Analysis

Why Gawker matters: Bankruptcy auction could make or break the 'voice of a generation'

The auction of Gawker Media is expected to attract some heavy hitters, but will it save the company — or kill its snarky spirit?

Millennial media is worth more than money, but how much will Gawker be sold for on Tuesday?

A 3,500 word article on the veracity of U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump's coif prompted Hulk Hogan's lawyer to send Gawker a letter demanding a full retraction and public apology. Gawker did not remove the article and, to date, no legal action has been pursued in connection with the piece. (Gawker.com/CBC News screenshot)

Gawker Media is dead, long live Gawker Media.

The unabashedly snarky gossip blog turned new media empire will be sold to the highest bidder in a bankruptcy auction on Tuesday, along with all of its assets, after losing a years-long court battle — and $140 million — to wrestler Hulk Hogan.

Depending on who buys it, the sale could spell either death or salvation for Gawker.com and its various popular sister sites. Some analysts have suggested that a buyer might purchase the network for its verticals alone, killing the flagship blog but keeping Gizmodo, Jezebel, DeadspinKotaku, iO9, Jalopnik and Lifehacker afloat.

Regardless of what happens, Gawker Media's 14-year-long run as an independent media company will come to an end this week — prompting fans and haters alike to reflect on what all of this means for journalism, for the internet, and for culture on the whole.

Canadian writer and Esquire columnist Stephen Marche penned one such reflection in a New York Times op-ed called "Gawker Smeared Me, and Yet I Stand With It."

Among other things, Gawker writers have called him "a terrible writer," put him on a list of the "worst 100 white men," and once insinuated that his wife wanted to stab him.

Still, he defends the outlet's right to exist.

"What I really appreciate about Gawker is that they understood before anyone that celebrity was power," he told CBC News on Monday. "When you look at a person like Bill Cosby, that unexamined power that he inhabited enabled a huge amount of wrongdoing without any kind of examination from the press."

While he doesn't support all of the outlet's choices, he admits that their "sheer guts" and "snark for its own sake" play an important role in today's media landscape.

"We're living in a world the manipulation of image is triumphant, and they took a decided stand against that," he said. "They pour sand on the grease: everybody being nice to each other, everyone hiring each other's children, this world of connections and Ivy League nonsense... I think it will survive."

'​Today's gossip, tomorrow's news'

Even if you haven't visited a Gawker site, don't know any of its writers by name, or recognize trope in this article's headline, you've likely experienced the ripple effect of Gawker Media's impact on news and internet content — at least a little bit.

Since its humble beginnings in 2002, the one-time New York City gossip site had evolved into a legitimate, widely cited source of breaking news and commentary.

What sets Gawker.com apart, aside from bold choices that sometimes result in lawsuits, is its unique editorial voice.

Gawker's editors penned a post earlier this year defending the often controversial site's legacy and journalistic integrity. (Gawker.com)

Gawker content has been called snarky, but it's also lauded for being clever. It's articulate without being arrogant, hyperbolic without being annoying, and it drips with as much honesty as it does wit and sarcasm.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it's a champion for journalistic diligence.

Among its most notable scoops:

Gawker's commitment to sharing its findings has earned it legions of fans over the years, but it's also seen the company blasted by hate — and rightfully so, some have argued.

"It's not like these are pure heroes or something like that — far from it," said Marche of the Gawker's more controversial choices. "They ran a lot of stories that I would have never run, and that I would consider completely unacceptable and unethical. I think they've been punished severely for that."

Haters and lovers

Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel was famously discovered to have backed Hogan's lawsuit this year after a longstanding public hate-affair with Gawker Media.

The PayPal co-founder and early Facebook investor had been sparring with Gawker since 2007, when the site published an article called  "Peter Thiel is totally gay, people."

Thiel, who is openly gay now, had not revealed his sexuality publicly at the time — nor had a married media executive that Gawker similarly outed in 2015 by alleging he had arranged to meet a gay escort.

"Valleywag is the Silicon Valley equivalent of al-Qaeda," Thiel said  in 2009 of the Gawker network's now-defunct tech industry gossip blog. "I think they should be described as terrorists, not as writers or reporters."

Ironically, Thiel and Hogan are also now being accused of unjust viciousness in connection with the case.

Still, despite its legal woes and admitted mistakes, Gawker remains an important company in the new media world, both online and off.

"The story of journalism's sad-sack future and long, slow, undignified descent into incoherent and unimportant madness has really only just started to be written," Gawker alumnus Foster Kramer, who is now the executive editor of Mental Floss, wrote in a blog post last week.

"I think everyone who still works in whatever media's about to become next — and anyone who holds dear the value of the Fourth Estate — will want to make good to Nick on a sincere debt of gratitude for ever opening up shop," he continued.

"And I think this moment, wherein Gawker declares bankruptcy, will be, in that greater history, a watershed."

Employees of the "prototypical millennial media company" became the first-ever strictly digital newsroom staffers to unionize last June, setting off a chain reaction that saw othersfollow (or at least attempt to follow) in their footsteps.

The company is also making money in a way that, by and large, does not appear to be alienating readers, and its legal troubles — which have sucked up said money — are sparking wider discussions around the world about press freedom and the influence of wealth on legal rulings.

Who could buy Gawker?

Digital media company Ziff Davis submitted a "stalking horse" opening bid of around $100 million back in June after Gawker filed for bankruptcy, but the New York Times reported on Sunday that "a dozen to two dozen parties" have since expressed interest in Tuesday's auction.

Among those potential bidders are Vox Media (The Verge, SB Nation,) New York Magazine (NYMag, Vulture,) Univision (Fusion, The Root,) and Penske Media (WWD, Variety).

While Gawker founder and CEO Nick Denton seems set on a purchase by Ziff Davis, whoever is willing to pay the most could acquire Gawker Media today. That party will likely walk away happy with the investment, as well.

The Gawker network currently pulls in about 100 million page views a month, according to the company's careers site.

Played well, that kind of traffic can translate into some serious cash — and does — especially with such an engaged and youthful readership demographic.

But it's not just a matter of "baiting millennials" with listicles and quizzes making Gawker succesful.

"We have always put editorial credibility ahead of short-term commercial considerations, resulting in what we have internally called the 'Gawker Tax' on our advertising revenue," Denton wrote in a blog post published Monday, noting that the company's e-commerce program was responsible for nearly $200 million in sales for its advertisers this year. "That tax has generally been worth paying."

"The proposition that journalism should be an honest conversation between writers and readers has permitted us to build a solid, even enviable, business," he continued. "Without exceptional legal and professional fees related to the Thiel campaign, the business is profitable."

About the Author

Lauren O'Neil

Lauren O'Neil covers internet culture, digital trends and the social media beat for CBC News. You can get in touch with her on Twitter at @laurenonizzle.

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