If you live in New York and work in the media, it goes without saying that you read Gawker.com, Manhattan's snarky, smarter-than-thou gossip-blog. But even living on the other side of the Atlantic, you're still likely to come across it.
A few weeks ago, The Observer named it the world's 10th most powerful blog, and its phenomenal growth has secured its founder, the former Financial Times journalist Nick Denton, a spot on the Sunday Times Rich List. Founded in 2002, Gawker's spiky, irreverent reporting of Manhattan gossip enraged old media and flirted with their readers. Its success spawned a host of sister sites: Wonkette for politicos, Fleshbot for porn lovers, and Defamer for Hollywood junkies.
Then, in May last year, Gawker Media launched Jezebel.com. Billed as the “girly Gawker”, under the editorship of Anna Holmes, 34, it has become much more. While Gawker snipes away at Manhattan's lower-litocracy, Jezebel covers everything from mastectomies to manicures. Fundamentally, says Holmes, it seeks to be an antidote to what she calls the “five big lies” of women's magazines: the cover lie, the celebrity-profile lie, the must-have lie, the affirmation-crap lie, and the big meta lie - namely, “that all the surreality and celebphemera is harmless escapism; that it's not symptomatic of some larger societal cancer”.
Holmes herself is no stranger to glossy magazines. After graduating from New York University, she spent several years at Entertainment Weekly. Then she moved to Glamour, the Conde Nast trash-fest and frequent object of Jezebel's scorn.
“It was... interesting,” she says. “A lot of sex stories. Within six months, I was unhappy.” She left to write a book - Hell Hath No Fury, an anthology of historic break-up letters - and worked freelance. Then she joined Star magazine - another flirtation with celebrity journalism. By the end of it, she says, she felt beaten down. “I was worried that no one would hire me after working at a lowbrow weekly.” But they did: Holmes left Star in May 2006 and joined InStyle. Eight months later, Gawker called.
“My initial reaction was like, 'No - absolutely not!' I read a lot of blogs, but I didn't know the people. I wasn't part of that scene.” But the more she thought about it, the more intrigued she became. “Thinking of ideas, I was getting so excited. I realised it was a mistake to say no.”
Holmes joined the following February, and interviewed potential writers. After several “test-blogging” sessions, she chose Jennifer Gerson, previously of Elle and Paper, and Moe Tkacik, a Wall Street Journal reporter. The name Jezebel, says Holmes, was largely imposed upon them. “Moe and I hated it. It had so many connotations - historically, biblically. One of the first posts we published was on how much we hated it.”
The site was scheduled to go live in March, but was postponed; then in April, it was put off until May. “I was concerned we'd be the laughing stock of New York media. The whole idea of being a 'girly Gawker'... we knew we'd be compared to them immediately.” When they did go live, she says, “It was like a sudden spotlight: exciting, but terrifying. I was getting up at five every day. I didn't eat for three weeks.”
In fact, it was the biggest and most successful launch of any Gawker site. In its first month, Jezebel.com received just over 480,000 visits; in its second, there were more than a million. Now, Jezebel attracts over 12 million visits every month. “I was stunned. We just kept going up. I guess we filled a niche.”
Initially, posts were anonymous, but bylines were soon introduced. The writers are feisty and self-referential; each has her own style, interests and fan base. “Jessica” does women's issues, “Dodai” gossip, “Moe” politics, “Jennifer” fashion, and “Slut Machine” watches a lot of TV. (Moe is my favourite, thanks to her left-field thinking and fondness for profanity; she's an out-and-out Obama fan, though, and attracts her fair share of vitriol.)
As a reader, commenting is easy - all you need is an email address. Does Jezebel's staff get defensive? “Either they have a legitimate point, and then we're not adverse to apologising. Or they just don't get what we're saying. We won't make fun of a celebrity's body and we've said that.”
Curiously, all Jezebel's staff work from home, communicating via instant messenger. Gawker's ostentatious, window-lined offices in Manhattan are not, says Holmes, conducive to work. “I can't talk to people. If my mom calls... well, she doesn't any more. It takes an enormous amount of concentration. We upload new stuff every 15 minutes.”
Hot topics on the site include the actress Scarlett Johansson, the American model and reality TV judge Tyra Banks and presidential hopeful Barack Obama.
Holmes gets most of her stories from news feeds, with a few reader tip-offs and some material straight from the writers. “You have no time to think about whether a post is a good idea or not - you just have to upload. You constantly feel you don't get to everything. Every single day, I'm unhappy about something.”
Surely after the site's success she can afford to relax a bit? Holmes laughs. “I'm still holding my breath,” she says. “I haven't exhaled just yet.”
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