If Gawker Is Nice, Is It Still Gawker?
“I’m not interested in ruining people’s lives,” says its top editor, Leah Finnegan, who once insulted a baby in a headline.,
When I started talking with Leah Finnegan, the editor of the newly restarted Gawker, I asked her whether there wouldn’t be a conflict of interest: She had been inexplicably mean to me on the internet sometime around 2013. I couldn’t recall the details but worried she’d expect a hit piece in revenge. She didn’t remember the details, either, but shared the general recollection. “I was absolutely a terrorist,” she said in a level tone, before inviting me to her walk-up apartment in Park Slope for an interview.
Ms. Finnegan, 35, is like one of those reformed extremists from TV terrorism dramas who you think just might return, at any moment, to their old ways. You could say the same about her website, which symbolizes, depending on whom you ask, either the absolute worst of journalism or the best of the open internet. But she, and Gawker, both seem to be reformed — and the question now is whether there’s space for a more forgiving website in this confrontational moment.
From 2003 to 2016, Gawker sometimes spoke truth to power, and other times exposed people’s private lives or sex tapes for no reason. It evolved with the internet, moving from a kind of gleeful nihilism to a brand of self-righteous left-wing politics, breaking some news and shaping online discourse along the way.
When Gawker returned in July, Ms. Finnegan posted a note to readers that, in a revisionist interpretation of what the site had been in its heyday, emphasized a side of it that tends to be forgotten: It was funny.
She also listed, in a document intended for freelancers, the sorts of things Gawker was no longer interested in, including articles that are “sanctimonious,” or “cruel,” as well as any piece that uses the word “neoliberal.” That is to say — quite a bit of what Gawker used to be.
I’d asked to meet Ms. Finnegan at her office, but she works from home and so I found myself at the small dining table in her second floor walk-up.
“I’m not interested in ruining people’s lives,” she said in a flat tone.
That marks a notable change from her time as the features editor of Gawker, in 2015, when her indiscriminate brutality included describing an infant as “hipster scum.” That one prompted a rebuke at the time even from Gawker’s rather coldblooded founder, Nick Denton, who wrote in the site’s comments section that the headline was “just nasty” and that she would regret it. Ms. Finnegan responded that she was speaking “my truth.” (Asked about the new version of the site he founded, Mr. Denton told me in a text: “Finnegan’s take on Gawker not my thing, back in 2015. No opinion on the 2021 revival.”)
Ms. Finnegan has come to this role after a career of starts and, mostly, stops. After running The Daily Texan, the student paper at the University of Texas at Austin, she landed — and then lost — jobs at Huffington Post and The New York Times. She was pushed out at Gawker after she confronted Mr. Denton over his decision to take down a story outing an obscure media executive as gay, and live-tweeted their dispute. It was a difficult run, all “self-inflicted,” Ms. Finnegan said.
And it turned out that Mr. Denton was right. She regretted what she had done. In a thoughtful mea culpa in 2019, she wrote that therapy and a snaggletoothed dog helped her find an alternative to a quest for authenticity that had turned her into an “antisocial, or mean” public person. She had been, she wrote, following the online mania for self-expression at all costs, the blogger credo to “be yourself.” Finally, in 2016, her therapist told her to “be less yourself.” She had been, she realized, “going through a righteous phase that unfortunately coincided with having a national platform.”
By then, she was the editor of The Outline, a kind of heady Gawker cousin founded by Joshua Topolsky. In 2019, Mr. Topolsky sold the site to the Bustle Digital Group, which shut it down a year later when the pandemic hit. Ms. Finnegan retreated into a book project about height. (She was born with a height disorder, and would have been 4 foot 5 without treatment; she stands 5-foot-2.)
The new owner is Bryan Goldberg, the founder of the sports platform Bleacher Report (which he sold to Turner Broadcasting in 2012 for $175 million). He put some of that money into founding the Bustle Digital Group, the company behind the women’s website Bustle and niche sites Mr. Goldberg has picked up, sometimes on the cheap, including The Outline, Nylon and Scary Mommy.
Mr. Goldberg, 38, is now a careful and ambitious business operator, but he was once a Gawker punching bag, portrayed as a bro-y tycoon overly eager to be part of a scene. In a series of casually cruel posts, the site’s writers called him an “asinine media mastermind,” a “Self-Serving Misogynist,” a “clueless scamp” and the “intellectual equivalent of a large wet sponge.” There was so much Bryan Goldberg content on Gawker that the editors rounded it up in a greatest-hits post under the headline “The Relentless and Well-Deserved Mockery of Bryan Goldberg.”
He seems well aware of the risk he runs in having taken custody of the internet’s spoiled child — “If there is one website that could get me sued into oblivion, then it is almost certainly Gawker,” he said in an interview for a Gawker piece posted on the day it returned — and his first attempt to restart it flamed out dramatically in 2019 amid angry attacks from the site’s alums. He now thinks “three years just wasn’t enough time to let it cool down, given how much it had divided and polarized New York media.”
He bought the Gawker name, its archive and social feeds for $1.35 million at a bankruptcy auction in 2018. In a Zoom interview, Mr. Goldberg, wearing a Lacoste polo in front of a blurred background, said the old Gawker’s coverage of him had been “incredibly uncomfortable” and also “something of an honor.” When he put in his bid, he said he wasn’t sure what he would do with the site, but figured that “a million dollars, in the grand scheme of a media empire, is not a tremendous amount of money.”
He said that he thinks Gawker can ultimately become a profitable business, and that it can ultimately attract 10 million unique visitors a month. (The company wouldn’t share Gawker’s early traffic numbers.) His purchase, he added, had been motivated by a mix of business opportunity and the psychic satisfaction that goes with owning a site that once scorned him. His employees see it as a kind of revenge move by someone who was a constant target of spitballs from the media cool kids.
“I think he just wants to kind of win it over, which he did by buying it,” Ms. Finnegan said.
Mr. Goldberg, for his part, repeatedly praised Ms. Finnegan’s “discipline” and said he was confident she’d keep the site out of trouble.
The opportunity to buy it came after the crash of its parent company, Mr. Denton’s Gawker Media, in 2016. The end came thanks to an invasion of privacy lawsuit secretly funded by the tech mogul Peter Thiel on behalf of the former pro wrestler Hulk Hogan (real name: Terry Bollea). Mr. Bollea was angry that Gawker had posted a video showing him having sex with his best friend’s wife. Mr. Thiel was apparently motivated to back the suit by a desire for revenge: Valleywag, also part of Gawker Media, had mocked him and outed him as gay. A Florida judge sided with Mr. Bollea and drove Gawker Media into bankruptcy.
Ms. Finnegan and Mr. Topolsky, who now manages Bustle’s newsier sites, have hired a dozen writers for Gawker, all but one of them women and most of them better known for witty writing than scoopy reporting. Story ideas that came up during a pitch meeting on Zoom last month, which I was invited to join, veered from YouTube videos in which men eat potato chips in their cars (“I guess it would be interesting if they were alt-righters or insurrectionists,” chimed in one writer) to gorillas (“When you think about, it they’re the craziest animal,” said the writer Sarah Hagi) to the way in which identity on the internet is used as a rhetorical weapon (the writer Jenny Zhang said she’d avoid going so far that “Fox News will be reblogging this.”)
Underlying the comeback attempt is the question of whether there’s a space for Gawker in 2021. As the early Gawker editor Choire Sicha recently wrote in New York magazine, it’s hard to compete with Instagram accounts for celebrity gossip or with Substack for “long-winded observations on the state of the culture,” and all the media feuds the old Gawker stoked now just play out on Twitter.
“The internet is both too mean and too nice for Gawker now,” my old colleague Sara Yasin says. “If you’re mean, you have to be super edgelord mean, or else you have to be super earnest.”
Ms. Finnegan said she sees a place for Gawker’s iconoclastic spirit in its ability to break with the conformity of contemporary stan culture and its worship of celebrities and cultural products. She pointed to scathing pieces on the saccharine Apple TV+ hit “Ted Lasso” and the HBO Max show “White Lotus.”
Twitter may have taken over the old Gawker mission of exposing the underside of media elites, but Ms. Finnegan said there’s a similar charge to be gotten from publishing “an opinion that everyone secretly shares, but no one’s saying out loud.”
She has sent her staff guidelines, under the heading “Gawker Religious Text,” which offer a pretty predictable set of targets. The category of “people we can make fun of” includes the obvious targets — celebrities, royals and politicians, The New York Times — as well as left-wing Twitter bugaboos Glenn Greenwald and Thomas Chatterton Williams.
To get a sense of Gawker’s shifts, I asked Ms. Finnegan if she would have published a list of anonymous allegations against “media men” that became public in 2017. She would have then, she said; she wouldn’t now.
The old Gawker had another source of energy, too, what the writer Vanessa Grigoriadis labeled in 2007 “the rage of the creative underclass.” Gawker spoke for a generation of anxious, hypercompetitive New York writers who had come of age at a moment when “the $200,000-a-year print-publishing job, once an attainable goal for those who had climbed near the top of the ladder in editorial departments, has all but disappeared.”
That rage found another outlet, however: the labor movement. Among the first generation of writers whose sensibilities had been formed online, that began at Gawker, too, in 2015, when its staff members voted to join the Writers Guild of America-East. The move quickly spread across the digital media industry. Six years later, it is playing out not in blog comments sections, but in a bitterly fought election pitting the screenwriters whom it traditionally served against what some of them see as radicalized digital media newcomers.
Bustle employees are in the process of joining the Writers Guild, too. Ms. Finnegan is management now, but she said she doesn’t expect her site to erupt into the kind of internal conflict that used to play out in public at the old Gawker, and that cost her her job there.
“I realized that I like having a job, and I like giving people jobs, and I don’t want to squander that,” she said. “So maybe that makes it a little less self-destructive.”