NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Gawker Media impresario Nick Denton, one of the more vocal Cassandras of media collapse last fall, got a surprise this spring when things turned out to be, well, not so bad. Mr. Denton told us earlier in the year that sales were actually up double digits, and it appeared marketers' reactions to the recession were "more strategic" than he thought. Sales in the first quarter were up 27% from last year* and the second quarter is looking stronger, he said, even with Detroit in shambles and few new products coming out of the consumer-electronics industry.
On his way to the bunker, Mr. Denton sold two non-core blogs, Consumerist and Idolator; folded Valleywag and Defamer into Gawker itself; and shed some staff. Now he's hired some new journalists at Kotaku and Gawker, and while they'll still live and die (or at least dine) by their page views, Mr. Denton said he believes traffic rewards scoops and original reporting over snarky reheats. Nielsen research shows that nearly 34% of Gawker readers have their own blogs, a key influencer statistic. Gawker readers, it turns out, have their own audience.
Ad Age: What part of your 40%-down prediction didn't come true?
Mr. Denton: I still think most companies should have -- and should still now -- plan for the contingency of a 40% decline across the cycle. Let's face it: There are plenty of properties -- Wired down by half! -- that have already suffered. But I'd assumed that marketers would just cut spending across the board in an undiscriminating panic. They've been much more strategic.
Ad Age: What happened? Was it new business, easy comparisons to last year, or something else?
Mr. Denton: Our most valuable entertainment-industry clients -- like HBO and Showtime -- seem to be advertising with sites like Gawker and Jezebel as a matter of routine now. Marketers such as Sprint, Samsung and T-Mobile remain anchors on our tech properties such as Gizmodo. And some clients -- Symantec springs to mind -- are more aggressive than ever online.
Ad Age: Gawker adopted some of the bigger ad formats, now the rage at places like NYTimes.com. Did that help?
Mr. Denton: People have faster connections and bigger screens -- and the editorial images are getting larger. It's about time that the advertising caught up. Nobody complains that the ads in Vanity Fair are lavish. Why should premium sites on the web be any different? With about 13 million unique visitors in the U.S., we finally achieved scale. We've been more willing to provide value to advertisers -- in the form of our giant marquee ads, for instance. And I do wonder whether online marketers are finally distinguishing between crappy networks and online properties with genuine followings.
Ad Age: Is there an element here of marketers becoming accustomed to the Gawker voice? Your new promo video uses the nasty things people say about Gawker as a selling point.
Mr. Denton: People used to say that Jon Stewart trivialized the news -- until they realized that a whole generation was getting its information from the late-night shows rather than evening news. We draw young readers cynical about the compromises of traditional media and fleeing its blandness. For them, our content isn't "edgy"; it's simply what they expect.
Ad Age: Don't you think they should be consuming real news, and not riffs on the news in the pages of Gawker or on "The Daily Show"?
Mr. Denton: People -- particularly if they're under 40 -- have news priorities other than those of the editors of The New York Times or producers of the "NBC Nightly News." A new tablet from Apple -- or last night's episode of "Gossip Girl" or the adventures of the hipster grifter -- is a bigger deal than the latest petty scandal in Albany. You think that's a damning indictment of modern society and a recipe for idiocracy? Fine. Start a nonprofit to cover all the local-government news you think a healthy society needs. But don't expect advertisers -- or commercially-minded publishers or readers, for that matter -- to share your interests.
Ad Age: "Healthy society" isn't part of Gawker's mission statement?
Mr. Denton: When Gawker started, there was a surfeit of information and not nearly enough context -- so we provided that, in the form of links and occasionally snarky commentary. But now the balance has shifted. There are pointers to articles on the blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Digg. And all these intermediaries are looking for something to link to. If a good exclusive used to provide 10 times the traffic of a standard regurgitated blog post, now it garners a hundred times as much. That should be reassuring to people. The content market is finding its new balance. Original reporting will be rewarded.
Ad Age: If original news gets rewarded with 10 times or even 100 times the page views of a regurgitated blog post, shouldn't Gawker do more of that?
Mr. Denton: We've hired John Cook -- formerly of Radar magazine and the Chicago Tribune -- to Gawker. And Stephen Totilo of MTV News, one of the best gaming journalists in the U.S., just joined Kotaku, our gaming title. You can probably expect more appointments like that.
Ad Age: One cherished notion of downturns is that it's the best time to launch a media property. Any plans along those lines?
Mr. Denton: I have one scheme in mind -- but I'm ever conscious of the need for scale. Remember the dream of micropublishing? A few years ago, we still believed that costs were so low and online advertising so magical that the most arcane of subject matters could attract a viable audience. That dream is dead. We'll spend our time and money on sites such as Gizmodo, Kotaku and Gawker -- where we already have the scale or soon will.
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said second quarter sales were up 27%, rather than first quarter.