America's first Blog mogul

Nick Denton's weblogs have got the chatterati in its grip. He tells Edward Helmore how he does it
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The offices of Gawker Media offer precious little sign that any work ever gets done here: three collapsed leather sofas, two laptops, a table piled with books, some dried flowers and several dozen champagne flutes appear to be the only physical attributes of Nick Denton's weblog empire.

The offices of Gawker Media offer precious little sign that any work ever gets done here: three collapsed leather sofas, two laptops, a table piled with books, some dried flowers and several dozen champagne flutes appear to be the only physical attributes of Nick Denton's weblog empire.

Yet the nine internet sites that comprise Denton's Gawker Media company are among the most original and influential of their kind. Collectively and individually, they have become daily reading for New York media types, LA film people, Washington political junkies, computer gamers, gear-heads and gadget freaks as well as "enthusiasts" of pornography.

Denton, a British former Financial Times journalist, would like to begin our conversation by explaining what a weblog is. Which is reasonable because while people tend to talk about weblogs and look at weblogs, few can describe what makes a weblog a weblog.

"Weblogs are just websites that happen to be arranged in reverse chronological order," the 36-year-old Denton explains. "They have the characteristics of honesty and humour and they speak to audiences at their level, not from on high."

Denton's nine weblogs, which boast such names as Kotaku, Jalopnik, Screenhead, Wonkette and Gizmodo, have all been set in the past two years. In this short space of time, the collective of Gawker sites is now probably second only to Matt Drudge in terms of recognition and online traffic.

Last summer, Fortune magazine called Gawker Media "an empire of the fledgling weblog industry". Denton's blogs, it noted, were "deliciously wicked". Business Week flattered that Gawker's blogs are "irresistible to the chattering classes - media, power, sex, and toys... Denton is skimming off the demographic cream - the influential chatterati".

Wired magazine, the daddy-o of technology magazines, called Gawker "a must-read for anyone involved in the Gothamite stew of news junkiness, celebrity trash, and bitchy gossip". And, perhaps most encouragingly of all, co-online publication Slate calls it "monotonously sadistic".

The formula behind the Gawker empire, Denton says, is simple: "The one common theme is to take an obsession, say a gadget obsession, and feed it - produce more content than the people could ever dream of having or consuming."

This formula is not far removed from that of consumer magazines, and Denton knows that adherents of media gossip, pornography, computer games and so on are more or less insatiable. "Everybody likes to read about themselves, about their worlds," he says. "As with addicts, the more you give them, the more they want."

With a single editor and a number of web-surfing, chore-running interns, Gawker sites are constantly being updated. In Washington DC, people read the politically oriented Wonkette; in L.A, the celebrity dirt of Defamer. Fans of pornography are drawn to Fleshbot; Screenhead is online entertainment for guys who are too lazy to watch television; computer gamers go to Kotaku; car drivers, to Jalopnik, and so on.

Denton is not prepared to say which site turns a profit but it's obvious Jalopnik stands the best chance; it recently struck an exclusive sponsorship deal with Audi. The gossipy Gawker, the site to which New York liberal media types surf, probably does not.

Like many internet companies, Gawker Media doesn't like to talk financials. It's unlikely there's much to talk about, anyway. Although $7bn was spent on internet advertising last year, very little of it currently goes to the fledgling weblog industry.

Having experienced the false expectations of the first internet boom, Denton knows that to talk profit is a fool's game. He saw the boom close up; he was posted to San Francisco in 1996 to cover the subject for the Financial Times.

A year later he left to start an internet company, sold it, and went on to start Moreover.com, a news aggregator service for corporations. He moved to New York three years ago and started Gawker with managing editor Choire Sicha and advertising manager TK. Days are punctuated by long lunches and end, if the broad narrative of the website is to be believed, in an alcoholic haze.

Still, there is reason for optimism, and Denton likes to point out that even at 2.5 million unique visitors per month, his sites are only just starting to "get the numbers that actually register with media buyers". And corporations, eager to win the attention of so-called "opinion makers", are calling. Along with the Audi deal, Nike recently hired Denton to create a custom site for the company under the Gawker brand called Art of Speed. Indeed, the kind of customer Gawker sites reach - 59 per cent in the 18-34 age bracket, 75 per cent male - are like honey to advertisers.

Denton sees his endeavour as a cultural exercise before a financial one. Gawker's world-view - funny, sardonic - has clearly struck a nerve. America's generalised deference to power is in no more acutely expressed than in American publishing; there is little tradition in puncturing the egos of the prominent and powerful. But when someone attempts to do that, as in the case of Graydon Carter's Spy magazine in the late Eighties, there is an enthusiastic audience.

Even so, Denton doesn't think there is a need for Gawker in Britain, claiming that there is already enough criticism, competition and sarcasm. American media, he thinks, is different. "Journalists tends to defer to official sources and people who invite them to parties. In Britain, that's counter-balanced by ferocious competition; in the US it's not counter-balanced by anything," he says.

By culling stories and linking to gossip published in New York's daily papers (and virtually anywhere), Gawker is like an aggregator of human folly. There's a prominent disclaimer to the quality of the information, and editors are happy to correct and update anything that appears.

Editorially, it is driven by its obsessions - Condé Nast editors, Paris Hilton, the Olsen twins, Tina Brown's TV chat show, bad restaurants, overblown celebrities in the media. Editorial choices are not simply instinctive but are informed by the number of page hits. "With the internet it is so easy to measure what readers read so editors get into the habit of producing more stories on proven topics," says Denton.

But do many people click on Tina Brown stories? "Er, no. Not really," he concedes. "That may be an editorial obsession."

Whether they admit it or not, he adds, "Media insiders are interested in Tina Brown even though she doesn't have a magazine career anymore."

He is more circumspect about his own celebrity. People may want to read about other people they know but they don't want to read about themselves - or not in Gawker with its emphasis on drinking, sex and wayward celebrities. People putting on an event are more nervous than pleased to see someone from Gawker." The Manhattan branch of Soho House has thrown him out twice, he points out with some satisfaction.

Sooner or later, money will be made. Denton intends to be there when that happens, but until then he will be taking longer lunches.

Comments