Gawker co-founder Nick Denton promises to 'put some humanity' into famously bitchy site

Denton says they may change the site's name to make it less synonymous with 'tabloid trash'

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The Independent Online

Little more than a decade after it emerged as the distinctive voice of the Internet, snark is dying.

The cynical, often sarcastic and all-knowing tone adopted by the gossip blog Gawker and a slew of scandalmongering sites that emerged at the start of the Millennium is being replaced with a more considerate sensibility.

Gawker’s British co-founder Nick Denton pledged this week to put “some more humanity” into his famously bitchy site, possibly changing its name to make it less synonymous with “tabloid trash” in a new era of the Internet. The transformation of New York’s best-known media and entertainment blog could mark the end for an entire online genre: the gossip site.

“My sense is that glee at information that spills out on the Internet has given way to a greater concern for personal privacy,” Denton, a former Financial Times journalist, told the New York Times. “I think the gap between the reader and a public figure has narrowed. We have more of a feeling that celebrities and the subjects of stories are people just like us, with secrets that others don’t have an automatic right to.”

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Gawker recently faced criticism and litigation after publishing a sex tape involving wrestling star Hulk Hogan (Getty)

The context of Denton’s comments is that Gawker is fighting for its life. Days after the resignation of two of its senior editorial staff over the deletion of a controversial post revealing the gay sex secrets of a married Conde Nast publishing executive, Gawker faces a potentially crippling $100m libel case brought by Hulk Hogan, over the transcript of a sex video in which the wrestler makes a racist rant. The site published part of the film.

Hogan has refused to settle the case and his attorney, David Houston, indicated that the grappler wanted more than a mere submission. “If I can find out it is Gawker who leaked the transcripts, we will bury them.”

Heather Dietrick, President and General Counsel of Gawker responded, saying: "Hulk Hogan has only one person to blame for what he said and no one from Gawker had any role in leaking that information."

Jamie East, founder of the British gossip site Holy Moly, said the Hogan case was a wake-up call for Denton. “There’s a moment when you no longer feel untouchable and realise your own mortality. They’re in danger of getting sued for $100m they haven’t got.” East had a similar experience when a litigant “refused to negotiate” and he ended up re-mortgaging his house to settle. He sold Holy Moly to the TV company Endemol between 2011-2013 but the site was closed down earlier this year having seemingly had its day.

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Camilla Wright, founder of early British popular culture gossip site Popbitch, which is still going after 15 years, said sites had learned to show greater responsibility.

East said the appetite for acerbic comment on celebrity news waned in Britain when Amy Winehouse died in 2011 after years of being hounded by the paparazzi. The media pressure on Britney Spears, as she underwent a nervous breakdown, compounded the sentiment. “The public mood in terms of celebrity changed,” he said.

“The way you become notorious is by being notorious. Holy Moly printed the things no-one else would print using language no-one else would write. But the whole snark thing that Gawker built themselves on ended ages ago.”

Camilla Wright, founder of early British popular culture gossip site Popbitch, which is still going after 15 years, said sites had learned to show greater responsibility. “Right at the beginning there was a Wild West feeling – you could pretty much say anything because there was only a small number of you involved.”

She said that although readers still wanted to know “the story behind the story”, free from PR spin and mainstream media agendas, the public didn’t like spite. “People write in constantly to say ‘Don’t be mean’.”

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“Advertisers are always really nervous about the comments,” said Paul Staines, who runs the political gossip site Guido Fawkes. (Reuters)

Gossip sites once thrived through message boards where contributors liked to post their own acidic quips – but Twitter now offers a much larger platform for such bon mots. Instead the interactive sections of gossip sites have become a minefield which scares away potential advertising revenue.

“Advertisers are always really nervous about the comments,” said Paul Staines, who runs the political gossip site Guido Fawkes. Guido makes money from advertising sold collectively with other political sites, including Conservative Home and Labour List, but some big advertisers circumvent the incendiary gossip site. Staines said there was a narrow path to tread: “If you go too vanilla you lose the focus of the readers even if you make the advertisers more relaxed.”

He argued there had been no decline in hunger for gossip from the political arena. “The public want bread and circuses, they want to see blood in the sand,” he said.

In its 12 year existence, Gawker Media Group has evolved into a portfolio of influential specialist blogs with international reach, including Gizmodo (technology), Jezebel (fashion), Lifehacker (digital lifestyle), Deadspin (sports) and Kotaku (game culture).

The founder’s concern must be that the flagship blog Gawker, a cult read focused mainly on the niche of Manhattan’s media community, has become toxic to the value of the group’s other properties. Denton, 48, has talked of a “Gawker tax”, the cost of running a business where brands can “blow up” because “of a story that goes wrong”. He wants to stop that time-bomb ticking but, with Hulk Hogan wanting his day in court, he might be too late.

Gawker's victims

Gawker outraged George Clooney and chat show host Jimmy Kimmel with its Gawker Stalker feature which it launched in 2006, encouraging readers to reveal sightings of celebrities so that they could be recorded on a map.

It has gone after famous Scientologists, exposing a promotional video by Tom Cruise in 2008 and the following year publishing details on the private life of John Travolta.

Earlier this year, it published court documents alleging domestic violence by the Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly, a story which Denton was particularly proud of.

But the co-founder described himself as “ashamed” of the site’s publication this year of texts between a married publishing executive and a gay porn star.

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