Nick Denton Explains Why Gawker’s Killing its Blogs

Founder of blog mini-empire lays out 2011 plans as ad sales chief exits in clash over strategy

When Gawker Media began retooling the layouts of its collection of blogs in beta form earlier this year, it wasn’t hard to see what they were up to. At the time, I called it “a massive redesign that will render its collection of eight or so blogs as retooled destination sites” with top stories anchored to a landing page optimized for viewing on devices like the iPad. (Disclosure: I cover tennis for Deadspin, Gawker Media’s sports blog.)

Well, the redesign nearly complete, with a rollout planned over the next couple of months.

On Tuesday, Gawker Media blogfather Nick Denton explained why he decided to make the change — in a 3,200-plus word post entitled, “Why Gawker is moving beyond the blog.” In short, Denton's reasoning: while he once viewed his collection of blogs like a Condé Nast, albeit with a distinct, snarky tone, he’s now looking at them like a television network — and hoping advertisers will buy time next to certain “programs” or posts. And it’s a move that apparently led to the exodus of two of Denton’s top ad sales henchmen.

“The 2011 template represents the most significant change in the Gawker model since the launch of Gizmodo and Gawker in 2002,” Denton wrote. “It represents an evolution of the very blog form that has transformed online media over the last eight years. The Internet, television and magazines are merging; and the optimal strategy will assemble the best from each medium.

“No matter whether the visitor keys in the site address or arrives from the side by a link on Facebook or elsewhere,” Denton continued, “he or she will be greeted not just by a story but by an index of other recent items […] In place of the original content column: one visually appealing "splash" story, typically built around compelling video or other widescreen imagery and run in full. At its best, a splash will match in visual impact the cover of a magazine or a European tabloid newspaper; and exceed it because the front-page image can actually move. Outside observers will note that this layout represents some convergence of blog, magazine and television.”

So why the change? Denton gives seven reasons. The first: he says the company has rediscovered “the power of the scoop.”

Gawker blogs once consisted almost entirely of remixes of other organizations' news — with an added dash of commentary or knee-jerk snark. There wasn't that much difference between the day's worst and best-performing posts; the volume was lower and more manageable; the audiences were small, homogeneous and passionate. The blog column worked as long as one assumed that items were indistinguishable and the core readers would scan everything. It does no longer.

One law of media competition applies as strongly to web properties as it did to their predecessors: scoops drive audience growth. Gawker Media experienced that rule, painfully, as Harvey Levin's TMZ eclipsed our overly bloggy Hollywood site, Defamer. TMZ's growth was built upon three gigantic stories: Mel Gibson's meltdown; Michael Richards' racist outburst; and Michael Jackson's death.

We learned our lesson: aggressive news-mongering trumps satirical blogging.

Gawker.com's audience growth, Denton said (from 300,000 people a week in the U.S. in 2008 to 1.4 million) “came in steps.” Each “story-driven spike” – from Tom Cruise's Scientology pitch video to Eric Dane's hot-tub non-orgy to the iPad security breach – produced a bigger audience when the dust settled. The advertising interest, Denton said, would also follow, though a bit later, because “often advertisers don't want to be associated with scandal, however enticing it is to readers.”

If we've demonstrated that a scoop generates audience, which in turn generates advertising, then what's the problem? For that, let's look at the biggest exclusive of all — early shots of the iPhone 4 — which made Gizmodo into a household name. That episode more than any other demonstrated the bankruptcy of the classic blog column. In order to keep video of the iPhone prototype at the top of the reverse chronological flow, Gizmodo actually stopped publishing for several hours. How ridiculous!

The same problem, Denton said, exists in aggregation. “Our strength as an aggregator remains editorial curation; but we're limited even in that by the blog format. The more short items we run, the more rapidly our high-value scoops are pushed off the page. We need a few breakout stories each day. We will push those on the front page. And these exclusives can be augmented by dozens or hundreds of short items to provide — at low cost — comprehensiveness and fodder for the commentariat."

Here’s the television analogy:

A channel such as AMC needs one or two hits (Mad Men, Breaking Bad) to make it a must-have for a cable system. But it would be way too expensive to fill the entire schedule with material of such quality. So it is with the Gawker sites. Each site needs a gigantic breakout every few months; a few more modest hits every week; but the daily news diet can be satisfied quite happily with short posts, blockquotes (linked to the original, of course) and republished material.

At the risk of getting too inside-Gawker, I’ll leave it there. You can read Denton’s full post here explaining the redesign, and his memo explaining the clash that led to Chris Batty, his longtime head of sales, to leave the company.

But, like anything Denton does, the success or failure of “Gawker 2.0” bears watching in 2011. For everyone.