Sep 272010
 

The Demon Blogger of Fleet Street

Nick Denton cast himself as a media outsider. That’s how he made it inside.

  • By Michael Idov
  • Published Sep 26, 2010
Painting by Nick Lepard

Nick Denton has built a panopticon. From his living-room window, he can all but see his favorite table at Balthazar, and his favorite table at Balthazar is picked for optimum surveillance of the room that surrounds it. The headquarters of Gawker Media, Denton’s nine-blog empire of barbed news and gossip sites, stands four blocks to the east, its roof terrace affording a panoramic view of the city. Yet all this omnividence goes two ways: Just as Denton seems to be watching every powerful figure in New York, every powerful figure in New York seems to be watching him. Not that Denton is ducking people. His life, online and off, is as permeable as that of anyone who gets into Gawker’s crosshairs. Write him at nick@gawker.com, poke him on Facebook, at-reply to @nicknotned on Twitter, and he will probably answer.

Eight years into Gawker Media’s existence, the standard line on Denton is still that he’s an outsider of sorts, a rude alien come to torment—and supplant—media civilization as we know it. If you’re Bill Keller, say, or Tina Brown—whose Daily Beast gets one-tenth of Gawker Media’s readership on a good month—it’s much easier to view Denton as an upstart thug from nowhere, as opposed to an equal who’s kicking your ass. That plays directly into Denton’s strategy: Thuggish is the reputation he wants. “If I am a cornerstone of the new Establishment, then there is no new Establishment worth talking about,” he says. “The only interesting people are on the West Coast,” he adds, then launches into a series of classic shameless Gawker riffs on the old New York media titans. “People used to quake when Barry Diller picked up the phone. Now he’s laughable. That image of Murdoch dyeing his hair in the sink is indelible—though the coloring may not be. Sumner Redstone would only be of interest to Gawker readers if he were to soil his adult diapers—on-camera. But the hard truth is that the golden age of New York media is largely over.”

Here’s another hard truth: Denton himself has become more of a mainstream media baron than he admits. These days, Gawker Media’s blogs net up to 17.5 million U.S. visitors per month, making the company America’s 45th most popular online property, well ahead of nytimes.com (55) or TMZ.com (59). Gawker Media grew through the annus terribilis of 2009. It grew in 2010. The U.S. readership figures of Gawker (gossip), Jezebel (women’s issues), Gizmodo (gadgets), Jalopnik (cars), Lifehacker (geek advice), and even Kotaku, Denton’s relatively low-key gaming site, are each up by 30 to 60 percent so far this year. The audience of the sci-fi blog i09 has more than doubled. It should tell you something that the straggler of the group is the company’s sole porn blog, Fleshbot.

Denton has been celebrated at Davos, has spoken at Murdoch’s exclusive retreat, and chatted with George Soros at a White House Correspondents’ Dinner. His Oxford mates have worked themselves into the upper reaches of British politics. And, shock of shocks, the man who has made his name by skewering traditional media outlets has several friends from the New York Times.

Denton will laugh all of that off, just like he did a 2007 assessment by the Sunday TimesVanity Fair as Brown’s website owes to Gawker. Gawker and the other sites also contain elements of familiar print brands from the New York Observer to Spy to the New York Post. After eight years of fretting about the coming bloggy anarchy, the most powerful person to emerge in that world is, ironically enough, a cozy archetype—a Fleet Street–minded New York Brit. Denton isn’t just an heir to Rupert Murdoch, Anna Wintour, Harry Evans, Tina Brown, and other ostensible Gawker targets; he’s become their peer. of London that estimated his worth at about $250 million. (A friend surmised that the paper was off “by a factor of ten” at the time, although Denton may be closer to that number now.) And no, Gawker Media is still not News Corp. But in a world full of old-media businesses blindly thrashing around the web, Denton is a man who has unequivocally figured things out—and made a fortune doing so. Not that he invented a new medium so much as reinvent an old one. Like all new-media types, Denton has said that in the future magazines will look more like websites. But he has also said that websites will look more like magazines (and eventually TV). Gawker Media has done exactly that. Gawker.com, its flagship property, owes at least as much to the “smart tabloid” model Tina Brown built at

London, 1966: the apex of Mod, the year of Twiggy and Blow-Up. The neighborhood into which Nick Denton was born, Hampstead, was the citadel of the moneyed liberal intelligentsia, posh but not stuffy. In retrospect, it was the perfect place for Marika Marton to have ended up. Marton (whose son strikingly resembles her) had escaped the Soviet invasion of Hungary just ten years prior, in 1956. A woman of formidable intellect, she spoke Russian, German, and Latin in addition to English and her native Hungarian, and began studying economics—first at London University, then at Southampton—almost immediately after immigrating. At the second school, she fell in love with her economics professor, Geoffrey Denton.

From the outset, their son Nick found himself in a near-bespoke environment of cosmopolitan cool, where his kinds of otherness—Jewish, Hungarian—made him blend in rather than stand out. So it was with the private school he attended, University College School, which placed little value on family crests but sent yearly waves of graduates to Oxford and Cambridge. Which is what happened to Denton.

At Oxford, Denton got his first taste of journalism as the editor at the famous Isis, once home to Graham Greene’s and Evelyn Waugh’s writing. (Journalist Jason Pontin, who worked under Denton at the magazine, remembers him as “profoundly talented” and “kind of bitchy”.) He also began to fall in with the circle that would come to supply nearly all of his interests and connections. Denton ran with students from Balliol and Christ Church colleges, the great ivied incubators of prime ministers and Parliament members. A 1999 Observer story, written by a friend of Denton’s named Simon Kuper, tried to coin a term for the group: the Young Chiefs. The nickname didn’t stick, but the article survives as a fascinating document linking Denton to a whole slew of future Labour leaders: Ed Balls (economic adviser to Gordon Brown), David Milibrand (likely next leader of the party), Yvette Cooper (M.P.), and so on.

After Oxford, many of the Young Chiefs, including Denton, flocked to the Financial Times, and Denton, who spoke fluent Hungarian, found himself in Budapest, at the age of 23, covering the fall of Communism as an FT stringer. It was, as he likes to say, all downhill from there (strategic self-deprecation is a Denton trademark). Once the romance of covering a revolution wore off, the big story was Western investment; in place of coups came mergers and acquisitions. This prompted the first in the series of Denton’s self-reinventions. Fascinated with the mechanics of banking, he fashioned himself into a financial muckraker.

“Our ethics policy? To publish the real story,” Denton has said. He was referring to an item about nude pictures of Brett Favre.

He was dogged to the point of becoming an office joke and legend at once. John Gapper, Denton’s editor at the FT, recalls a meeting with a Barings bank source who had brought in a folder full of sensitive documents but wouldn’t let the paper keep them. Denton just grabbed the edge of the folder, pulled it out, and absconded with it (he says he figured the source wouldn’t tell because he wasn’t supposed to talk to him). He also had a knack for identifying and feeding his targets’ needs until the interaction took on at least a semblance of win-win. “Nick attacked things from ten different angles,” remembers a publicist for a major investment firm, who became a Denton informant. “He got into the bankers, PR people, auditors, lawyers, until you had to talk to him just to get your side across.”

Denton wasn’t especially interested in writing as a craft divorced from fact-finding, but the proper career path dictated that he pen a book. So he did, with Gapper as the co-author and a banker named Nick Leeson, the rogue trader who had brought down Barings, as the subject. Denton slaved away on All That Glitters for months, hunting down obscure paperwork and telling details. A friend remembers how happy Denton was the night he found out Leeson’s computer password (Superman).

Despite Denton’s deep understanding of Leeson’s world, All That Glitters flopped. “A lot of the book was spent explaining the mechanics of how banks work. I presume—because like everyone else, I haven’t read it,” deadpans Kuper. (Books seem to be Denton’s Achilles’ heel. Ten years later, The Gawker Guide to Conquering All Media famously sold 242 copies in its first month.)

As Denton’s writing career stalled, his entrepreneurial drive revved up. In 1998, he and two friends started a company called Moreover.com, a media-monitoring service that predated Google News. Retrofitting his social talents to business purposes came naturally. “When the rest of us didn’t know what we were doing, he was buying distressed real estate in East London,” says a friend, “and hosting dinner parties at 27.” The building, a five-story former tea warehouse in a rundown section of Clerkenwell, cost about £160,000. Denton made it into a New York–style loft, an oddity in nineties London and a hint of his growing obsession with America.

Denton’s parties, then as now, drew a crowd slightly more bohemian than he was. He tried on an eccentric image—tooling around London on a Vespa, putting out ancient penny-store candy for guests—before hitting upon the Warholian mix of aloofness and approachability he maintains to this day. To those peering behind the party-host persona, he appeared shy, vaguely depressed, sensitive, and prone to opening up when you least expected him to. He was also still in the closet. A gay friend, who spent almost a year trying to figure out Nick’s sexuality, describes “this mini-wall in front of him.” The big pronouncement never came—Denton’s coming out was a matter of widening circles—but he appears to have fully inhabited his sexuality only in the States.

Then again, England never had his full trust. He was in love with America, or, rather, with his idea of it. He idealized Silicon Valley in particular. Denton’s quote in the Kuper article on the Young Chiefs sums it up: “It’s an American generation,” he says, sounding both canny and naïve. “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.” By the time the article came out, he had moved to San Francisco.

It was a disaster. What had seemed like a perfect place for a young queer Internet entrepreneur turned out to be something much scarier: a massive closed culture where Denton was a relative nobody. His two start-ups, Moreover and First Tuesday, an early social network for media types, were clever but unsexy. They made him a small fortune, but they didn’t make him a player. Worse yet, the Bay Area seemed to have little love for a caustic British wit. The smug guildlike insularity that Gawker Media would soon attack was on daily display. A newly minted millionaire, Denton was lonely and bitter. “San Francisco was not for me,” he says. But then, he adds, “I think one’s options—as a European cosmopolitan—are quite limited.” The semi-American persona he’d cultivated back home was gone. Several friends from that era, in describing him, use the word “miserable”; another said “sad sack.”

September 11 hit Denton hard, and his mind was spinning out hawkish retaliation scenarios. Back home, his mother, to whom he had been extremely close, was wasting away from cancer. The year 2001 was certainly among the worst of his life.

He needed a new gig, and to get out of San Francisco. He whipped up a spreadsheet and did an analysis of places to live in, assigning weighted scores to such categories as “old friends,” “business opportunities,” “Hungarians,” “Jews,” “hotter guys,” and “nature.” (The last one accounted for little.) Then, rationality be damned, he tweaked the inputs until New York came out on top. He moved here in the summer of 2002.

“Nick started Gawker to get his mind off things,” says a longtime friend. (Ironically, it was one of the few things he’s ever done mainly for the hell of it.) He had been working on a news aggregator, and thought a blog—a format back then understood primarily as someone’s online diary—could also work well. His first idea envisioned an innocuous listings service: music, nightlife, that sort of thing. Then a young financial analyst named Elizabeth Spiers, who had been running a blog called Capital Influx, caught his attention. It was sardonic, gossipy, and brimmed with distaste for clubby privilege mixed with an unspoken longing to join the club. She and Denton were a perfect match.

Both Spiers and Denton were relatively new to New York (Spiers had moved here in the fall of 1999). A friend who took Denton to Pastis recalls that he didn’t know what the meatpacking district was. The blog’s focus, articulated in a brisk manifesto, thus centered on the things that might fascinate any fresh arrival of a certain kind, at least in 2002: “Tina Brown, urban dating rituals, Condé Nastiness, movie grosses, Hamptons gauche, real-estate porn, Harvey Weinstein, fantasy skyscrapers, downwardly mobile I-bankers, Eurotrash, extreme-sport social-climbing, pomp, circumstance, and other matters of weighty import.”

On October 5, 2002, Nick Denton registered the domain Gawker.com. Its administrative contact was a low-tax offshore company in Budapest, called Blogwire Hungary Szellemi Alkotast Hasznosito. The last three words translate as “Intellectual Property Exploitation.”

The story of Gawker is the story of a couple of young outside observers’ sarcastic musings slowly morphing into an all-purpose, all-but-mainstream gossip sheet. Its first iteration, under Spiers, concerned itself mostly with the upstairs-downstairs farce of the Manhattan media world, a topic of limited appeal. As late as 2004, Gawker’s monthly page views were barely hitting 1 million, and its monthly revenue was just $6,000 (fellow blogs Gizmodo and Fleshbot were already onboard by then, but weren’t terribly successful either). The turning point came in March 2006, when Gawker.com integrated its Gawker Stalker feature (reader-submitted celebrity sightings) with Google Maps. It wasn’t all that innovative or audacious, but it seemed to be both. Gawker Stalker won Denton and the site mainstream attention of all stripes, not least of all from old-school tabloid merchants, who felt weirdly threatened; a look-alike site even showed up in a Law & Order plotline. Around the same time, Gawker.com also hit upon its trademark tenor—a mix of affected cool, open Schadenfreude, and surprisingly earnest self-¬righteousness—it has kept up since.

Where the tone amused some, it rankled others, and the journalistic methods Gawker Media employed were, to some, a sign of the apocalypse. Essentially, Denton had redefined “public interest” as the right to know everything about a public figure, and “public figure” as anyone with an unlocked Facebook account. Having taken many years to come out himself, Denton proved to be fine with outing homosexuals. He has shown a willingness to pay for tips, a common Fleet Street practice, but one that’s generally frowned upon in the States and has earned him further disdain from mainstream journalists here. This seems to only spur Denton on. In 2009, when Gawker was sued for publishing a sex tape that co-starred actress Rebecca Gayheart, the site made the lawsuit itself a recurring feature (Gawker Media reportedly ended up paying the plaintiffs low six figures). When Gizmodo published pictures of a dubiously procured iPhone prototype earlier this year—the tipster claimed to have found it in a bar, and sold it to Denton for $5,000—the incident opened up a whole new legal gray area. Gizmodo editor Jason Chen’s computers were seized by the police and are still being studied for evidence of malfeasance. These stories are sure to recur the more interested Gawker Media gets in original reporting (last week, it rehired its star investigative journalist John Cook away from Yahoo! News). Peer criticism from old media doesn’t seem to deter Denton, either. He once answered his detractors by plotting out their criticisms of Gawker on a timeline against its inexorably rising audience.

Where other media barons see their job as a calling—a chance to do important, perhaps even socially redeeming, journalism—Denton unapologetically worships at the temple of the page view. His ability to ignore his own preferences is, in fact, a key secret of his success. “I don’t think he’s even interested in a lot of stuff [his blogs] write about,” chuckles Gapper. “He always says that the problem with journalists is that they write about things that interest journalists, not the rest of the world.” And what interests the vast majority is, well, sex tapes, new Apple products, and, in the words of Denton himself, “athlete dong.” If you buy the man’s reasoning, this unflinching populism amounts to a kind of moral platform. “Our ethics policy? To publish the real story, the one that so-called sports journalists have spent their careers avoiding” is a representative Denton tweet on the topic. He was referring to an item about nude pictures of Brett Favre on his sports blog Deadspin. Denton’s frequent memos to staff include laundry lists of Stuff Readers Like (from the latest: “Readers enjoy strong opinion … They like photographs generally … In terms of web interest, we know that female trumps male. Youth also trumps age”). A 2009 missive, entitled “We’re Not Running a Newspaper,” read: “At some media organizations you might get rapped for running a premature story. At Gawker Media, you’ll lose way more points for being scooped on a story you had in your hands.”

We do, however, know empirically one line Gawker won’t cross. In March 2008, a contrite Denton wrote, “Overnight, Gawker went with the story about a puppy, apparently killed by American troops in Iraq. We’d already run a perfectly adequate link; a follow-up post, with a clip, was gratuitously shocking, and unnecessary. Sorry. The post is now down.” For the record: A puppy snuff film is, for the time being, beyond Gawker Media’s pale.

To say that Denton is hands-on is to say nothing. He is the author of 2,332 posts across his network—the equivalent, if you will, of Murdoch putting in weekly appearances on Fox & Friends. Twice, he has dropped in to write and edit his sites himself: Valleywag in 2006 and Gawker in 2008. At Gawker, he wrote mild state-of-the-media rants, broke a couple of election tidbits, and revived the site’s original obsession with Harvey Weinstein. The Valleywag stint had a distinct subtext: Denton was finally having his way with the Bay Area. “You could argue that I shouldn’t be writing this site,” he responded to one commenter (yes, he did that, too). “It’s one of our smallest; it has little economic potential; and much to alienate potential partners and competitors. Writing a blog is absolutely exhausting. But it is good fun.” Denton picked on targets big and small, from Google on down, just like in his days at the Financial Times. He endlessly harassed John Battelle, the “permatanned founder” of Federated Media. He published executives’ home addresses, an act that even Denton’s twisty definitions of public interest couldn’t justify. In an instant message Denton sent me about his two firsthand blogging experiences, he wrote, “You can write anything as long as you mention I tripled the traffic both times.”

“You got the warmer Nick,” says an old friend. “I think he’s made a conscious decision to stop being an asshole.”

Denton’s expansionist streak, in fact, looks a lot like an old-school media baron’s. Soon after launching Gawker, Gizmodo, and Fleshbot, he tried to replicate the original formula in L.A. (Defamer) and D.C. (Wonkette), and later added the other sites. He’s also as unsentimental about his businesses as a traditional tycoon. When Wonkette failed to generate sufficient readership, he sold it off. When Kinja, a news aggregation site that he once believed would be more successful than Gawker, underperformed, he shuttered it. Denton’s eye for the bottom line certainly extends to his staff. It has been well established that Gawker Media content is produced by caffeine-blitzed youngsters at a frantic churn, spurred on by page-view bonuses, barely supported by a base salary, and often fired (and rehired) on a second’s notice.

Gawker’s shift from emphasizing tabloid-style scoops over jokey riffs has certainly paid off—witness the company’s double-digit growth. It should come as no surprise, then, that Denton’s next move is to head further still in that direction. If you look at the beta versions of Gawker and Gizmodo’s upcoming redesigns (set to go live early next year), you’ll be struck by how conventional they look: big headlines, big pictures, a clearly defined lead story occupying a generous video-ready rectangle at the center of the screen. Most of the network’s greatest hits center on pictures and video, not text—and so it follows that Denton’s vision of a blog has also been gravitating from the diary metaphor to the TV metaphor, where his various properties will represent various “channels.” Just like Gawker Stalker, this is not revolutionary or even all that interesting. It’s just smart business.

From the moment of Gawker Media’s inception, the common wisdom dictated that Denton was going to flip it. He had his chances, too, having shot down an overture from, you guessed it, Murdoch (News Corp. put out feelers after AOL bought Jason Calacanis’s Weblogs Inc.). The latest rumor comes from Felix Salmon, who thinks that the formerly morose Denton has become suspiciously, and publicly, upbeat about the company’s potential, and must be goosing up the sale price. (Denton’s response was to bet Salmon a “dinner at Masa, no limits, if we’re still independent in two years.”) All who know him personally concur that it’s practically impossible to imagine Denton idly watching someone else run Gawker. He doesn’t need the money: Apart from his Spring Street dream pad, his lifestyle is relatively modest. For his part, Denton insists, Gawker is “embryonic. This is at most a midsize media group that might, in twenty years, be something a bit more.”

What that “more” will be is anyone’s guess, of course. But he’s having too much fun in the meantime not to stay with it. His friends attest that he’s much sunnier than he was in the London and San Francisco years; even the breakup with a longtime boyfriend over the summer didn’t put him into the kind of gloomy funk for which he used to be known. “You got the warmer Nick,” says one old friend when I tell him I’ve known Denton for three years or so. “He loves to observe human behavior, and I think he has observed his own and just made a conscious decision to stop being an asshole.”

In New York, Denton has surrounded himself with a group of rather private people, most of whom are “serious” journalists (Motoko Rich, Peter Maass, Rebecca Mead) and know him from as far back as the Financial Times, if not Oxford. They provide quiet dinners and a refuge from the daily wallow in items like “Calvin Klein’s Boyfriend Is a Gay Pornstar and We’ve Got Pics! NSFW.” In return, they enjoy his intelligence and friendship and the occasional big gesture (Denton threw Maass’s engagement party).

Simon Kuper remembers visiting New York this June and being struck by the peaceful picture he saw on Gawker’s roof: While the gossip mill churned one floor below, Denton held a party for his friends with small children. He had arranged for sugary snacks and a paddling pool, and delighted shrieking and splashing filled the air. “It was idyllic and very family-oriented, and I was struck by the lack of ostentation,” he says.

Another old friend agrees, to a point, with the idea that Denton has softened. “Nick’s very generous,” she says, pausing. “Although, in a Nick kind of way. I mean, those little children are running on a roof.”

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