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A conversation with David Rose, little magazine veteran and publisher of Lapham’s Quarterly
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Jan. 7, 2010, 10:13 a.m.

To grow, Gawker turns its attention to unique users

Gawker Media’s web measurement of choice is shifting from pageviews to unique users. That’s a pretty big deal for an organization that led the charge in pageview obsession. Gawker founder Nick Denton explained the refocusing in a staff memo:

The target is called “US monthly uniques.” It represents a measure of each site’s domestic audience. This is the figure that journalists cite when judging a site’s competitive position. It’s also the metric by which advertisers decide which sites they will shower with dollars. Finally, a site with plenty of genuine uniques is one that has good growth prospects. Each of those first-time visitors is a potential convert.

Gawker wants to expand its audience, and in the web world that often means launching new sites targeting different audiences. That’s not the case here: Gawker has sold properties, rolled others into its flagship and cut staff in recent years.

So how will Gawker grow amidst consolidation? By focusing efforts on scoops and original content; the stuff that spreads like wildfire through Twitter and Digg. “What is new is our feeling that we have tapped out our existing core audiences, and need to incentivize writers to find the next million people,” Denton wrote in an email. And as our colleague Zach Seward pointed out on Twitter a few days ago, the most popular Gawker posts are disproportionately the ones with original reporting.

The memo points out four stories that fit this new mindset:

Think of an exclusive such as Gawker’s embassy hazing pics, Deadspin’s expose of ESPN’s horndoggery, Gizmodo’s first look of the new Microsoft tablet or io9’s Avatar review. An item which gets picked up and draws in new visitors is worth more than a catnip slideshow that our existing readers can’t help but click upon.

Gawker turned a lot of heads when it grew advertising revenue by 35 percent while the rest of the industry was imploding. Other media organizations may scoff at some of Gawker’s methods, but they’d love to have its growth pattern. If a refocusing on unique users keeps Gawker on an upswing, there’ll be a lot of new passengers on the unique-user bandwagon. I don’t believe we’ve reached the “as Gawker goes, so goes the industry” inflection point, but the company is an industry trendsetter.

I see Gawker’s move plugging into a broader evolution where web publishers seek to attract people, not just clicks. Generating an audience is tough work. Original content and exclusives require far more time and energy than excerpting and aggregating. (That’s not a shot at aggregators — just an acknowledgement of reality.) The upside is that all that extra effort can create strong relationships with audiences and advertisers alike. Engagement leads to revenue, which leads to sustainability, which stokes hope and other things in short supply these days. A focus on uniques may or may not yield better journalism, but it could create better businesses.

Update: Denton followed up with a clarification:

One minor quibble about your piece. We periodically cut staff and sites — more aggressively than usual last year, of course. But we’ve been hiring too and investing in our most successful properties. Edit budget [is] up 20% this year.

POSTED     Jan. 7, 2010, 10:13 a.m.
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