Gawker has become the trending content, covering itself like a celebrity or a trending meme. This may be a sign that your media brand has gone from being revered to disregarded as fodder. The repercussions can range from lack of profitability, to audience ceiling, to $100 million civil lawsuit.
The Bollea Vs. Gawker Media civil suit, in which the wrestler Hulk Hogan is seeking $100 million in damages from Gawker, began on March 7. It has generated headlines every day, generating more uniques and pageviews off the excerpts of a celebrity sex tape that Gawker originally posted in 2012. It's a bit disorienting to watch a media company stand trial for posting the type of content that began to feel somewhat regular and ubiquitous. Before themes of tolerance and acceptance became a built-in part of internet vernacular, the internet was for lifting the veil on celebrity and feeling like an insider for getting 'scoops' beyond what could be said on television or print. Perez Hilton, TMZ, and The Dirty seemed to exist for the sake of kicking up dirt. These were long before the days of reposting Instagram content and inferring subtext in tweets to fuel celebrity beef.
Gawker has made its name by curating the most relevant news and non-news, applying an editorial tone of snark that was widely accepted as normalcy during the days of the formative blogosphere. It paved the way for many future media company strategies, while Gawker largely stayed true to its desire to remain independent from the constraints of outside investors. In a 2015 memo, Gawker CEO Nick Denton wrote, "…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."
To Gawker, online media is a place where the pressure of outside investor expectations can blur a philosophical mission, or the ability to leave one behind. It's a medium where the limits of free speech and media rights can be tested, even if that meant the next realm of content would blur the lines between pornography and clickbait. Now, Gawker is on trial for the clickbaiting sins of the era when content farms were still called blogs, and blogs doubled as illegal hosting sites for video, mp3s, and photos.
As the Gawker trial sludges on, there's no better time to reflect on just how normal it felt to turn to the internet for commentary on bleak minutiae like sex tapes, microcelebrity news, and deep dives into fringe content that traditional media didn't have time for. Pornographic content like a celebrity sex tape will attract attention, no matter the medium, but the consequences of hosting it like a streaming service may have stretched the limits of a news blog. Gawker isn't a corner of the internet where no one is looking. Online media is still seeking growth at all costs, except at the cost of being perceived as a deliberate bully.
As the media consolidation towards the content farm model has continued, it's difficult to explain the impact of Gawker on the current internet. Not many websites have a narrative voice that works alongside the content to incubate a loyal and participatory community of readers, although the negativity probably limited its growth potential. While it's defined by big scoops like Rob Ford smoking crack, Manti Te'o getting catfished, and a photo of Brett Favre's penis, the Gawker network's daily commitment to compelling content implemented with unrelenting voice has also made it a target for ending the unregulated habits of online journalism.
In Februrary of 2012, Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio publicly stated that his new strategy was based on "trafficwhoring," which is the practice of pandering to the lowest common denominator of content and audience to attract the largest number of pageviews. As Adweek reported, the newly appointed editor placed one person in charge of posting viral news stories on order to get more traffic. This would free up writers to spend more time writing longer things that didn't perform as well so that they continued to generate interesting content. This was a strategy to grow and to keep generating interesting content.
Ten months later, he posted the Hulk Hogan sex tape. No ads were run on the post, since it featured adult content. Accompanying the video was commentary on the societal fascination with sex tapes. This was the standard Gawker experience. Snark was commentary about the event that you weren't quite sure why you even cared—just like Terry Bollea vs. Gawker Media.
Gawker's media legacy is now being written by the same content farms that use similar strategies to keep the hits coming and the ad dollars pouring in. It doesn't matter that Nick Denton largely kept Gawker independent, without outside funding until the legal threat of the Bollea lawsuit. Perhaps the lesson of Gawker is that outside investors sanitize content for the purpose of sustainability. There is no one piece of content, such as a pro-wrestler's sex tape', worth losing everything over. Instead, stay relatively neutral, keep it clean, and just keep expanding reach.
Profitable media doesn't become the trending content.
Especially now that the internet has been cleaned up. Positive content farms sell for millions. Many media brands have learned to stay away from a tone that seems negative or incendiary because the mere presence of something resembling snark limits the growth of a community. Posting controversial content about an individual could make your site perceived as an intolerant bully as opposed to the criticism site.
Whenever a media brand is put on trial, the purpose of media is questioned. What are the responsibilities of a media outlet to portray world occurrences? Where does the First Amendment stop applying? What is relevant news? Call it ethics, journalism, reporting, or showing a touch of humanity towards a private individual, but right now that purpose of media is in the hands of a St. Petersburg, Florida jury.
Life on the Content Farm is a weekly column about internet media written by the last relevant blogger.