NEWS

Gawker's 'Second Act' Is Not An Epiphany -- It's Just Good Business

07/28/2015 07:10 EDT | Updated 07/28/2016 05:59 EDT
The so-called bad boy of the media is putting its big-boy trousers on and "growing up," the company founder wrote in a memo to employees on Sunday.

Founder Nick Denton said the celebrity-outing website is about to begin its "second act," and the timing is interesting, considering the company is still nursing its wounds from the public skewering it faced earlier this month.

The was for running a story alleging that a married media executive had arranged to meet a gay escort, a story that was deleted the following day.

In his statement, Denton said that publishing the story was "a decision I regret," and that the point of the story was insufficient to offset the embarrassment to the subject. "I have ordered this misjudged exposé removed because it was not in line with the editorial standards I believe Gawker.com should maintain."

Denton was caught between an angry public bellowing that there was no journalistic justification for publishing the private details of a private individual's life and his editorial staff who defended the story. Two senior editors who had sanctioned the story ultimately quit to protest what they called journalistic interference by the business side of the operation.

So now the company is re-branding and doing some "internal soul-searching," according to Denton.

That includes establishing "a clearer standard of newsworthiness," injecting "some more humanity into Gawker.com," and refining "our workplace culture."

Expect the new version of the site to be 10 to 15 per cent nicer, Denton reportedly told staff during a meeting last week (downgrading it from an apparently earlier goal of 20 per cent).

Legal liability

Could this be a moral epiphany? One media ethicist doesn't think so.

Gawker has positioned itself as "the bad boy of media," motivated by scandal and salaciousness in pursuing its mission to get the so-called real story, the gossip behind the news, says Kelly McBride at the Poynter Institute.

"But you can't build a business model out of nastiness."

"Financially," she says, "they realize what a risk the legal liability is. I mean, they're currently in the middle of lawsuit with Hulk Hogan where they're going to have to defend running a video tape of somebody having sex."

Hogan is suing Gawker for $100 million for violating his right to privacy by publishing a portion of sex tape involving Hogan and the wife of a friend. 

Denton admitted to the New York Times last month that the company doesn't keep $100 million in the bank.

Gawker made $6.7 million profit on $45 million of net revenue in 2014, according to a report by Capital New York.

Throw in the "so much more vulnerable" case of the outing of the media executive, McBride said, and the company's executive structure might be saying, "'God, how do we ensure that we'll even be alive five years from now?'"

Cultural shift not easy

The company that started as two blogs in Denton's New York living room is also moving to a bigger, shinier office on New York's Fifth Avenue this week. There were also rumours of Gawker changing its name.

But a cosmetic change won't necessarily overcome the deeply-held culture upon which Gawker was built.

McBride questions whether someone can really "re-engineer a company like that."

"I don't know how you even begin to make a cultural shift where you have essentially trained people to be mean and, gosh, even vengeful," she said.

McBride has worked with a number of different media outlets trying to change their culture, mostly towards a digital one.

"It's really hard to get people to stop doing what you've trained them to do," she said.

Others question whether a change is even necessary.

Janice Neil, the associate chair of the Ryerson School of Journalism, said it's not the media's job to be nice.

"'Nicer' is public relations and the kind of media that sucks up to celebrities or business leaders," she said.

Much of what Gawker did, she said, was "very interesting journalism [even though] I think they did do stuff that was not always redeeming."

"It's a hard question when you uncover stuff about somebody's personal life, figuring out where the line is," she adds.

She also doesn't think Gawker has to "move that far" in its re-branding, but she said they do have to be consistent so that the audience knows who they are.

"If you're a media organization that is going to follow the rules ... and be responsible and ethical, then that's what you are," she said.

"If you're going to be a so-called tabloid, then that's what you are too," she said, adding that audiences have a tolerance for many things, "garbage rumours" and all.

"Here it sounds like many people in the company thought that they were one thing, and [Denton] decides to turn it into something else unilaterally."