It would have made the perfect Gawker story. This week, in a Florida courtroom, a New York media mogul was compelled to recite sections of a lurid article from his own publication, which described a sex tape featuring the 6ft 7in, 302lb former world champion wrestler, Hulk Hogan.
“Then we watch Hulk stand up,” went one of those extracts, “and clumsily attempt to roll a condom on to his erect penis which, even if it has been ravaged by steroids and middle age, still appears to be the size of a thermos you’d find in a child’s lunchbox.”
It would have made the perfect Gawker story – if only the publication in question wasn’t Gawker, and the mogul on the stand wasn’t its 49-year-old British founder, Nick Denton. Instead, the Hulk Hogan trial has become the most hazardous moment in the iconoclastic website’s history.
The video at the heart of the case was made in 2006, and depicts Hogan having sex with Heather Clem, the wife of a close friend. Six years later, Gawker acquired a copy from an anonymous source and published an excerpt, alongside an essay about the allure of celebrity sex tapes. Gawker argues the clip was newsworthy, claiming that Hogan made his sex life a public matter by boasting widely about his carnal exploits. Hogan (real name Terry Bollea) insists his privacy was violated. His is the first lawsuit involving a celebrity sex tape ever to come to trial.
Gawker was born in Denton’s Manhattan apartment in 2002, as a gossip blog devoted to skewering celebrities and the New York media elite: allergic to PR, unfettered by corporate ownership, written in an irreverent tone that was widely copied and came to be known as “snark”. More than a decade later, the company’s headquarters are a smart Fifth Avenue office housing almost 300 employees, who work across an archipelago of seven sites including Gawker, the sports blog Deadspin, the tech blog Gizmodo and the feminist site Jezebel.
Its journalistic values have ostensibly remained the same: if a story is interesting and true, then it’s a Gawker story. That, Denton told the Florida jury, is why the Hulk Hogan sex tape made it on to the site. “The public’s right to know usually trumps a celebrity’s privacy,” he said.
“Nick’s intention was always to do what British newspapers had done for ever, which was not hold back on going after important stories, no matter who they involved,” says Gaby Darbyshire, Gawker’s former chief operating officer, who worked alongside Denton for a decade. “Everyone used to ask us why we didn’t do Gawker in England. We didn’t need to – five or six national newspapers were doing it pretty effectively already. But when we started Gawker in the States, that tone and the willingness to shine a bright light in dark corners didn’t really exist.”
The approach has yielded multiple scoops, from the Tom Cruise Scientology video to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email account. But it may also prove to be Gawker’s undoing. The Hulk Hogan clip attracted five million views; now it could cost the site $115m in damages, if the amount - not including punitive damages - is not reduced at appeal.
Despite his site’s sensibilities, Denton didn’t have the upbringing of a typical tabloid reader. Raised in Hampstead, the son of an economics professor and a psychotherapist, he studied at Oxford and interned at Tatler and the London Evening Standard. His Hungarian mother, Marika, survived the Nazis and the Soviets before fleeing to England as a teenager. After university, Denton gravitated to Eastern Europe where he found himself reporting on the fall of communism from Budapest, Marika’s home city.
As a staffer for the Financial Times, he was sent to San Francisco in 1998 to cover another revolution: the digital one. Quick to grasp the possibilities of the internet, he quit his job and created a web business, which he sold two years later for several million dollars. When his friend, film producer and advertising creative Fredrik Carlstrom, first met Denton in New York, not long before the launch of Gawker, he says: “I thought he was uptight and awkward. He’s very cerebral, and I don’t think social interactions always come naturally to him.”
But the qualities that made him a tricky presence at dinner parties served Denton well as the boss of an antagonistic, ego-deflating new media outfit. “Gawker’s voice is very much Nick’s voice,” Carlstrom says. “He’s compulsively anti-hypocrisy.” In court, Denton was asked whether he would be embarrassed to see his own sex life become news. Yes, he replied. But he also acknowledged that he was fair game, just like any public figure. He appears relaxed about his friends discussing him with other journalists. “He always says, ‘Tell the truth and try to be interesting’,” Carlstrom explains. “If there’s an interesting story, he wants it told, even if it’s about him. If I had a big, juicy story about myself that I didn’t want out there, I wouldn’t tell Nick.”
Denton has attributed his philosophy of extreme openness in part to coming out as gay in his thirties. “I think being our true selves, being open to our colleagues and friends and family, my personal view is that we are happier as a result,” he told the jury in Florida. He married the actor Derrence Washington in 2014. Some Gawker readers have complained that, just as its proprietor has matured and taken on new responsibilities, so his website has lost its edge. Once the outsider, Gawker is now a part of the Manhattan media establishment.
In a lengthy 2014 memo to staff, Denton said the rising importance of social media to drive traffic had led to the pursuit of easy, cosy viral hits. His writers had become “slaves to the Facebook algorithm”, he wrote, and urged them to go back in search of classic Gawker stories. That search can be problematic. In July 2015, Gawker published a post about a married media executive from a rival firm, whom it alleged had solicited a gay porn star for sex. The subject of the story denied the allegation. The story was met with anger on social media, and the site was accused of “gay-shaming”.
Denton had earlier said, in 2013, that he was “proud to have taken part” in outing the CNN presenter Anderson Cooper. But the subject of the 2015 post was not a public figure, and Denton ordered it taken down. Two Gawker editors resigned, claiming he had violated editorial independence.
After the incident, Denton pledged to make Gawker “20 per cent nicer”. Last November, he announced that the site would shift its focus to politics for the duration of the 2016 election cycle, writing in another memo that “the politico-media blob begs puncturing by some sharp Gawker wit”. Until this year, Gawker was wholly owned by Denton and his staff, but in January a minority stake was sold to an investment firm. The deal ensures Gawker a future should it lose the Hulk Hogan trial, but was surely painful for Denton, who has always trumpeted the site’s independence.
Whether Gawker wins or loses in Florida, it will emerge from the case a different company. Was publishing the tape worth it? “We believed the story had value,” Denton said. “That it was true, that it was a story honestly told, and that it was interesting to millions of people.”
Nick Denton: A life in brief
Born: 24 August 1966, Hampstead, London.
Family: Elder child of economist Geoffrey Denton and psychotherapist Marika Marton. Married to actor Derrence Washington.
Education: University College School, and a PPE degree from Oxford University.
Career: Began journalism career on the Financial Times. Co-founded social network site First Tuesday, in 1998. Launched Gawker Media in 2002. Owns nine websites.
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