“What’s one thing that’s true about you that no one else would believe?” is a recurring prompt on Twitter. I like to respond that I started a website that made a billionaire vampire so angry he deployed about $10 million — and a professional wrestler — to destroy it. All of this is true, except Peter Thiel is not technically a vampire.
The lawsuit that Thiel underwrote, after Gawker published Hulk Hogan’s sex tape, put the site out of business. It was reincarnated in 2021 under different ownership, and with a somewhat different mission, but on Wednesday the news broke that it was dead again. It’s been two decades since I had any role at Gawker, which I left after 10 months, but the news made me think about how much has changed — and how much remains the same — since its debut.
At its peak, Gawker Media employed hundreds of people at an array of related news and entertainment sites, published tens of thousands of stories and was a large media company by the time it went bankrupt. But when I started the site in 2002, with Nick Denton, a British entrepreneur and former journalist, the goal was more modest: to be a snarky insidery blog with a focus on New York City and a long satirical streak, à la Spy magazine or Britain’s Private Eye.
I wrote about media, fashion, publishing and Wall Street because those are industries that are more or less headquartered in New York, and despite the fact that I was a 25-year-old transplant who grew up in rural Alabama, I adopted the tone I thought a provincial New Yorker would have: fascinated with power and money and oblivious to the world outside of upper-middle-class Manhattan. One of my first posts was a long interview with a hedge fund employee who was dissatisfied with her cocaine delivery service, if that tells you anything.
We did not have high-minded aspirations for Gawker, and much of my coverage was inconsequential and silly. A visit to the cafeteria that Frank Gehry designed for Condé Nast, a monument to the excesses of the media industry, revealed fashion editors steering clear of the cookies. I wrote about trucker hats as an important sociological artifact ofa newly gentrified Brooklyn, and far, far too much about minute goings-on at The New York Times, which annoyed some of its staff members and caused others to gleefully send me tips.
Over the years, Gawker developed a national profile and a more aggressive posture. Under the leadership of people who, unlike me, were established journalists, it covered politicians, C.E.O.s and anyone who had the power to shape the culture. At its best, it reported on powerful people who were abusing their power, publishing articles about Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein and the hacker Guccifer before many larger mainstream outlets did. And it did so with a fearlessness that distinguished it from all established media brands.
But at its worst, that fearlessness bled over into recklessness. Gawker sometimes bullied people, and it sometimes punched down. One of Gawker Media’s blogs, Valleywag, heaped so much scorn on a young PR professional who posted a single ill-considered tweet that the episode became a case study in public shaming. Gawker published things that were gratuitously mean or sexist. It felt at times so negative that it was almost toxic.
Everyone who’s familiar with the site has at least one post they remember that was truly terrible, and for me it was a post that outed someone who wasn’t a public figure. It was published 12 years after I left, and it was quickly taken down, but people ask me about that post all the time.
Alec Baldwin’s least favorite post was probably the one about the unhinged voice mail he left his daughter Ireland, in which he screamed at her and called her a pig. I hazard this guess because though I had nothing to do with that post, he berated me about it during a panel we both appeared on in connection with “Nobody Speak,” Netflix’s documentary about Gawker and other news organizations.
Gawker was a Rorschach test. When readers began sending me tips about celebrity sightings, and we published them in a recurring feature called Gawker Stalker, some celebrities accused us of directly endangering their safety. It didn’t matter that the sightings were after the fact, often days later, or that in many cases, it was the celebrity’s own publicist who was sending in the tip. It was easy, if not wholly accurate, to draw a line from that feature to the aggressive paparazzi style of TMZ or Deux Moi. But for others, Gawker Stalker made celebrities feel more human and accessible. There was something nice about knowing that Jon Stewart had gone to the same Dunkin’ Donuts you did or that your favorite musician took the subway.
Gawker’s DNA has since spread to other parts of media; its tone and style are replicated in countless spinoffs, and its alumni employed by major media companies, including The Times. It spawned an independent media model in which skepticism of elites and an appetite for mischief-making resulted in stories about power and its abuses (along with a lot of frivolous celebrity froth).
The lawsuit that shut it down has also cast a long shadow. Mr. Thiel came for Gawker Media after one of its blogs described him as gay. (It also reported that his hedge fund, Clarium Capital, was losing money.) He brought multiple lawsuits, but finally found the winning case — and a sympathetic courtroom — in the Hulk Hogan episode. The case hinged on whether Gawker had violated Mr. Hogan’s privacy, or whether, as an internationally recognized celebrity who frequently discussed his sex life in public, he no longer had a right to privacy.
Mr. Hogan was awarded a previously unimaginable $140 million. I wouldn’t have published that video myself, but to me the much bigger issue is what the case did to the First Amendment. It opened the door for anyone rich enough to fund a lawsuit (or two or three) to eviscerate a media organization whose coverage they don’t happen to like. Even if you hated Gawker, this should terrify you.
A couple of years ago, a new owner brought Gawker back to life. This last iteration of Gawker was nothing like the old one: It read more like a literary journal, with essayistic pieces and odd stories about esoteric things.
The original Gawker could never exist today. Gen X’s once seemingly edgy skepticism of institutional power has become Gen Z’s outright rejection of it. And, more to the point, nothing is too salacious for mainstream media to cover anymore. A former president is accused of paying a porn star hush money, and even the most highbrow outlets are obligated to cover it.
Social media has also democratized this kind of criticism and given social media users greater access to people in power. You can go on Twitter right now and tell Elon Musk directly to put his phone down and stop posting. (He won’t do it, but you can tell him.)
The Gawker model still inspires innovation, even if its mode of telling stories is no longer unique. Small worker-owned news sites like Hell Gate, which covers local New York news, and Defector, a culture site run by former Gawker alumni, show a total lack of reverence for elites. They are full of bite, and a lot of fun.
A friend once told me that the lead of your obituary is always the worst thing you’ve done followed by the best thing you’ve done. My obituary will lead with Gawker — but it might follow with it, too.
Elizabeth Spiers, a contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and digital media strategist. She was the editor in chief of The New York Observer and the founding editor of Gawker.
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