On Thursday, Gawker.com, the flagship site of Gawker Media, announced that it would end operations next week. This move comes as little surprise as news had come out Wednesday that employees at the website were begging new owner Univision to keep the site alive following Univision’s purchase of Gawker Media in bankruptcy court. It appears that while the other sites in the purchase — Deadspin, Jezebel, Gizmodo, etc. — will all continue to exist, the decision was that the namesake publication needs to be shuttered.
As we all know by now, we got to this situation over Gawker publishing a Hulk Hogan sex tape four years ago. Hogan, secretly backed by billionaire Peter Thiel, successfully sued Gawker, winning a judgment in excess of $140 million. Therefore, Gawker Media founder and chief Nick Denton put the company through bankruptcy so it could be sold to another bidder, which ended up being Univision, for $135 million.
With the Hogan trial victory, Gawker’s end was essentially sealed. While Denton was sure to appeal, Florida requires the judgment money to be placed in escrow while awaiting the ruling, meaning Denton and Gawker had to come up with the cash, one way or another. The only way was going to be through a sale. And anyone looking to buy Gawker Media was likely going to want to disentangle itself from Gawker proper, essentially getting rid of the name itself while acquiring other properties that had name value on their own. (Gizmodo draws far more traffic than Gawker while Deadspin, Kotaku and Jezebel are pretty much equal in readership.)
One can argue that Gawker had this coming, that they did this to themselves. By going in the gutter, picking fights with celebrities and public figures, pushing the boundaries of decency and using the site to wage flame wars, that Gawker and its writers deserved to be swept into the dustbin of history. And there’s a certain truth to that. Was it newsworthy to post a private sexual moment that someone sent them? Did readers need to know about the sexual dalliances of a private executive with no public profile? Your answers may vary.
But, the media landscape will be a far less interesting place without Gawker in there muddying shit up. Sure, they could be juvenile, petty, wrong-headed, smarmy, infuriating and self-righteous. At the same time, they were fearless, trend-setting, thought-provoking, witty, edgy and always a must-read. Nary a day went by when I didn’t click on Gawker just to see their takes on the day’s news. And the comments section…the comments were GOLD.
For 14 years, Gawker walked on a razor’s edge, always seeing where the line was to be crossed — and frequently doing so. The sad part is they are ceasing to exist not because readers abandoned them (They are still top 1000 in the world Alexa rankings) but because they pissed off the wrong rich guy. No, not Hogan…Thiel. Years ago, on a now-defunct vertical covering Silicon Valley, Thiel was outed as gay. Since then, the libertarian, Trump-supporting billionaire has made it his mission to bring down the site. Hogan’s case, along with others he funded, presented him with that opportunity.
The way Gawker was destroyed should give all of us pause. As we see newspapers, struggling to make ends meet in the new digital age, getting bought up by ultra-wealthy oligarchs to be used as their personal publicity agents, we’re witnessing vindictive fat cats using the courts to settle grudges and force negative press to be crushed and silenced. Meanwhile, a so-called billionaire is running for the White House on a message of the media is crooked and we need to open up the libel laws to intimidate the press.
We need to be wary of the undue influence money will hold over the ability to express one’s opinion, report the truth or just make a snide comment about a public figure. With Thiel’s power play, he’s created a template for other angry elites who don’t like how the press is portraying them. Even if they don’t have a case, find someone who may have a semi-legit beef, look for a sympathetic court, and sue the pants off of the publication. Even if you don’t win, the outlet will probably be pushed into the red over the legal costs.
Gawker didn’t run scared over its decade-plus of existence. But that didn’t matter. While the employees will all find safe harbor at Univision — Denton made sure of that — their voices have effectively been silenced now. The writers and editors won’t have that same freedom they enjoyed and will always be looking over their shoulders (or having someone stare over theirs.) They’ve seen what can happen when the 0.1% decides what is acceptable to read for the rest of us.
Gawker is dead, long live Gawker.