Gawker Media’s auto-focused site Jalopnik hired a new editor recently — which isn’t all that surprising, since the blog network run by Nick Denton has been expanding in all sorts of directions lately, including into new countries. But Jalopnik’s new hire didn’t come from a job board or Craigslist or even LinkedIn: new weekend editor Mike Ballaban got his new job thanks to his active participation in the site’s comment section. At a time when online comments are coming under increasing fire as being useless and/or evil, Gawker’s move shows there is still some potential value in them.
Hiring a staffer from the comments isn’t something that came out of left field for Jalopnik: in fact, the site’s editor, Matt Hardigree, more or less telegraphed his intention to start doing this in February, when he launched the new version of the site’s comment system, which is based on Gawker’s proprietary Kinja platform — a model that essentially gives every commenter their own blog where their discussions are highlighted. As Hardigree put it in a note about the redesign:
You’ll also be able to republish articles from our site (and eventually all Gawker sites) and we’ll be able to do the same. If we do republish something you created you’ll get the byline, the credit, and it’ll be clear where it came from. When we look for the next generation of writers for our site, and other sites, we’ll be looking at who does well in Kinja.
Comments as “a farm system” for a blog
Hardigree said in a blog post about Ballaban’s hiring that while Jalopnik and other Gawker sites have hired commenters to be writers before — including Ryan Tate, now a writer at Wired, who was hired (ironically) after he trashed a job ad posted by Gawker — this is the first time it has taken someone from the pool of Kinja-based commenter/bloggers. The Jalopnik editor said he was “particularly impressed with [Ballaban's] passionate Suzuki eulogy and evaluation of American cars.”
In a discussion we had with Nick Denton before the launch of the Kinja platform, the Gawker Media founder said one of his goals for the new system was to even the playing field between commenters and writers — to make it easier to highlight good content from readers, and give that the same prominence as writing from the actual staff of the network’s blogs. In a note earlier this year, he called it a “a farm system for the main Gawker teams.”
Other media outlets that have hired commenters include political blog network Daily KOS and The Atlantic, where Yoni Appelbaum was such a frequent and eloquent commenter on writer Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blog that the magazine asked him to be an occasional contributor and then eventually hired him. Coates’ blog is known for its thoughtful comments — so much so that the Atlantic writer actually thanked his commenters when he won a National Magazine Award for his writing.
Critics such as Buzzfeed writer John Herrman argue that there is little value in reader comments, and some high-profile bloggers have stopped allowing them. But blogs such as Coates’ and that of Union Square Ventures partner Fred Wilson (where at least one startup, Engagio, was born out of a discussion on his blog) show that there can be value in comments when a writer or a site takes an interest in engaging with readers. And in some cases, it can even turn into a job.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Shutterstock / Tang Yan Song