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The Rise and Fall of Gawker

Once a flagship model on the internet, Gawker ignited debates about celebrities, challenged societal norms, and trailblazed what could be said in the new world of digital media. Founded in 2002 by Nick Denton and Elizabeth Spiers, Gawker envisioned a new frontier for fearless journalism. Their stylistic journalism forced them into bankruptcy in 2016 with the infamous Hulk Hogan case. Up until 2016, with its sister sites Deadspin, Jezebel, Gizmodo (io9), and Kotaku, Gawker had its tentacles wrapped around the digital publishing industry. Gawker’s advocacy for free speech over the internet and mischievous articles kept web surfers from being bored. The first amendment was often under fire as Gawker made its impact on American media through its reckless journalism.  

As Gawker looked to industrialize the online gossip industry, early articles such as “Gawker Stalker Maps and Emily Gould” (2006-08) and Alex Balk’s article “Accused of Antisemitism” (2007), gave good examples of their satirical editorials. “Gawkers vs. Sarah Palin” provided a controversial area for Gawkers leakage of Palin’s unreleased book excerpts. Backed by publisher HarperCollins, Palin sued Gawker for leaking her book without her permission. Gawker lost the case when a federal judge ordered them to take down the posts.

Gawker’s assessment of journalism, implored writers to be innovative and creative through the idea of the utopian impulse. As described by Adrian Chen, a former writer for Gawker, the utopian impulse demonstrated Gawkers eagerness for its authors to be free and innovative. Through Gawker’s content-management system, the publish button was only a click away from either the success of a writer or their self-implosion. While the platform encouraged their journalists to be free, their aspirations drove the company into the ground. Through battling people such as Peter Thiel and Hulk Hogan, Gawker’s aspirations didn’t stand much of a chance.

Eccentric billionaire Peter Thiel, (cofounder of PayPal) became Gawker’s public enemy number one. Thiel was portrayed as being gay by Gawker’s articles which damaged Thiel’s character. Thiel and Gawker exchanged many punches through the years. The covert financer, made Gawker struggle at times with the number of lawsuits he imposed on Gawker for defamation. Thiel, in 2015, funded the popular Hulk Hogan case that involved the leakage of a sex tape causing questions about invasion of privacy and free speech. With financial backing from the billionaire, Hulk Hogan won his lawsuit against Gawker. Engulfed in $140 million dollars’ worth of damages the company posted for bankruptcy and was bought out.

Later through auction, Gawker was acquired by Univision Communications in 2016, for approximately $135 million. Fortunately, Gawkers sister companies remained unaffected. The articles of Jezebel, Gizmodo, Deadspin, and Kotaku don’t quite match Gawker’s intensity, but portrayed similar creative aspects. For example, Jezebel discusses celebrities, politics, and entertainment in a stylistic manner. Gizmodo has a sci-fi take on journalism and debates anything relating to tech or spaceflight. Deadspin deals a unique take on sports by providing topics such as “Drew Brees’ midlife crisis is right on time.” Providing unique articles about gaming and tech, Kotaku submerges its readers with creative articles such as “Genshin Impact Dev’s Rad AF ‘Urban RPG’ is Living in My Head Rent Free.”.

Gawker pushed the boundaries of free speech on the digital platform. In Nick Denton’s eyes, anything that was interesting validated an article. Denton illuminated his readers by pushing through articles no matter how controversial they were. He wanted everything to be a fair game in his empire.  Former Gawker editor Max Read categorized Gawkers life as “endlessly scrolling, eternally accessible record of prattle and wit and venom.” Built on young journalists who look to strike it big, Gawker feared no one and didn’t necessarily care if they hurt feelings. As Nick Denton stated in an interview with Joe Mullin of ArsTechnica, he would not change Gawker’s image one bit.

Recently Gawker has relaunched in 2021 with the Bustle Digital Group. Leah Finnegan, the new editor-in chief who originally worked for Gawker in their heyday envisions a fresh new start for the platform. Ms. Finnegan understands that the old platform got out of hand, and wants to get back to the funny bits. In an interview with NY Times Ben Smith, Ms. Finnegan stated that she wasn’t interested in ruining people’s lives, but would rather focus on satirical literary criticism. Through the creation of “Religious Guidelines”, authors now have much more direction when writing for Gawker.   

Gawker specialization in gossip, made it difficult to prosper when something was accidentally leaked. Nonetheless, the company helped popularize the early goings of the blogging scene. Under Leah Finnegan’s new management, a historic comeback attempt is looking promising. Even if the company looks at making fun of people, Ms. Finnegan intends on doing it in a professional manner.

Companies like Gawker forged a new industry and helped set the guidelines for freedom of speech on the internet. Through their satirical approach Gawker blazed a trail for companies such as BuzzFeed to take over the gossip market.  Gawker passed down a lot of qualities to the newly forming industry and created controversial journalism. With Ms. Finnegan’s advisement, Gawker looks at diversifying its platform to be more suitable for casual laughter from the audience instead of hurting people with defamation.