustained, daily reporting. 

Though it remains to be seen exactly what Gawker will become, Pareene was adamant that it won't be another Politico or Talking Points Memo, sites aimed at political junkies. 

"We’re going to have commentary as Gawker’s always had," Pareene said. "And we’re going to make people laugh more than Politico, I would hope. Although Politico is a very funny publication."

-- Judah Robinson contributed reporting.

 Below are memos from Cook and Denton:


As you might expect, since the summer, Lacey and I have given a lot of thought to how to begin to optimize and sharpen all the sites going forward into 2016. Today we are announcing some changes.

We’ve recently corrected a longstanding lack of permanent leadership at that has left the staff wondering what the future holds, and unsure of what is expected of them. While I’m grateful that, under Leah Beckmann’s leadership, Gawker continued to do important and conversation-driving work during its interregnum, I’m also relieved and excited that Alex Pareene is finally in place to start steering it in a new direction.

Pareene’s Gawker will focus intensely on politics, broadly considered, and the 2016 campaign. Never before has a political season promised to be so ripe for the kind of punishing satire and absurdist wit that Alex has perfected over his career—a spirit I saw in action up close when he was a Gawker blogger back in 2009, and also when he was a manager and editorial leader at First Look. The world sadly never got to see Racket, the satirical site Alex was cooking up over there, but Alex’s Gawker will take on some of that project’s character.

Alex will redirect the Gawker team to hump the campaign. Allie Jones and Sam Biddle will head out on the trail, Ashley Feinberg will obsessively monitor the dark and hilarious lunatic fringes on the right and left—will Hamilton Nolan will interview Bernie Sanders? Maybe! Gawker won’t just do horse-race coverage, of course—it will take a Daily Show approach to covering the ever-intensifying culture wars, documenting, satirizing, and reporting on the ways that political disputes are refracted in every aspect of our popular culture. Much of the site’s current editorial palette already fits into this scheme—Andy Cush’s reporting on the Oath Keepers in Ferguson, Keenan Trotter’s revelations about Bill O’Reilly’s domestic violence, and Allie Jones’ swift and sophisticated political jabs. Gawker’s biggest stories have always had a political component, from Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor to Roger Ailes’ paranoia and power to Josh Duggar’s rank hypocrisy. Pareene is doubling down on that tradition.

To that end, we will be redirecting resources to support Alex’s vision. Internally, Tom Scocca, while continuing his role as executive features editor, will return to Gawker in a formal way with a twice-weekly column. Pareene will also launch a weekly column himself. And we will be hiring: Today we are posting job announcements seeking a fast, hungry political reporter with a distinctive point of view and a strong voice, a senior editor to help push the staff to be smarter writers and thinkers, and a deputy editor to help Alex manage his team and run the page. If you have any good candidates, please send them his way.

The shift in focus will necessarily mean that certain kinds of stories that Gawker has trafficked in in the past will go by the wayside, and we can’t reshape the site’s focus without shifting personnel. Unfortunately, Jay Hathaway, Jason Parham, Kelly Conaboy, and Taylor Berman, all of whom have been valuable assets in previous iterations of Gawker, will be leaving.

Gawker isn’t the only site where changes are afoot. As I announced on Monday, Katie Drummond is coming on board at Gizmodo soon and will be announcing new hires soon as she gets to work sharpening its focus and extending its reach. At Jezebel, managing editor Erin Gloria Ryan is hanging up her hat after a total of more than four years helping run the site; we are losing her to Vocativ. Jia Tolentino, whose sharp eye as a writer and editor have enlivened the site, will step up to become Emma’s deputy editor, and Kate Dries will become managing editor; Natasha Vargas-Cooper will be leaving the site as well.

More generally, we have taken a hard look across the whole network at our strategy with subsites. In many ways, we let 1,000 flowers bloom, a strategy that resulted in some successes, like Adequate Man, but also bred confusion among the readers and a thicket of different editorial rabbit holes. To correct that, we made some hard choices: Today we are folding Gawker’s The Vane, Jezebel’s Millihelen and Kitchenette, Lifehacker’s Workshop and AfterHours, Jalopnik’s Flight Club, and Gizmodo’s Indefinitely Wild and Throb. Pursuant to Gawker’s new focus, Defamer, Morning After, and Valleywag will be permanently shuttered, clearing the path for Jezebel to become the primary voice for celebrity and pop culture coverage in the network.

At the same time, we are investing in the subsites that work and trying new things: Deadspin is getting two new staff writer positions for Adequate Man, and Jezebel will be hiring an editor to launch a new health, beauty, and self-care subsite. We’ll continue to evaluate which subsites are working, and which aren’t, and you can expect us to be more discriminating about them in the future.

Finally, I’ve said to a few of you before that one of the consequences of our status as an independent company is that every dollar we spend is a dollar we made. I think it’s fair to say that we’ve all felt some measure of looseness with budgets over the past year as we rapidly expanded and moved into our new space. The fact of that matter is that we need to tighten up, and make sure that we’re strategic and focused in how we deploy our resources. The site leads will have detailed 2016 T&E and freelance budgets soon, which they will largely be free to spend autonomously—but which won’t be replenished if they spend it too quickly.

I started at this company in 2009 to write stories. I certainly never planned on being in a role where I was responsible for letting go of valued, longtime staff members. It sucks. But as Nick will mention in a memo today, for the first time in my six or so years at Gawker, the company is finally acknowledging what I think most of us in editorial have always known: That we are a media company. We thrive through stories--honest, conversational, hopefully brave stories. We build audiences around them, and communities through them, and generate enough revenue from the credibility we have with those audiences to go out and tell more stories. That has been a radical idea during much of my tenure here, but as of today, we are orienting the company’s mission around it. And if we are to rise to the challenge, we must ensure that all of the sites are laser-focused, loaded for bear, and optimally staffed to do the job. The steps we are taking today are in service of making sure that we live up to the role that we have, at long last, earned as the centerpiece of this company’s strategy for the future.

We will have an all-hands edit meeting tomorrow at 11:30 to talk this through.




In today’s crowded and confusing digital media world, you should focus on your strengths and have a clear message for your audience. That’s especially true for a self-funded digital media company like Gawker Media Group, alone among our peers in having achieved substantial audience scale without outside capital.

We are a news company, with industry-leading advertising and technology colleagues providing critical support for our journalistic mission.

Gawker Media Group writers are committed to instigating and encouraging honest conversation about the news, interests and enthusiasms that touch people most deeply. Millions of people come to our sites to get the real story about important issues that other media organizations shy away from.

With some changes you’re hearing about today from Executive Editor John Cook, including a mix of resource realignment and new appointments, we are reaffirming our commitment to our seven core media brands with clear editorial missions.

Each is a cultural leader: Gawker for news and politics; Gizmodo for technology; Lifehacker for productivity; Jezebel for the empowered modern woman; Deadspin for sports and men’s lifestyle; Kotaku for video games; and Jalopnik for car culture. And each of these sites is known for a devoted and influential following.

For readers, especially from a skeptical digital generation, our well-known brands represent important alternatives: unrivaled islands of credibility in a distrusted media ecosystem. (Only 12% of millennials trust the media, according to a Harvard survey. I’m confident far more than that trust us.)

Together the seven Gawker Media Group properties reach 104m people a month according to Quantcast. They attract more affluent millennials on desktop and mobile web than any other pure-play digital media company other than Buzzfeed (and with its $300m in funding, they should be ahead!), according to comScore’s numbers for 18-34 year-olds with household income of more than $100,000.

Our credibility with this audience is demonstrated by growth in our innovative and successful e-commerce services. Product recommendations and advertisements will generate spending with Gawker Media Group merchant partners of an estimated $160m this year alone.

The potential of GMG’s core brands has barely been tapped. Heading into 2016, the company will pursue four main efforts:

  • The continued extension of the brands into lifestyle sections, product recommendations, original and branded video, and events -- including  online events, those at external venues and in the Studio 17 space.

  • Getting stories to readers of the brands on whichever platform they happen to be -- including Apple News, Youtube and Facebook.

  • Technology investment in the design and performance of the core sites, the interactive relationship with readers and the optimization and personalization of their experience.

  • A reorganization of the subjects covered by the seven core properties, including new editorial direction for two of the best-known, and Gizmodo.

As John Cook’s memo explains in more detail, Alex Pareene’s Gawker will ride the circus of the 2016 campaign cycle, seizing the opportunity to re-orient its  editorial scope on political news, commentary and satire.

Politics, writ large, has provided the scene for some of Gawker’s most recognized editorial scoops, such as the exposure of Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor, the bullying power of Fox News, the first questions about Hillary Clinton’s private email address and the jet-set partying of Bill Clinton with a convicted pedophile.

Is there any doubt that the 2016 US presidential election campaign, a contest between reality-defying fabulists and the last representatives of two exhausted political dynasties, will provide rich new opportunities for sensation and satire?

I can appreciate the wonky contrarianism of Ezra Klein’s and high-metabolism micronews from Ben Smith’s Buzzfeed Politics. But, more than any other facet of the American system, the politico-media blob begs puncturing by some sharp Gawker wit and probing by Gawker’s inquisitive journalists.

Gizmodo, now including cultural coverage from io9, will also be significantly overhauled. I am happy to announce that Katie Drummond, formerly of Bloomberg and The Verge, will be starting on November 1 as Editor-in-Chief of the flagship technology property.

With the traffic success of recent news explainers as well as  appetite among sponsors for The Making Of and other pilots, Gizmodo will commission, curate and distribute more original video -- as will our three other brands most closely related to technology and lifestyle, Lifehacker, Kotaku and Jalopnik.

As always, we will remain nimble enough to reorient properties, evaluate experimental sections and redeploy resources where needed to fuel growth.

In addition to new investment in the seven core brands, we are advertising two new positions at Adequate Man, Deadspin’s highly successful men’s lifestyle section. (The coverage of Kevin Johnson and Greg Hardy has the main site’s reputation riding higher than ever. Deadspin will be the first of the GMG titles to join Apple News.)

Jezebel is planning an equivalent lifestyle section covering health, beauty, and self-care under the direction of a new section editor being advertised today. Sean MacDonald, Jalopnik’s Lanesplitter columnist, will come on full-time to drive the car site’s motorcycle section.

At the same time, we will say goodbye to several other sections including Morning After, Valleywag and Defamer -- the TV roundup, and technology and entertainment gossip sections of Gawker -- which no longer jive with the flagship’s remit of news and politics.

On the technology front, we will no longer seek to develop Kinja as an open blogging platform, given the competition that exists from technology companies devoted entirely to that challenge. Work will continue, with full focus on improving the writer and reader experience on the seven media brands along with providing relevant advertising and story recommendations.

Kinja supports some of the most active and intelligent commenting communities on the web; that is key to the depth of reader engagement on Gawker Media Group properties, and to the appeal of brands such as Lifehacker and Deadspin.

To the staff, and to new hires coming in, I can offer a company with a more rigorous strategy and a clearer identity. We instigate an honest conversation about the news, interests and issues that touch people most deeply. That’s our distinctive mission. In today’s digital media landscape, to today’s skeptical digital generation, it matters more than ever.