The Gentler Gawker and Its Advertisers: Q&A With Nick Denton and Heather Dietrick

Do Readers and Advertisers Actually Want the Same Thing?

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Gawker Media founder and CEO Nick Denton.
Gawker Media founder and CEO Nick Denton. Credit: Benedict Evans/Gawker Media
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Last month, when Gawker founder and CEO Nick Denton pulled down an article alleging that a Conde Nast executive had tried to hire an escort, he surprised many people by writing that the site was no longer about just putting "truths on the internet."

"The line has moved," he wrote. "And Gawker has an influence and audience that demands greater editorial restraint."

He added in a later memo that "business concerns" played a role in his decision to take down the story, concerns such as the site's defense against an invasion of privacy lawsuit from Hulk Hogan, and the potential for lost advertising. He also acknowledged that the "gentler editorial mission" hadn't been formally articulated to staff before then.

Among the questions lingering a month later are which kind of Gawker readers prefer -- and whether it's the same one advertisers want.

Mr. Denton and Gawker Media President and General Counsel Heather Dietrick spoke with Ad Age about the episode, advertising and whether the company was really changing its name to get away from the Gawker brand, an idea he had floated. (It's not.) Our conversation, at the company's new office on Fifth Avenue, has been edited and condensed.

Advertising Age: When Tommy Craggs resigned as the company's executive editor, he called out a "Fear and Money Caucus" among the managing partners, meaning the four who supported pulling the article. Nick, how much did business play into how you handled the article?

Nick Denton: My No. 1 concern and my overwhelming concern was with our editorial reputation and to some extent my own personal reputation, because my name and Gawker's name are completely, inextricably connected. We pride ourselves on going close to the edge on stories because that's where our audience is, that's what our readers want from us. There are plenty of places to go and get stories in the mainstream, and most of them are identical and not distinctive. Our readers come to us for bold stories that others will not cover. On this occasion we overstepped the line and our editorial reputation was at stake. As founder, as guardian of the editorial ethos, I made the decision that this was a post that shouldn't be up there.

Ad Age: Heather, why did you vote with Tommy not to pull down the story?

Heather Dietrick: While this is not the type of story we want to do, it certainly qualifies as newsworthy and legally defensible.

Ad Age: What are the editorial mission and boundaries going forward, and how do they differ from last year?

Mr. Denton: We've always been focused on the idea of revealing the story behind the story, so taking what might appear in the newspapers or on television or some generic online news site and picking it apart, looking underneath. So that mission is the core of the Gawker mission and it remains the core of the Gawker mission. There's always room for editorial misjudgment, and in this case we made an editorial misjudgment. We've acknowledged it, we've corrected and I think by so doing we've kind of refocused the attention internally and externally on the main mission, which is to reveal the real story.

Ad Age: Are you working on ways to articulate what's the real story, and what's interesting and true but not a story that you want to tell?

Ms. Dietrick: The whole editorial group is working on creating just a simple statement, a few sentences that articulates the kind of journalism that we want to do around here. It will describe what's newsworthy -- not newsworthy in the legal sense but in what it means at Gawker for something to be newsworthy and have us publish it -- so we can hold up any post, and it really only applies to the posts that are on the very edge, and say, OK, this fits this ethos that we all believe in and we're all behind, to tell the story behind the story, to reveal something, to have a point to our edgiest work.

Mr. Denton: Think about the stories that Gawker is most famous for. Whether it's Manti Te'o -- There wasn't a revelation about him, there was a revelation about how easily the media had been seduced by this sentimental story that turned out to be a complete hoax. Or the iPhone 4 story, which was about our willingness to defy the Apple marketing machine, the classic timetable for releasing phones ahead of set-piece launches. We don't play along with those kind of games.

Ad Age: Discover pulled ads from Gawker over the article that started all this and BFGoodrich considered it. What is the appeal of Gawker to advertisers now in particular?

Heather Dietrick, president and general counsel of Gawker Media.
Heather Dietrick, president and general counsel of Gawker Media. Credit: Victor Jeffreys/Gawker Media

Mr. Denton: There are probably only three or four online media companies that have collected together a meaningful audience over 50 million uniques in the U.S. or over 100 million globally. We are the only company that has achieved that kind of scale or influence organically. So the answer is really very simple: If you want to go where the people are, you come to Gizmodo or to Deadspin or Jezebel. That's where the new web consumer is, there and a few other places. Any advertiser that is actually interested in a real conversation with modern influencers and web consumers really has to come to the Gawker Media sites that are leaders in their categories, important categories like video games, personal technology, personal development, feminism.

Ad Age: There's money moving into online advertising but there's also an ocean of competition and ad tech putting downward pressure on ad rates.

Mr. Denton: I don't really see the competition being as intense as people say. Yes, if you look at the whole market, there are a gazillion participants and new entrants. But if you look at the number of online media companies with any kind of scale in the key categories, there are only three or four, and we are the only one that has achieved that without any kind of outside investment, with organic growth. There is competition for trade news headlines. There is much less competition for truly engaged web consumers.

Ad Age: How does the Gawker brand do with advertisers? In a memo after the article was published and then unpublished, you mentioned research finding that the Gawker brand is "confusing and damaging" to both the flagship site and the company, quoting a "friend of the site" who said "Gawker itself is too snarky for me to recommend to advertisers, too risky."

Mr. Denton: It was some feedback that we got. All the Gawker sites have got a reputation for being bold, and being prepared to reveal stories and reveal truths that others are actually unwilling to. Gawker.com sometimes, among some people, got a reputation for occasionally being edgy or even bitchy for less purpose than that. So that's a tweak we need to make in the editorial strategy to bring Gawker.com more in line with the other extremely desirable properties that are in the portfolio.

Ad Age: You've said elsewhere that there's a possibility you'll rebrand Gawker Media. Is that happening?

Mr. Denton: It was an idea. No.

Ad Age: You decided to keep the Gawker name?

Mr. Denton: There was no decision. It was an idea that was floating around.

Ad Age: Are you still working with Redscout, the branding agency you brought in? Were they working on the brand book Tommy Craggs was complaining about?

Mr. Denton: We were working with them earlier in the year, yeah. They were very helpful. It's useful to gather an outside perspective, particularly when this company has produced so many words and so many words have been written about its mission, to have an outsider help to kind of focus you in on the words, the beliefs that are shared universally. The beliefs that are shared universally here is that our mission is to get to the real story, not to be satisfied by what's announced or what's in the press release or what appears on TV or some online news site but to look deeper and to get the real story. That applies to our readers, that applies to our journalists and that applies to the conversations that our advertisers can have with those readers.

Ad Age: What ad products are working well for you?

Mr. Denton: Where I think we can be truly distinctive is in providing real value not just to our readers, a very desirable group of readers, but providing real value to advertisers. Media companies need to embrace that. We certainly embrace that. Ultimately a CMO only really cares whether you're going to be moving units for them. There may be some interim measures -- Facebook likes, headlines -- but in the end all that really matters is the ability to attract to persuade and to convince people to give your product a try. We see evidence for that in our partnerships with Amazon or Casper that we have the right kind of audience in the right kind of retail mindset who made a choice to visit a site about technology or sports.

We're looking beyond our relationships with companies like Amazon and Casper to drive more clearly attributed performance for advertisers. That's a ground in which we are very very strong.

So video is a clear strong focus. That's a question of finding your own voice, style and format. Performance advertising, where we embrace measurements of performance and try to track sales generated. And the third the kind of persuasion, that comes through conversations like the documentary club we hosted on behalf of Netflix, which involved readers, documentary filmmakers and discussions about documentaries that helped drive attention to the long tail in the Netflix database.

It's not for every brand, so we're careful to advise that strategy to companies that have a story that they really want to tell, but that is the element of web media marketing that I am most excited about because it seems truest to who we are. We're all about a conversation which can change people's minds, can help them make up their own minds. That applies as much for discussions about products as discussions about whether chocolate is really good for you.

This is actually my favorite story of the year so far. It's actually not the gossip stories that reveal bad behavior on the part of celebrities, although that can be totally interesting, but the consistent bias of scientific research. Did you follow that io9 story? It was basically a story about how easily journalists are gulled by insubstantial research, unscientific research, and how just in the selection of what surveys and research are actually published that there is such bias in what grabs the attention that the end result is actually deception. Even though all of these stories may be strictly accurate, maybe the research is even accurate, but in the media process there is a media bias built in that actually persuades people that eating chocolate won't make them fat.

Ms. Dietrick: It's really a quintessential Gawker story: Cut through all the bullshit and reveal how this process actually works.