Monday morning Jalopnik, the auto blog of the Gawker empire, debuted a new streamlined design that sheds the two-column, app-like experience of the last redesign in exchange for big images and the return of the reverse chronological format and the endless scroll. The new look shares traits with Gawker’s new Hungarian and Spanish-language sites, as well as the stripped-down design used after the network was knocked out during Hurricane Sandy.
But it’s not just the aesthetics of the redesign that are interesting. The new Jalopnik now allows readers to not just comment on stories, but to create personal micro sites and discussion areas independent of the site’s editorial staff. Jalopnik is throwing open its doors and asking the audience to go further than sounding off in the comments. Jalopnik editor Matt Hardigree writes: “Yesterday, you were a reader and a commenter. Today you can be a writer, an arbiter, an editor, and a publisher. You’ll still read, but now you can also contribute.”
It’s a more realized manifestation of Kinja, which Gawker introduced as a discussion system in 2012, and years of Gawker CEO Nick Denton love/hate relationship with his commenters. (In 2009, Denton was bragging about “taking back [sports site Deadspin] from some commenters who thought they were in charge.” Now he’s putting commenters on par with his staff.)
Denton has made it no secret he’s dissatisfied with the way we talk and share ideas online. Kinja may be his answer to that, a system that turns publishing into an open relationship. And it’s coming to the rest of Gawker’s sites in late March, Denton says.
“Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers,” Denton told me over Gchat. “And at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”
In lowering the barriers to publishing, Kinja aims to open up the gates to more content for Jalopnik, which may promise more advertising possibilities, and certainly more eyeballs. If you want to create a blog about BMW M3s, you can. If you want to chronicle the history of the Batmobile, go nuts. By getting as many people into the party as possible, and keeping them there, Gawker is creating a marketplace for reader attention.
Commenting on the site means you have the opportunity to set up your own Kinja blog, in my case justinellis.kinja.com or FordTaurusSHOFan.kinja.com. The personal blog is home to a reader’s comments on stories as well as individual posts they create. Readers can also annotate and republish Jalopnik posts. The opposite works as well: Jalopnik editors can republish a post with the reader getting a byline. While anyone will be able to create posts on their own, Jalopnik editors have the final say over what makes its way to the main site, like this piece on the 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.
That move fits in well with Gawker’s long-standing M.O. of plucking new writers out of the wilderness of the comments. Hardigree spells it out clearly: “When we look for the next generation of writers for our site, and other sites, we’ll be looking at who does well in Kinja.”
The reader-as-contributor gambit has been used in many ways in online media. The Huffington Post similarly had an open blogging policy, which led to a failed lawsuit over compensation for unpaid bloggers. Sites like SB Nation and The Verge put a big emphasis on using user forums for content creation.
In the past, Denton has said the idea is to create a place where readers, sources, or critics can take part in an open forum. That’s still the case. “Call me naive, but it was the original promise of the web, the harnessing of the collective intelligence,” he said. “That original promise was buried by questions about business models, the fake engagement of social media, and the soul-destroying quest for viral hits.”
Nick Denton, dewy-eyed optimist! But Denton is also aggressively looking for new streams of revenue for the Gawker family. In a memo last month that, like all Denton memos, surfaced online, he told his staff he wanted to see 40 percent revenue growth in 2013, up from 26 percent in 2012. The company is exploring e-commerce options as well as native ads. Denton said they are developing ideas for how sponsored posts or other advertising fit the new system.
For now, Jalopnik is the test bed as they prepare to launch Kinja on a wider scale. Denton said there will be additional features, such comment-like annotations that run to the right of stories, as well as a kind of re-blogging feature. (Check out the visual annotations on this photo of Jalopnik regular subject Elon Musk.) February marks two years since the last time Gawker underwent the last “biggest event in Gawker Media history,” so I asked Denton how throwing open the doors to publishing will help his empire.
“I have no idea,” he said. “But it will make our sites more fun. And that’s served us well in the past.”
Photo of cake featuring likeness of Nick Denton made up of faces of Gawker commenters by Raj Taneja used under a Creative Commons license.