Nick Denton: Gawker’s Modern-Day Citizen Kane

Nick Denton: Gawker’s Modern-Day Citizen Kane

A look into the makings of a media king and his empire.

At first glance, Gawker’s Nick Denton isn’t your typical media mogul, and from all accounts, he doesn’t want people to think of him as one. But the Brit with the wicked, dark sense of humor has grown into the type of media giant he likes to skewer on his growing blog empire’s webpages. As such, he’s combined the journalism practices of Britain’s Fleet Street with an uncanny sense of what sells in the U.S., and re-invented himself from a financial journalist into the undisputed king of the bloggers.

Gawker Media’s blogs attract over 17 million U.S. visitors a month. His company is America’s 45th most popular online property, and its growth hasn’t slowed down since 2002, despite Internet industry crashes that killed weaker sites.

His empire, which started in his New York City apartment, operates nine sites: Gawker for gossip, Jezebel for women’s issues and Gizmodo for gadgets, among others. In 2007, the Sunday Times of London pegged his net worth at about $250 million, based on the sale of his earlier companies, but Gawker’s value has surged since then, as his empire continues to grow.

While he emphasizes that his sites are aimed at younger readers, there are many parallels behind his rising success and “Citizen Kane,” the 1941 classic film about a newspaper magnate who built his own controversial success — which, in turn, parallels the story of William Randolph Hearst, a man who built his own media empire.

No One Word Can Describe a Man’s Life

Denton was born in 1966 to psychiatrist Marika Marton and her husband, economics professor Geoffrey, in Hampstead, England, a community where many upper class, intellectual families lived and worked. Just a decade before, his mother escaped the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, and was, by all reports, a brilliant woman who spoke multiple languages — Russian, German, English and Latin, in addition to her native Hungarian. In England, she studied at London University and Southampton, and eventually married her economics professor, his father, Geoffrey.

His family wasn’t extremely wealthy, but he enjoyed an education usually reserved for the highly privileged. After attending a private school and University College School, like many of his classmates, he went on to Oxford. By then, he was already interested in journalism and after graduating, he went to work for the conservative Financial Times, but looked towards London’s vibrant Fleet Street. On Fleet Street, almost all is fair game in terms of coverage, just so long as you sell copies and beat the competition. He soon learned he was good at doing both.

At age 23, his fluency in Hungarian led him to Budapest to cover Communism’s disintegration in the region. Mergers and acquisitions became the big story after the fall, so he shifted his career focus. In a precursor for the Gawker empire, he started writing financial exposes. But the time he spent fact-finding on the financial beat whetted his appetite for something else — money. In 1998, he and two friends started a company, Moreover.com, and quickly discovered the joys of buying London real estate. Even then, he appeared focused on the U.S. and the fame he’d find there. He converted a former tea warehouse into a New York-style loft and started to idolize Silicon Valley.

“It’s an American generation,” he told New York Magazine. “I’ve always felt much more comfortable in the States. It is easier for an Internet entrepreneur to raise money in the U.K. if he presents himself as semi-American.”

Head West, Young Man

Like so many other Internet entrepreneurs, Denton headed to San Francisco. However, he discovered the popularity he enjoyed in England wasn’t impressive in a town with so many others like him. His start-ups, Moreover and the early social network First Tuesday, earned him his first few millions, but his personality didn’t transfer well to California.

When he arrived in New York, life was frantic and he started Gawker to get his mind off things. He toyed with the emerging blog format and envisioning a kind of city guide when he discovered financial analyst Elizabeth Spiers’ blog, “Capital Influx.” It was gossipy and snarky and Denton loved it. As a brand-new New Yorker, he decided to create a blog that centered on things that would fascinate any newcomer to the city.

In 2002, he registered Gawker.com through Budapest, and hired Spiers to create a blog based on their sharp-tongued, acidly critical observations. Gawker initially had an outsider’s perspective that reflected the twosome’s standing in the city, but eventually it evolved into a gossip site about Manhattan media heavyweights, admittedly a topic of little interest to the world outside of the island.

By 2004, Gawker’s page views were low, and it was earning about $6,000 a month. Two other blogs, Gizmodo and Fleshbot, came on board, but they were failing to gain traction in terms of profitability. Success finally came in 2006 in the form of controversy and notoriety, when Gawker integrated a “stalker” mash-up that fused reader-submitted celebrity sightings with Google Maps — a feature that drew equal amounts outrage and prurient interest. At the same time, Gawker found its voice, a trademark mixture of hipster detachment and snarky yet surprisingly moral indignation — a combination readers appreciated.

Think What I Tell You to Think

Denton grew up among the cutthroat Fleet Street tabloid culture and believes American journalism is too earnest and complacent. That belief colors how he runs his empire and inspires controversy and derision.

“The staples of old yellow journalism are the staples of the new yellow journalism: sex; crime; and, even better, sex crime,” he wrote in an e-mail, according to Village Voice. “Remember how Pulitzer got his start.”

While critics are quick to decry his brand of journalism, what he’s doing isn’t much different from what William Randolph Hearst and other publishers did — writing what sells. Except his newsstand is the Internet, not street corners and newspaper boxes. Hearst, who tried to use his wealth and power and to stop filmmakers from making “Citizen Kane,” was routinely accused of inventing sensational stories, faking interviews, running phony pictures and distorting real events back in the early 1900s. The kind of criticism for Hearst is roaring towards Denton nearly a century later.

Denton’s journalistic methods have come under fire, and though he defends his sources and the truth behind his sites’ stories, his “anything goes” ethos irks critics. He also defines “public interest” as the right to know everything about any public figure, and anyone with an open Facebook account is fair game. Furthermore, even though he’s a gay man who came out of the closet years ago, he has no qualms outing others — even if they don’t want the information made public. Privacy advocates scorn that sort of behavior and believe his methods are the downfall of modern-day journalism.

A Big Headline Makes Big News

Like Citizen Kane, Denton believes in the power of the larger-than-life headline. He sees it to more page views — which eventually bring more money to the media group.

“I don’t think he’s even interested in a lot of stuff [his blogs] write about,” John Gapper, a Financial Times columnist, told New York Magazine. “He always says that the problem with journalists is that they write about things that interest journalists, not the rest of the world.”

When sex videos, Apple products and naked athletes interest the world, ethics can go out the door. This past year, pro wrestler Hulk Hogan filed a $100 million lawsuit against Gawker after the site got hold of a sex tape, claiming it ruined his reputation.

Gawker and Denton responded that the site had a journalistic right to show the tape, since Hogan had exposed his own activities in a 2009 biography. Eventually, Hogan dropped his lawsuit, but not before the video spread to websites worldwide, mostly with a link back to Gawker that pushed its traffic even higher.

“Our ethics policy? To publish the real story, the one that so-called sports journalists have spent their careers avoiding,” he tweeted, according to the Washington Post, in reference to nude pictures of NFL quarterback Brett Favre on the sports blog Deadspin. But the tactic can backfire. Gawker ended up paying actress Rebecca Gayheart a six-figure settlement for posting her sex tape, but the links earned him far more than advertising.

Never Lose More Than You Make

Denton has never been afraid to pay for a tip, a practice that’s often got him into trouble. In the U.S., journalists find it unethical to pay for stories, but British tabloids have never looked down on it — and as he’s found over the years, it is money well spent. Last year, when Gizmodo published photos of an iPhone prototype an Apple employee left in a bar, he once again came under fire. The tipster sold the phone for $5,000 — mere pennies for Denton — and police raided and seized the computers of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen. But Gizmodo still got the jump on the highly-anticipated phone — and that kept Denton and his site in the headlines well after the iPhone launch.

Denton has come a long way since running Gawker out of his apartment, famously saying, “If you run it out of your house, then no one expects anything. If you have an office, people want stuff. They want cell phones, lunch breaks, beer on Fridays.” The 46-year-old has moved his burgeoning operations to a large loft and his writers, who were once freelancers earning $12 a story, have morphed into salaried employees that earn up to $80,000 a year. About half the writers work on-site and sit next to him — he refuses to have a separate office. But as long as the media is growing, he expects to grow right along with it — and like it or not, he’s become a media mogul, just like the others he still makes fun of.

His formula of shocking stories is also changing. True, there are still racy headlines and the occasional leaked sex tape, but Gawker’s sites are often the ones most trusted for some of the hard-hitting stories of the day, like Adrian Chen’s expose of Reddit’s trolls. And Denton doesn’t seem to have any plans to change any of it — so don’t even ask him who his “Rosebud” is, unless you can tell him a way to spin it and get some page clicks from it.


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