Anyone who has been to the Gawker Media offices in New York’s SoHo district has been greeted by a graphic reminder of how important traffic numbers are to the company — namely, the giant screens that list the top hits of the day. In a new memo, however, Gawker founder Nick Denton says that is going to change: no longer will traffic be the only benchmark of whether a story has done well. Now, editorial judgement will also play a role. When it comes to generating raw traffic, Denton admits, BuzzFeed has effectively won the war.
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Stories that generate attention will be noted and rewarded, but only those that Tommy Craggs and his colleagues deem worthy of that attention. A layer of subjective editorial judgment will return. Newspaper traditionalists will no doubt see this as vindication.”[/blockquote]
Although Denton’s memo downplays these changes, they are both fairly significant. Just over a year ago, in a different memo (leaked, as usual, by Denton himself), the Gawker founder was declaring war on BuzzFeed — which passed Gawker in terms of monthly unique visitors in November of 2013, with 130 million — and earlier this year the site vowed to hire more staff so that it could compete with its “smarmy” uptown rival.
Traffic is not the only thing
In the latest missive, however, Denton says that Gawker has “reached the limit” of the traffic-focused approach, and that the value of posts will now rely in large part on the views of his new editor-in-chief Tommy Craggs — the former Deadspin editor who replaced Joel Johnson at the top of the Gawker editorial heap. According to Denton, Craggs will be featuring posts he likes on a company-wide blog with the tongue-in-cheek name The Politburo.
As Denton notes in his memo, Gawker was one of the first blog network/media players to focus almost completely on traffic as a measure of value, and even for a time based the compensation of its writers in part on how many high-traffic posts they had written. Even after that stopped, traffic was still king: the site even hired a writer specifically to generate viral hits — Neetzan Zimmerman (who later left to join Whisper), who was in some months single-handedly responsible for as many as 15 million unique visitors.
In effect, Denton’s announcement is an admission that BuzzFeed has won the traffic race, and will likely continue to do so — thanks to the incredibly deep pockets that come with raising $50-million from venture capitalists like Andreessen Horowitz, a financing round that valued the company at more than $800 million, or about four times what Denton recently estimated that Gawker is worth. As the Gawker founder puts it:
[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]”Maybe it is also a recognition that we can never play the viral traffic game as shamelessly as Buzzfeed. We care too much about our reputation among other writers, and too little about the concerns of venture capital and corporate investors.”[/blockquote]
These are just the latest changes in what has been a period of upheaval even for Gawker, an entity known for its love of turmoil and drama: In addition to Johnson leaving, Denton has turned over management of the network to a committee of editors. While that might look bad in any other company, one of the unique things about Gawker is that Denton controls the entire thing, and so his opinion is the only one that really matters.