A Blog Mogul Turns Bearish on Blogs
THE blogging bubble has been taking on serious air of late. Last week, PaidContent.org, a blog that covers digital media, held its first mixer. It was, by all reports, filled to the brim with money and content guys speed dating on the way to marriage.
Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media, was there, but he wasn't looking for love or money.
"It made me want to move to Budapest, batten down the hatches and wait for the zombies to run out of food," Mr. Denton said cheerily.
One of the overlords of the blogosphere with 15 sites and enough buzz to arm every doorbell in the nation, Mr. Denton has watched page views at his sites double in the last year; Gawker Media and Nielsen/NetRatings put monthly unique visitors at 4.2 million. So it comes as a bit of a surprise that Mr. Denton celebrated a very upbeat stretch in the blogging industry by putting two of his sites on the block, reorganizing others and laying off several people.
Laying off journalists? How very old media.
"Better to sober up now, before the end of the party," he said in announcing the realignment. As of last Friday, Sploid, a tabloid-infested site built on screen shots, and Screenhead, an aggregator of video clips, were put up for sale. Editors at Gawker, Wonkette, Gizmodo, and Gridskipper were moved or replaced. At a time when mainstream media companies are madly baking their own piece of blog pie, Mr. Denton was summarily executing underperformers.
"We are becoming a lot more like a traditional media company," Mr. Denton said last week. "You launch a site, you have great hopes for it and it does not grow as much as you wanted. You have to have the discipline to recognize what isn't working and put your money and efforts into those sites that are."
No one would ever accuse Mr. Denton of being a sentimentalist. A former reporter for the Financial Times, he made his money on First Tuesday, a social networking site that reportedly sold for $50 million, and Moreover Technologies, which sold for a reported $39 million. He then built a chain of professionally staffed blogs that eschewed media conventions like, oh, fairness and reporting, for brutal, well-turned takes on fairly mannered industries.
Gawker, Deadspin, a sports site, and Valleywag, a Silicon Valley blog, in particular, have gone beyond cult status with rapacious, real-time annotations. But while newer sites like Jalopnik, an auto-obsessed blog, and Kotaku, a gaming destination, took off, Sploid and Screenhead tanked.
BRACING candor is not the only relevant application at Gawker Media. Blogs, as they became a medium unto themselves, have generally been characterized not just by idiosyncrasy, but also by a publishing schedule known only to them. Not so at Gawker Media, where the writers publish early and often, delivering on the critical expectation that readers will always find new content.
And every site, regardless of subject, is built on speaking what mainstream reporters will only say sotto voce. It isn't journalism — as Mr. Denton and his pack of merry provocateurs happily remind — but it is the kind of media that attracts steady audiences that advertisers covet.
"I always thought that you needed to know the code for finding out what was actually going on when you read mainstream publications," he said. "We just say it. It is supposed to be the conversation that occurs between reporters at the bar after they have finished their stories."
Sitting in his apartment on Spring Street, he appears to be the epitome of the new media aesthetic, with the buzzing Sidekick and a wireless laptop on a metal counter surrounded by appliances that seem to be made out of titanium. The antithesis of the schmoozer — human beings are, at best, companion media to Mr. Denton — he stares at traffic numbers and incoming e-mails as he talks.
But the whole digital veneer masks a bit of a media traditionalist. His sites are arrayed over very common contemporary interests — celebrity, pornography, sports, Hollywood — that would not be out of place in mass magazines (a dead-tree medium, by the way, that he believes is far from dead). He thinks all of the bluster around blogs, fueled in part by AOL's purchase of Weblogs, has brought stupid money off the sidelines. He has felt the touch of clammy hands from venture capitalists more times than he would care to count.
"There is no doubt that there is a bubble right now," he said.
So why not cash out?
"Because it would be too hard to start over," he said. "Sites need to be well-managed and well-designed and even then it is harder and harder to launch a site. The world does not need more blogs," adding that if you count all the pages on MySpace, "there is approximately one reader for every blog out there."
For his part, Mr. Denton spends a lot more time reading computer code than blogs. He believes that the common software behind blogs isn't up to the task and now has 11 people, including 4 in Hungary, working on developing proprietary solutions.
He has a massive noggin and a quiet ego to match, but has very little interest in routine publicity. Mr. Denton is an advocate of Fleet Street standards when it comes to the lives of public figures, but his own business approach has more in common with the Kremlin at the height of the Cold War. He leaves editorial matters to Lockhart Steele, the managing editor of the sites, and would only comment on the profitability of Gawker Media by saying, "I haven't had to sell my apartment yet."
Mr. Denton, whose practice of poor-mouthing his own enterprise may have some competitive advantages, is not a complete blog bear. This summer, the company will introduce a music site, no doubt full of unspeakable truths and half-truths from behind the curtain. Mr. Denton thinks a few other opportunities are worth investigating, but is not making any bold predictions.
"The barrier to entry in Internet media is low," he said. "The barrier to success is high."