Today marks one year since the end of Gawker, an online media company undone by a rich guy with a grudge.
As Sydney wrote last year, Gawker was on the receiving end of plenty of hate (some of it deserved) during its time, but the company employed a long list of great writers who weren't afraid of a goddamned thing. Today, media historian and journalism professor Michael Socolow writes in the Washington Post that the type of work Gawker did is "needed now more than ever."
Like PM (New York’s experimental newspaper in the 1940s), or the Berkeley Barb and other alternative press outlets in the 1960s, Gawker began as a crusade to save journalism. Like its alternative predecessors, Gawker challenged the processed wire copy and objective norms of standardized news content with pieces that could be opinionated, sensationalistic, and occasionally bizarre. Readers would be lured in with narcissistic displays, participatory journalism, and styles of address that could range from the nihilistic to the euphoric. There’s a reason it was named “Gawker.”
But if you stuck around, you might learn something. It was Gawker, for instance, that filed the original FOIA request for the emails between Hillary Clinton’s aide Philippe Reines and the news media that would eventually lead to the discovery of Clinton’s suspect email practices (for which she later expressed regret). That the Clinton email scandal would explode during the 2016 election wasn’t Gawker’s fault; they filed their original request in 2012. The whole mess might have been avoided had it been forthrightly addressed immediately. Yet the State Department, then the Clinton campaign, denied, fumbled and delayed an effective response for years. “Clinton Aide Who Avoided FOIA Insists He Didn’t Want to Avoid FOIA When He Wrote ‘I Want to Avoid FOIA,’” a typically barbed Gawker headline from the whole long-running mess read.
Repercussions from the case that killed Gawker continue, from Buzzfeed's recent story about R. Kelly to cases entirely outside the media realm. Last month here in Seattle, the lawyer for a landlord who wants to sue Council Member Kshama Sawant for calling him a slumlord cited the verdict in Hulk Hogan's case against Gawker.
The type of coverage Gawker pioneered is also, as Socolow points out, in "shorter and shorter supply." Hours after his piece was published came news that New York's Village Voice is killing its print edition. The Voice—the most iconic alt-weekly in the country—has faced ownership changes, layoffs, and, most recently, attempts by management to gut worker benefits and protections. Ownership said today it plans to "maintain its iconic progressive brand" online, in "new editorial initiatives," and in "a full slate of events."
But the perspective and persistence Socolow praises in the piece was never confined to an institution.
Many of Gawker's best writers continue to do what they did at Gawker elsewhere. If you miss Gawker but you're not reading Hamilton Nolan or Ashley Feinberg or Adrian Chen or Caity Weaver or Splinter or The Root or Jezebel or Deadspin, I don't know what to tell you.
I'd rather have my website shut down than be an evil republican dickhead
— Hamilton Nolan (@hamiltonnolan) August 22, 2017
"For all its childish snark, Gawker was run by people who understood that authorities — in the media, politics, and culture — too often fail to keep the public’s best interests in mind," Socolow writes. "Though Gawker is gone, the fact remains that the powerful still don’t have the public’s best interests at heart."
The good news is the writers who made Gawker what it was still know that.