Is Gawker Still Gawker After Pulling Story About Condé Nast CFO and Gay Porn Star?

Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride tells TheWrap, “Gawker really wants to be that reckless, we-don’t-give-a-s— organization that it was five years ago, but it hasn’t been that in a long time”

Updated 7:10 p.m. PT: The vote by the Gawker board has been updated per a correction by the website.

Has one of digital media’s original bad boys gone soft?

After an avalanche of outrage in response to its story about Conde Nast’s CFO allegedly seeking out a gay porn star for a weekend romp in Chicago, Gawker took the story down on Friday. The post included screen shots of text messages between the CFO and “Ryan,” whom the site declined to identify, some of which were sexual in nature.

But that kind of story used to be Gawker’s daily fare: snarky gossip with a side of vicious.

CEO Nick Denton, who’s been fighting a $100 million lawsuit brought by wrestling icon Hulk Hogan over a 2012 story containing a sex tape of Hogan, cited the changing media environment as well as his own shifting point of view for the rare retraction.

“We put truths on the internet,” he wrote in a statement that would have sparked a pitiless post about self-sanctimony on the Gawker of yore. “That has been the longstanding position of Gawker journalists, some of the most uncompromising and uncompromised on the internet.” Denton went on to take responsibility for publishing the original post, standing behind his editors and writers.

“I cannot blame our editors and writers for pursuing that original mission. But the media environment has changed, our readers have changed, and I have changed,” he wrote.

Some of those editors openly disagreed with the decision to spike the story. Notably, executive editor for investigations John Cook tweeted, “It was a mistake to take this post down,” adding that he and his colleagues fought as “strenuously against it as we could, and we lost.”

Media commentators were quick to note that the sudden reversal shows how Denton’s once-scrappy site has evolved since its founding in 2003. “The process behind this story was incredibly flawed and maybe that was because Gawker really wants to be that reckless, we-don’t-give-a-s— organization that it was five years ago, but it hasn’t been that in a long time,” Poynter Institute’s media ethicist Kelly McBride told TheWrap Friday.

“We haven’t seen anything in recent years out of Gawker that’s really on this level journalistic depravity…that was very much the Gawker of old,” she continued. She pointed to the clouds hanging over the company — including the Hulk Hogan case — that might’ve prompted its self-reflective mood. “Now they find themselves in a grown-up lawsuit, dealing with the things that grown ups have to deal with,” she said, referring to the Hogan case.

Not so long ago, Denton ruled supreme and his site doubled and tripled down on controversial stories as a sport, like its string of reports about the sexuality of Fox News anchor Shepard Smith — and Fox News’ alleged attempt to keep him from coming out of the closet.

But there are signs that Gawker has matured, and Denton now presides over a seven-blog empire with 260 full-time (and just unionized) employees.

In a New York Times profile last month, the British-born journalist seemed ready to redirect Gawker’s focus from recycling gossip in favor of breaking exclusive news scoops. “A lot of our traffic last year came from stories that we weren’t ultimately proud of,” he told the Times.

In 2014, Denton stepped back from day-to-day control an created a “Collective Leadership” structure that included Gawker Media’s VP of business development, executive editor, advertising president, COO, CTO and others. It was this group that voted 4-2 on Friday to take down the offending story about the Conde Nast CFO, with executive editor Tommy Craggs and Gawker Media President and chief legal counsel Heather Dietrick dissenting.

(The Gawker post originally stated that the vote was 5-1 with Craggs as the sole dissenter, but Denton on Twitter later disputed th figure, saying the vote was 4-2.)

“The removal of the post today is an indicator that the decentralized leadership structure of Gawker Media might be more susceptible to Internet outrage,” Poynter Institute staff writer Benjamin Mullin told TheWrap.

It’s also an indication of how an upstart can only maintain an outsider’s pose for so long, a lesson learned by other online rebels like Perez Hilton, who once drew penises on the photos of celebrities he now socializes with.

How that will affect other Gawker properties like Defamer, whose mission is to bring down Hollywood A-listers, remains unclear.

“Gawker is trying to respond to the changing marketplace,” marketing expert John Tantillo told TheWrap, noting the site is making changes to the formula that “brought them to the dance.”

“They want to be perceived more legitimately and may be maturing and growing up in efforts to be taking more seriously by the establishment media.”