So it’s farewell, then, to Gawker. After 14 years of dancing on the edge of ethical probity and legal propriety, doing some good journalism as well as some less good, the New York-based website – an online blend of investigation, gossip, commentary and satire – has been forced out of business.
The new owner of parent company Gawker Media, Univision Communications, announced that while it will sustain various Gawker Media sites devoted to niche topics such as gaming and cars, the flagship blog/website is history.
And what a history. Gawker, founded in 2002 by Oxford alumnus and media entrepreneur Nick Denton, grew as the internet grew. Along the way, the site amassed impressive influence and profitability, paired with a comparable amount of controversy.
In the end, though, its demise was precipitous, driven by two men’s thirst for revenge. Former celebrity wrestler Hulk Hogan (real name Terry Bollea), angry that Gawker posted portions of a video showing him having sex with a friend’s wife, filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit for invasion of privacy. The suit turned out to have been bankrolled by Peter Thiel, a billionaire venture capitalist and Donald Trump supporter, whom Gawker Media outed as gay back in 2007.
The Florida jury’s verdict went against Gawker to the tune of US$140m (£107m), including a US$10m penalty against Denton himself – enough to bankrupt both him and his company, which was recently sold to Univision. A legal appeal is promised, but regardless of its outcome, it will come too late to save the site.
Awkward champion of free speech
It is difficult to defend Gawker, which long dined out on exposes that, even by a generous interpretation, often walked dangerously close to ethical and legal cliffs. And Denton’s brashness and general hubris, though somewhat ameliorated in recent years, make him perhaps a less-than-ideal champion of a free press.
As numerous media commentators have pointed out, however, the implications for watchdog journalism are deeply troubling.
A crucial concern, of course, is that the verdict sends the disturbing message that powerful people with deep pockets can, if they choose, shut down criticism not just in particular instances but permanently. In the words of long-time media observer and USA Today columnist Rem Rieder:
The idea of wealthy people being able to squash publications they detest should give comfort to no one who cares about free speech.
Or as former Gawker editor Gabe Snyder wrote:
There’s nothing stopping what happened to Gawker.com from happening to any other publication that can’t match the resources of a vengeful billionaire.
Snyder’s comment raises an important issue about the chilling effects of the Gawker debacle. It involves the precariousness, not so much of news organisations in general, but entrepreneurial journalism enterprises in particular – even the most successful among them.
Gawker not only survived but indeed thrived for well over a decade. Gawker Media spawned more than half a dozen spin-offs, employed more than 300 people in the United States and Hungary, and in 2014 reported profits of US$6.7m on US$45m in net revenue. It was big, then – but not big enough.
Media size matters
During a recent academic conference, I was on a panel titled Too Big to Fail, Too Little to Survive? The premise was that “big-name” journalists accused of breaching ethical norms, such as network TV anchorman Brian Williams in the US or national newspaper editor Rebekah Brooks in the UK, do not suffer the same career-ending consequences as smaller news fry.
The lesson applies equally to their employers. The most recent earnings report for the broadcast television arm of Comcast Corp, for whom Williams continues to work as an MSNBC anchor, shows revenue of US$2.1 billion in the second quarter of 2016 alone, up 17.3% from the previous year.
As for News Corp, we all know that story. The massive phone hacking scandal may have done considerable damage to press autonomy in Britain, but relatively little to Rupert Murdoch and his many minions – including Brooks, promoted a year ago to CEO of News UK. News Corp reported revenues of US$2.2 billion in the second quarter of 2016, up 5% year on year.
My back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates those earnings are around 325 times greater than the reported annual profit of Gawker Media. And although they are figures for just a single quarter, they also are, not incidentally, in the same ballpark as Thiel’s total net worth, estimated at roughly US$2.7 billion.
So while Gawker’s fate is indeed chilling for advocates of press freedom in general, it is even more chilling for those rooting for journalistic start-ups to succeed.
Not one, I would venture to say, has a prayer of surviving even a fraction of the financial firepower aimed at Gawker. Yet as more investigative and other watchdog journalism is undertaken by the likes of Propublica.org in the United States and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom, their sustainability matters to all of us.
Be careful, be very careful
The obvious implication for entrepreneurial news organisations is that they must do their utmost to adhere to both ethical responsibilities and legal requirements – not just because it’s the right thing to do but also because their own future depends on it. That is emphatically not to say they should be timid nor that they should pull their punches. It is to say that they should be exceptionally careful to get the story right – and to get it in the right way.
But there is a clear implication for “legacy” news outlets, as well. Despite the proliferation of competition right across the media spectrum, they remain the ones best able to withstand the pressures of those who would prefer they curtail their reporting or, better still, go away altogether. As always, power is needed in order to hold the powerful to account – and to ensure that such accounting reaches public attention.
Staff cutbacks and financial pressures, along with other factors, have meant a well-documented decline in in-depth journalism by legacy outlets in recent years. Some of that gap is indeed being filled by passionate journalists at digitally savvy start-ups, and their work benefits us all.
But as the demise of Gawker reminds us, few if any start-ups – even those that are profitable, with a well-established reputation and following – rest on reliably solid economic ground. In an age of welcome journalistic flowering, the expertise, influence and still relatively rich resources of the mainstream media remain vital social assets that must not be squandered.