Why Nick Denton could be the most disruptive force in online media right now

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Much of the attention in the digital-media sphere tends to get focused on relative upstarts like BuzzFeed, or dramatic moves like Andrew Sullivan’s go-it-alone blogging effort, and with good reason. But meanwhile, Gawker Media founder Nick Denton keeps on methodically trying to re-engineer the entire way that content works online — not to mention reshaping the relationship between Gawker as a publisher and what Jay Rosen and Dan Gillmor have referred to as “the people formerly known as the audience.”

Is there a case to be made that Denton is the most disruptive force in online media right now? I think there is.

As an example, take the latest features that Gawker is rolling out for its Kinja discussion platform, which has been steadily evolving from just a commenting system into a bottom-up publishing method — one that gives readers far more power than they have on virtually any other media site, except possibly Reddit. As Denton told the Nieman Lab earlier this year:

“Publishing should be a collaboration between authors and their smartest readers — and at some point the distinction should become meaningless.”

Readers can rewrite Gawker headlines

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As Adrienne LaFrance noted in a post at the Nieman Lab, the new features will allow any Gawker reader to take blog posts from the network’s various sites (Gawker, Gizmodo, Jalopnik, etc.) and rewrite them, or at least create a new headline and introductory paragraph. In effect, it turns Gawker readers into editors and aggregators who can re-blog or share posts with their own headlines and lede paragraphs — since Kinja also gives everyone who comments their own blog, another Denton innovation.

These rewritten Kinja posts can also get promoted to the front page of the Kinja network, if their headlines are good enough. In a sense, Denton is structuring Gawker so that the blog posts and re-blogged posts produced by readers are competing with the output of his own writers and editors for attention — and the result is something approaching a meritocracy of sorts, where the best content (theoretically) rises to the top.

And that doesn’t just mean pageviews for readers: Gawker is well known for hiring its best commenters and making them part of its permanent staff.

More than just about anyone else, Denton is blurring the line between readers or commenters and the professional writers and editors he pays to generate content. Some publishers and websites can’t even bring themselves to dignify comments with a response, let alone promote commenters or hire them to work for the website (although The Atlantic has also done this). Many seem happy to hand their comments over to Facebook, and some argue that comments should be done away with entirely because they serve no useful purpose other than attracting trolls.

Blurring the line between writer and reader

In contrast, Denton has consistently said — as he told me during an interview prior to the launch of Kinja last year — that he wants to level the playing field as much as possible between comments and the stories or posts that trigger them. The reason he decided to launch Gawker in the first place was that he realized, while working for the Financial Times, that the commentary in the newsroom about an event was often far more interesting and relevant than the actual story itself.

Part of the idea behind Kinja is to use the hyper-commenting/blogging platform as a way of offering something valuable to advertisers as well, as Denton described in our earlier interview: a kind of sponsored discussion that would allow brands to meet and engage with smart commenters around an issue, in much the same way that innovative sites like Techdirt are trying to find ways of building bridges between their reader communities and the advertisers who want to reach them.

Denton isn’t the only one who is doing innovative things in publishing, of course — Techdirt and Talking Points Memo are both trying to redefine how they engage with (and appeal to the wallets of) their readers, and Sullivan’s Daily Dish and Marco Arment’s The Magazine are also interesting. But no one is putting their money behind Rosen’s “people formerly known as the audience” principle the way Denton is, and it’s fascinating to watch.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock

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