Well, kids, it’s come to this. It looks like Gawker is going out of business. Following a frankly hilarious post about Hulk Hogan’s sex tape, the company, its founder Nick Denton, and the post’s author AJ Daulerio have all been sued into bankruptcy (full disclosure, I wrote for AJ at a post-Gawker project). The court case was a joke–the plaintiff’s argument was basically this crossed with this–but the verdict isn’t. Gawker Media will be sold at auction next week and the likely buyer, Ziff Davis, is interested in everything about it but its namesake site. Gawker.com seems set to be spun off or shut down, possibly before the end of the Olympics. To celebrate/commiserate, Gawker’s writers are doing something they’re calling “Senior Week,” which roughly translates to “look at my drafts.”
I first found Gawker in the fall of 2004, when I was a celebrity publicity assistant working in Manhattan. During the day, I photocopied and pasted together press clippings of our clients, early 2000s celebrities Mýa and Star Jones, who called the office to complain every time Conan O’Brien made fun of her (the phone rang a lot!). At night, I’d sneak into issue launch parties (media companies used to make money!) thrown by magazines I’d never heard of; I remember chugging free vodka next to the blown-up cover of Manhattan Moves, a magazine aimed at New York-based female professionals, and thinking I was pulling a great joke on the world. The truth was, I was trying to get ahead in media, I hadn’t gone to an Ivy (or even NYU), I didn’t know anyone, and I was desperate to feel like I belonged.
I turned to Gawker, then a relatively new website that was full of publishing world gossip. It made me feel like I knew something about this world in which I was technically working, even if I seemed incapable of learning anything that was happening outside my own office.
From its start, Gawker has been a media publication. Nick Denton is fond of saying he started it after a stint in newspapers to report not what seemed suitable and decent to publish, but the compelling story the writers would tell each other after work, over beers. If it were true, if it were interesting, and if it people were willing to read it, why not publish it? A thousand reasons, many respectable editors and journalists will tell you. But in their hearts, many of them have at least some admiration for the freedom Gawker gave its writers to report, to comment, to chart their own editorial direction and have fun. Its primary audience has almost always been New York’s underpaid, status-anxious media people: writers, editors, publicists, producers, social media experts, and the rest of us losers.
Gawker perfectly captured the whipsaw feeling of being a media peon in Manhattan at the tail end of capitalism. One moment, you’re a garbage monster eating Popchips that you got for free in clothes you wouldn’t have gone to high school in, then you’re at some shitty boring event put on by some corporation no one likes, or maybe a supposedly fun thing that is actually excruciatingly boring and unfun, and then maybe some actual famous people show up for some reason, and you’re like, “lol what is that lady from 30 Rock doing in my shitty life.” Do I even like this? Am I important, or am I wasting my life?
Gawker made living in New York seem interesting, tirelessly covering the boom-time weirdos trying desperately and pathetically to get rich and famous without doing too much. During this period Gawker was often accused of creating characters to build up and then tear down, but the truth is the characters were already there, often times literally begging to be covered. They made standard-issue media people into thrilling celebrities, and I wanted to meet all of them. I bluffed my way past a publicist to sneak into a taping of Julia Allison’s reality show. I got my entire office to force our way into a party at Marquee where I watched The Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz try and fail to pick up Lindsay Lohan’s friends. I thrilled whenever I ran into someone from Lizzie Grubman PR. I hung out with Nick Sylvester in the VIP area of an Annie concert. When I sent a tip to Jared Paul Stern during his tenure at Page Six and he replied appreciatively to say he’d “see me around the playground,” I almost fainted from excitement.
While its characters were a major feature, it was also a local paper for the media industry, the kind of place where they’d report an ongoing story about the Conde Nast bathrooms, or write multiple posts in a single day about a strange maple syrup smell that blanketed Manhattan. It made working in the media seem fun and worth doing. Even if the pay was terrible and people at large only notice you to hate you (as when Emily Gould was excoriated by Jimmy Kimmel, a man who at that point was fresh off hosting a show where women jumped on trampolines every episode so you could watch their tits bounce in slow motion), there was a fraternity among us. Gawker’s jokey and sometimes mean coverage of New York’s publishing world served a purpose: We all hate to have a spotlight shone on our pratfalls, but at least that proves someone is watching.
Of course, Gawker has changed a lot in the last decade. It long ago left behind the kind of media clubhouse reporting I’m talking about here (I probably could have written this eulogy in 2009). But throughout all its permutations—from eating lunch with dolls to its latest life as a semi-political blog—it’s kept a loose feel and an irreverent attitude, more likely to report a rumor or a mean joke than endlessly wring its hands about the best way forward.
This is a lot of what’s gotten it into trouble. From Jimmy Kimmel to Peter Theil, people’s main objection seems to be that Gawker doesn’t treat them with the respect they think they deserve. To me, it seems right and appropriate that there is at least one publication that covers the actual news in a way that challenges authority and questions people’s motives in a way that actually angers the powerful. In an age where the public at large hates and mistrusts all the institutions of our country (especially the media) you’d think this is a time where a publication like that was more necessary, and more successful, than ever.
Instead, it looks likely that Gawker.com will shut down at some time in the near future. Gawker vanishing is bad! Gawker has always been willing to say what other people won’t say, to call people on their bullshit, and to surface voices often excluded from our national conversation. Honestly, I find it kind of inspiring.
But more than anything else, Gawker was always entertaining.
What am I going to do at my desk all day now?