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.
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:
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.”
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.”