No longer dear leader

Nick Denton unveils “the great unclenching” at Gawker Media

Editorial and management upheaval at Gawker Media almost never comes as a surprise, because the changes have usually been leaked — often by founder Nick Denton — long before the actual upheaval arrives. But the news that dropped on Wednesday was a bombshell, as Denton announced a management shakeup that includes himself: instead of being the sole power behind the blog network, Denton will become CEO and share his leadership role with a management committee made up seven editors and senior executives of the company, in what he characteristically referred to as “the great unclenching.”

In an internal memo approximately the length of an epic poem, which he also posted on his Kinja blog, Denton admitted that he had taken his eye off the ball over the past year — in part because of his obsession with the Kinja discussion platform, a venture he sees as the future of reader interaction, and also because of his recent marriage to actor Derrence Washington.

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”When I was disengaged, I didn’t leave any real authority in place. In my absence, the company ticks along nicely; with the challenge of Buzzfeed and Vox, ticking along nicely is no longer enough. Even when I’m here, if I’m obsessed by something, other parts of our common project can spin off in unpredictable directions, causing me to overlook developing risks and opportunities. As Joel said, I am the company’s greatest asset — and it’s greatest liability.”[/blockquote]

In an email message, Denton told me that he decided he needed to share control over Gawker so that he could “benefit from everyone’s advice. One guy can’t run a company of 300 singlehanded. Especially someone as obsessive as I am.” The Gawker founder said that the new editorial team would redouble its efforts on breaking stories like the Manti Te’o scandal and the Rob Ford story, and that Gawker “will in 2015 put Buzzfeed to shame. You can judge us by that.”

The new management structure will make it easier to respond to the increasing competitive threat from sites like BuzzFeed and Vox, Denton said, since decisions will be made by the committee as a whole rather than everyone having to try and get the founder’s attention at the same time. The new group includes former Deadspin editor Tommy Craggs as head of editorial operations, effectively replacing editor-in-chief Joel Johnson, who announced recently that he had been fired. In his memo, Denton said that while he admired Johnson, hiring him to run the entire editorial unit was a mistake:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”During this period I made a mistake in Editorial, hiring a talented guy whose voice and vibe I loved, who represented nerd values, and whom I thrust into a job which changed under his feet: he was competing with Lockhart Steele of Vox and Ben Smith of Buzzfeed, two of the most effective editorial managers in the business, each with the funding to go after the very best talent.”[/blockquote]

In typical fashion for Gawker, which is easily one of the most transparent new-media organizations on the planet — sometimes to a fault — the memo talks a lot about the need for better internal communication, including the co-operative kind but also the critical kind. It’s not clear how the new management committee will improve that, but Denton said it was imperative that the company get back to breaking news stories, instead of being “slaves to the Facebook algorithm.”

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”We were nowhere on the Edward Snowden affair. We wrote nothing particularly memorable about NSA surveillance. Gadgets felt unexciting. Celebrity gossip was emptier than usual. We pushed for conversations in Kinja, but forgot that every good conversation begins with a story.”[/blockquote]

Running throughout the memo is the sense that Denton feels under a considerable amount of competitive pressure. BuzzFeed not only has $50 million from a venture-capital group led by Andreessen Horowitz, but now has more than 700 employees worldwide — about twice as many as Gawker — and is continuing to expand. And all three are going head-to-head with the entire online media industry for a similar source of revenues: namely, the market for smart “sponsored content” or native advertising. Whether the new Gawker is up to that challenge remains to be seen.

But more than anything, Denton said that he wants Gawker to get back to its true nature as a blog network — not to become a new-media company, but to focus on what he called “the only true new media in the age of the web.”

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Blogging is the essential act of journalism in an interactive and conversational age. Our bloggers surface buried information, whether it’s in an orphaned paragraph in a newspaper article, or in the government archives. And we can give the story further energy by tapping readers for information, for the next instalment of the story, and the next round of debate.”[/blockquote]