You Can't Beat Traffic
Gawker Media's Nick Denton talks with Michael J. Wolf
By 2002, Nick Denton had found success, first as a British journalist, then even more success as an entrepreneur, co-founding and selling two technology companies - early social-networking Web site First Tuesday and news-aggregator/business-intelligence firm Moreover Technologies.
That's when Denton decided to return to his roots as a muckraker and launched gawker.com, a gossip Web site focused on New York City. Fueled by an overwhelming desire to annoy people in power and his own fairly deep pocketbook, Denton hired an unproven 25-year-old editor, Elizabeth Spiers, and set to work redefining how media could work. Sometimes loved, often loathed, Gawker went on to define what a "blog" means in the larger media landscape. It has broken stories about congressmen posting on Craigslist, released videos of Tom Cruise despite warnings from the Church of Scientology and revealed the secrets of the iPhone 4 long before Steve Jobs would have preferred.
Today, out of his New York offices, Denton, 44, oversees one of the most powerful and controversial suites of brands in the online-media landscape, with a reach in the millions: flagship gawker.com, Gizmodo for gadgets, Kotaku for video games, Jalopnik for cars, Deadspin for sports, Lifehacker for productivity tips and others. Like many of Gawker's alumni, Elizabeth Spiers has gone on to larger things as editor of the New York Observer.
MEDIA guest editor Michael J. Wolf recently spoke with Denton about the perils of publishing online, finding talent for a new medium and the risks of redesigning.
You seem to truly enjoy tweaking people who work in traditional media.
There's no one way to do media, but there was one way that people did do media. I've always been inclined to choose the opportunities that have been neglected - whether neglected talent or story opportunities that arise if you're able to pay for scoops. Whatever traditional media takes as being a given, a holy law that thou shalt not pay for stories, it's productive to ask, "Well, why?" If [paying] gives you content that people want, [and gets it] more cheaply than other people can acquire it, then why wouldn't you want one to do that? Why not, say, write stories based on rumor and correct them if the rumor turns out to be wrong? Why not?
And to feed that, you pay writers bonuses based on page views?
I saw that the writers had Web-traffic charts as screen savers. It was a natural step to attach money to performance.
How do you acquire talent that can handle that pressure?
Early on we didn't have the money to pay people competitive rates. There was a certain amount of satisfaction in finding writers that might not fit elsewhere, were not discovered elsewhere - who couldn't go out in public, even. We could use a different way of evaluating them. We evaluated people almost entirely not on their track record, not on what university they went to, not on their social ability, but on their ability to produce blog posts. And maybe I couldn't get a writer out of bed in the morning, but the readers could. They'd be emailing in the morning saying, "Where are the posts?" The page-view system panders to a writer's giant narcissism in a way that no manager ever could.
Doesn't that make you a kind of content farm?
The content farms actually made Gawker Media look more familiar and approachable to mainstream media companies, because there are certain values that we do share with traditional news organizations - like the primacy of the story. And when Demand Media and other content farms came along, they had a purer, pay-for-performance model than we did. And right then there was a lot of press coverage of Gawker. I'm guessing it was partly because we were newish and successful - but also familiar. I characterize us as being the friendly barbarians, the ones that are themselves fleeing from the more rabid tribes to the east.
You redesigned the sites in your network, and there was a great deal of talk that the redesign just didn't work - that it cost you a tremendous amount of traffic.
We felt we were trapped in a niche "blog" market - that our sites weren't growing as rapidly as we wanted. Take our iPhone 4 story - that was worth 10,000 times more than some throwaway blog post, so we had to stop publishing for the entire day, because if we had continued to publish, then the story would have fallen down the queue. So that was the primary motivation for a change - to have a section for the scoopiest, most exclusive, most visual stories, and then to retain a reverse-chronological flow for the relatively small minority of readers who come back many times a day. So it seems inevitable that one would divide up the page left and right - top stories on one side and later stories on the other, and I've never heard any argument that has undermined my conviction that that's the way to go.
What kind of research did you do?
It was not tested. We did a mockup and we ran it in beta for a long time.
What did readers think?
You can't talk to your regular readers. You're looking for a design that is going to bring you a new, larger audience, and they [regular readers] are going to give you a bad signal. The core audience is hyper-empowered, and they speak in your comments. It becomes like Twitter. They can get into your head; they can get into the heads of your writers. They can get into the heads of other people who work in the company. It's frankly terrifying to push through a change these days. You will have this collective scream of, "Why wasn't I consulted!"
So you shouldn't listen to people complain on Twitter?
The Twitter mob is not representative. A lot of people are scared. I say that as somebody who has pushed the Gawker audience as being an influential audience - but all this talk about influence has gone to the heads of the influencers to a point where they think that they are the sole source of legitimacy and enduring popularity, that they are the conduit through which all media expansion needs to occur. The idea that "influencers" are the only route to a mass audience, which is, I know, orthodoxy, needs to be challenged. I'm not saying it's entirely wrong. But it certainly needs to be challenged.
People are so earnest about their influence.
We had this brief period of Web irony. Now irony is dead again. You can't afford to be ironic.
What happened to traffic after the redesign?
The dip was about 25 percent in audience numbers. And a large part of that wasn't reader backlash, loud as that might have been - it was search engine problems due to the technical implementation. Traffic driven by search engines fell two-thirds, which was a large part of that 25 percent.
We're fixing the technical problems. Page views per visit are up 40, maybe 50 percent.
Why are they up?
I think it's hard to tell. But now when you come in, you see the story. Every single page on the site has a clear area on the right side which is like a miniature front page. And in the old blog model, when you click on a story, you then have to go back to the front page and then scroll down in order to get to the next story. It was four clicks. Now, with the headline index, it's one click. I'd like to think that as people get more used to that, to the reduced friction, they'll start to say, "I'll just click once more."
Was the redesign to enable new advertising units?
No. We built the advertising strategy around the audience strategy. The logic of the advertising offering is that we have this focus on big stories, and big stories depend on visuals. Half of the top stories in any one month are based on a video or gallery or photo comparison. The Web is a visual medium. Therefore we have a primary, 640-by-360-pixel element on every page, including the front page. If you have a strong visual element on the page, and that's dominant, then marginal ads lose some value, and they're crowded out by that primary visual. So the only place to put high-impact advertising is right there in that 640-by-360 slot, as opposed to in the margins, which is the way that most sites are organized.
Most Web-born sites can't effectively use a pure pre-roll model because so much of our content is curated as opposed to owned. And if one was to limit the advertising only to the owned video, you'd be running the high-impact advertising against 1 percent of your total viewership. And so we wanted to run the advertising within that high value, 640 by 360 slot, where the reader's attention is.
And we wanted to decouple the pre-roll from the content so that one could run video advertising against non-video content and non-video advertising against video content. And to standardize that unit across the entire inventory of the site. So the unit that we came up with is a sort of interstitial - but it's an interstitial that fits within the grid, that doesn't take over the entire page.
It's not jarring?
I think we can actually fit more advertising like that into the site without generating reader backlash. Online advertisers have been trained in the way that, say, TV advertisers haven't been. Online advertisers have been trained to want to break the grid. They want to disrupt the grid. So that's a slight challenge - to explain that it's better if readers see your ad without getting angry at you, without your disrupting the reader experience.
Your readers value the experience?
Yes. And our audience is genuine. Advertisers don't always care about that. But the people who read Gawker, they read Gawker. People who read Gizmodo read Gizmodo. They have an attachment to the brands. They identify with the character, the ethos, the sensibility. It's not that they have simply stumbled upon the site. We have never, ever bought traffic.
Why haven't you sold Gawker Media?
I flipped two companies before. I don't need to do it again. Why would one want to sell? In order to take one's life work and, you know, have it be destroyed by some larger company? Look at the Huffington Post being purchased by AOL - what misery Arianna Huffington must be going through to have to take over, you know, all those lame AOL properties. She's Greek, and I'm sure she knows the legend of the Augean Stables. Those Stables were nothing compared with the mess at AOL.