Gawker Wants To Offer More Than Snark, Gossip

British Journalist Nick Denton is giving his Gawker media empire a facelift and unveiling it later this month. His family of websites has helped make snark a defining feature of the blogosphere. Denton says there will still be plenty of "nasty" left on his blog but he says readers want more than just brief caustic postings.

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Those messages, by the way, were made public by Deadspin, a sports blog that is part of the Gawker empire. Gawker websites obsess over celebrities, mocking media, fashion, politics, sex, Hollywood and Silicon Valley. They often get celebrities into trouble, and sometimes get Gawker into trouble.

When Gawker posted a leaked excerpt from Sarah Palin's new book, a judge ordered the site to take it down. Now Gawker's founder, Nick Denton, is working on a redesign that he hopes will alter its reputation.

Jesse Baker reports from New York.

JESSE BAKER: There's an office party going on for Gawker's West Coast tech writers. They're just some of the 130 people working for Nick Denton around the country. But Denton doesn't want to get me a drink. He wants to show me what he calls the big board.

Mr. NICK DENTON (Founder, Gawker): It's like a NASDAQ for content.

BAKER: It's a massive, flat-screen monitor, constantly updating, in real time, Gawker Media's top stories.

Mr. DENTON: It's a scary prospect for some people. It's exhilarating for most of our staff.

BAKER: And it's a board Denton tracks even more obsessively than he would, say, a child star on an ankle monitor.

Jessica Coen is editor of Jezebel, a Gawker site for women that considers itself the antidote to glossy magazines. Coen says getting page hits is crucial, but so is getting the story first.

Ms. JESSICA COEN (Editor, Jezebel): Nick is very much of the mind that you do it now. And the emphasis is to get it out there and be as correct as you can, but don't let that stand in the way of getting the story out there.

BAKER: The idea for the original site came to Nick Denton when he was working at that most respectable old-school newspaper: The Financial Times.

Mr. DENTON: The stories that I would like to read about are not the stories that appear on the FT's front page or inside pages, but the stories that journalists tell each other after hours.

BAKER: Denton would have you believe that after work, journalists dish about the latest Hollywood starlet to be dumped. And OK, maybe he's right.

Denton is in his mid-40s, British, and so unimpressed by American journalistic ethics that he'll go where most American journalists wouldn't dare: Denton will pay his sources.

Mr. DENTON: Blogs have developed a reputation for being fun, quick but also nasty, exposing unpleasant truths about people, saying things which upset people.

Ms. GABY DARBYSHIRE (COO, Gawker): We get a lot of complaints.

BAKER: That's Gaby Darbyshire, the chief operating officer and the lawyer who fields all Gawker media's legal threats.

Ms. DARBYSHIRE: There's no publisher in the world that will take down a story simply because a subject doesn't like what was said about them. So most of them go nowhere.

BAKER: So, despite objections, Gawker posted the Scientology recruitment video Tom Cruise didn't want you to see.

(Soundbite of Scientology video)

Mr. TOM CRUISE (Actor): My opinion is is that, look, you're either on board or you're not on board. OK? But just - if you're on board, you're on board just like the rest of us. Period.

Mr. DENTON: Sarah Palin's private e-mails, Brett Favre's stalking of a sideline reporter - we have made our names for the wider public on these stories.

BAKER: For years, Gawker's empire has built an audience of millions of monthly readers, largely by posting a flurry of caustic takes on stories pulled from other places. But now there'll be just one big story splashed across the front of each of Gawker's sites. Denton is intending to showcase writers who do deeper, original reporting.

Mr. KEN DOCTOR (Outsell): It makes a lot of sense for 2011.

BAKER: Ken Doctor is a digital media industry analyst for the consulting firm Outsell.

Mr. DOCTOR: It's actually right in line with what we're seeing from other older, legacy-branded media.

BAKER: Denton wants the Gawker sites to draw in upscale readers who see themselves interested in more than just gossip, and the advertisers who want to reach them.

Mr. DENTON: I would like to show the full range of content, from scurrilous and sensationalist through to beautiful and uplifting, because people can't live on snark and viscous gossip alone.

BAKER: As it turns out, even the bad boy of online snark is starting to sound suspiciously grown up.

For NPR News, I'm Jesse Baker.

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