There exists in the collective media mind a caricature of Denton as an evil, soulless, Machiavellian puppeteer: the Wizard of Blogs. It is fed in part by some of the familiar pejoratives associated with tech geekery (Denton as anti-social robot, for example), and also by his own publications, which, in the interest of his vaunted transparency, occasionally turn their pitiless gaze on the boss himself, for comic effect. From reading Gawker, I had learned that Denton is not just a terrible employer but one of â€œNew Yorkâ€™s worst,â€ as well as an unapologetic liar and the kind of person who leaves his own party early in search of a better one. The caricature was not much diminished by speaking to people about their experiences with the man.
â€œHeâ€™s not, like, a sociopath, but you kind of have to watch what youâ€™re doing around him,â€ Ricky Van Veen, the C.E.O. of the Web site College Humor, told me.
â€œThe villain public persona is not a hundred-per-cent true,â€ A. J. Daulerio, the editor-in-chief of Deadspin, Gawker Mediaâ€™s sports blog, said. â€œItâ€™s probably eighty-per-cent true.â€
â€œHe has fun when people say horrible things about him,â€ the blog guru Anil Dash said.
â€œI canâ€™t lie to make him worse than he is, but heâ€™s pretty bad,â€ Ian Spiegelman, a former Gawker writer, said.
â€œOther peopleâ€™s emotions are alien to him,â€ Choire Sicha, another Gawker alumnus, said.
â€œHeâ€™s got a strong carapace of not really thinking other peopleâ€™s opinions are that important,â€ John Gapper, a columnist at the Financial Times, said.
â€œHeâ€™s right,â€ Matt Welch, the editor of the libertarian magazine Reason, said. â€œHeâ€™s never right about me, of course. But people are lazy and not very good.â€
â€œHe almost sees people as Legos moving around,â€ Sheila McClear said.
â€œHeâ€™s not a fully human person,â€ Spiegelman said.
â€œI mean, maybe he thinks heâ€™s the one truly advanced human,â€ Anna Holmes, the founding editor of Jezebel, a.k.a. Girlie Gawker, said.
â€œDoes he have parents?â€ Daulerio asked.
â€œI always imagine that he came fully formed out of British finishing school,â€ Holmes said.
â€œPart of getting to know Nick is accepting that there are things youâ€™ll never know,â€ Jeff Jarvis, the new-media critic and author, said.
â€œWhat can you do with a person like that?â€ Spiegelman said. â€œHeâ€™s a character out of Dr. Seuss, frankly.â€
â€œNick is a bit of a sphinx on purpose,â€ Joel Johnson, the longest-serving Gizmodo writer, said. â€œHe has some of the attributes of the dork who wraps his Aspergerâ€™s around him like a cloak.â€
â€œThereâ€™s no point in writing about Nick if you canâ€™t get to the fundamental problem of his nihilism,â€ Moe Tkacik, who has worked at both Gawker and Jezebel, said.
â€œHe likes pretty things,â€ Daulerio said.
â€œHe takes cancer very seriously,â€ Sicha said.
â€œHe wants to be Warhol,â€ McClear said.
â€œHeâ€™s always wanted to be a magazine editor,â€ Welch said. â€œHeâ€™ll deny it to his grave.â€
â€œWhat he really wants is to be the editor of the New York Times,â€ Spiegelman said.
None of these people really dislike Denton, and some of them are quite fond of him. With old friends, particularly those outside the blogging world, he is â€œcuriously loyal,â€ as Gapper says, even if he is also â€œruthless, actually, in lots of ways.â€ Several people mentioned that theyâ€™d sought Dentonâ€™s approval before agreeing to talk about him. â€œBe interesting,â€ he invariably responded. Denton once chided his boyhood friend David Galbraith for marvelling to a reporter that at the age of thirteen Nick was already reading The Economist. Galbraithâ€™s crime was to come off sounding â€œtoo suburban.â€ Denton preferred that I not talk to his sister, Rebecca, because â€œsheâ€™s going to give you empty nothings,â€ as he put it. He also seems uncharacteristically protective of her privacy. Rebecca is three years younger than Nick, and lives in London. â€œShe looks after her kids and writes childrenâ€™s books,â€ he said. She used to call him Tricky Nicky, or so he says.
This is the innovation that is Gawker
Denton arrived in Manhattan with a list of important people he planned to meet, and a personal mission to unsettle many of them. That summer, he abandoned the science-fiction novel heâ€™d been working on and started what became Gawker Media. He saw in the traditional blog formatâ€”links with commentary, presented in reverse chronological orderâ€”the potential for a leaner, more accountable publishing model aimed at niche audiences, or verticals, that could be bundled together when selling advertising. Just how lean? He paid Elizabeth Spiers, the original Gawker writer, two thousand dollars a month, on the assumption that posting twelve short items a day, mostly in response to things sheâ€™d read in the Times or gleaned from fashion-magazine sources, was a part-time commitment. When Spiers complained, after several months, that the gig was taking over her life, he told her to relax on weekends and pro-rated her pay downward. Later, as the brand grew more established, and as the number of writers in his stable increased, he settled on a new payment scheme: twelve dollars a post, with a pool of bonus money paid out according to the number of page views generated.
Paying bonuses for traffic meant not only keeping statistics about what readers did and didnâ€™t like but sharing that information with writersâ€”a supreme journalistic taboo, as it could easily lead to pandering. Pandering was precisely Dentonâ€™s aim, and he took it one step further when he started publishing his traffic data alongside the stories themselves. It almost felt like a sociological experiment designed to prove the obvious: that readers are herd animals, that heat begets heat. A photograph of an unidentifiable mammalian carcass on a beach, cleverly dubbed the Montauk Monster, is viewed two million times: go figure. â€œI think people are sort of waking up to it now, how probably the biggest change in Internet media isnâ€™t the immediacy of it, or the low costs, but the measurability,â€ Denton told me. â€œWhich is actually terrifying if youâ€™re a traditional journalist, and used to pushing what people ought to like, or what you think they ought to like.â€
He is fond of suggesting that newspapers would be shamed into shuttering their Albany bureaus if they acknowledged the full breadth of their readersâ€™ habits, beyond the â€œten most e-mailedâ€ lists. No â€œtraditionalâ€ journalistic outfit has yet copied this particular innovation of Dentonâ€™s, although Jacob Weisberg, the editor of the Slate Group and a wary admirer, admitted to me that he has lately â€œsort of wanted to,â€ adding that â€œpeople are afraid it has implications that will be followed.â€