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April 12, 2021, 11 a.m.

Gawker stalker: The news-and-gossip site that helped define the modern content web is coming back to life

With a former staffer in charge, the new Gawker might have a chance at sticking in a media marketplace that’s changed since its closure in 2016.

Want to feel old, at least in Internet years? Gawker has been shut down…for nearly five years now. Barack Obama was still president back then. “Work From Home” was just a hot summer jam, not a way of life. Peter Thiel was still spending his money suing news outlets out of existence, not backing the Trump campaign. The website that helped define the tone of 2000s online media has been just a static page ever since.

But now — really, this time — that seems ready to change. In his Monday New York Times column, Ben Smith dropped this little nugget:

[Heather Havrilesky] told me she will be taking Ask Polly from New York Magazine [to Substack in order] to “regain some of the indie spirit and sense of freedom that drew me to want to write online in the first place.”1

(Speaking of that spirit: Bustle Digital Group confirmed to me that it’s reviving the legendary blog Gawker under a former Gawker writer, Leah Finnegan.)

Not that there was any reason to doubt Ben’s reporting, but Finnegan piped up last night with a confirmation.

While its sister sites shuffled through owners and staff revolts over the past half-decade, Gawker was viewed as a poisoned asset — the result of both its late-in-life legal problems and its reputation in more staid quarters as a violator of journalistic norms. (I always liked Hamilton Nolan’s take: “Most journalism jobs exist on a continuum between audience and freedom. If you want a lot of people to pay attention to you, you work at a place where the individual writer’s voice is completely subsumed into the institutional voice. If you want complete freedom to write whatever the hell you want, you write on your personal Tumblr, where the whole world will ignore you. Gawker was one of the few places ever to exist that offered both a large, steady audience and almost complete freedom.”)2

The URL and brand were sold at auction in 2018 for $1.35 million. The winner was Bryan Goldberg’s Bustle Digital Media, a company more known for SEO skills than authorial anarchy.

A few months later, a relaunch under new management was announced…

…until it collapsed within weeks, after Gawker manqué Splinter (itself now R.I.P. and reborn under a new name) uncovered some questionable tweets by New Gawker’s editorial director. The Daily Beast followed up with more critical reporting about her. (She later sued The Daily Beast over the story; as of December, that suit was still pending. The screenshots of tweets in Splinter’s original story are now gone, replaced by: “This image was removed due to legal reasons.”) In any event, New Gawker’s reporters quit in protest, other staffers were laid off, and back to square one it went.

Who knows what this version of Gawker will look like — but having Finnegan, a former Gawker features editor, leading the way would seem to reduce the chance of dissonance with readers’ memories of its first iteration.3 And as the former executive editor of The Outline (another R.I.P.), she has experience working within Bustle Digital Group. But no matter what, it’ll probably be worth watching, as Gawker has been since day one.

Photo of the Gawker Media office in 2012 by Scott Beale used under a Creative Commons license.

  1. Heather Havrilesky, of course, having begun her career at the even earlier beloved-by-many-derided-by-some site-that-helped-defined-the-voice-of-the-internet, Suck↩︎
  2. “Most attempts to explain this publication’s editorial direction tell you more about the person doing the explaining than they do about this publication. With a little cherry-picking you can make it seem like our focus was just about anything. In truth, we had no focus. We had writers. Gawker was what its writers wrote. When the writers were great, the site was great, and when the writers were less than great, you get the idea. Gawker was anarchist journalism at its finest. Every day, a page to be filled; every day, a chance for greatness, or idiocy. This site contains the very best and worst things that many writers have written. This fact drives many people mad. But to the sort of person who was cut out to be a Gawker writer, it was just right. It was better than having a byline in the New York Times; it was having the chance to say fuck the New York Times. In a place where the New York Times would see it!” ↩︎
  3. Finnegan also left Gawker in the most Gawker way imaginable: amid an argument with management↩︎
POSTED     April 12, 2021, 11 a.m.
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