Opinion

Felix Salmon

Nick Denton’s next move

By Felix Salmon
September 27, 2010

The Michael Idov profile of Nick Denton is interesting, if you’re interested in Nick Denton. I’m more interested in Gawker Media than in Denton personally, so for me the best part comes at the end:

If you look at the beta versions of Gawker and Gizmodo’s upcoming redesigns (set to go live early next year), you’ll be struck by how conventional they look: big headlines, big pictures, a clearly defined lead story occupying a generous video-ready rectangle at the center of the screen. Most of the network’s greatest hits center on pictures and video, not text—and so it follows that Denton’s vision of a blog has also been gravitating from the diary metaphor to the TV metaphor, where his various properties will represent various “channels.”…

All who know him personally concur that it’s practically impossible to imagine Denton idly watching someone else run Gawker. He doesn’t need the money: apart from his Spring Street dream pad, his lifestyle is relatively modest. For his part, Denton insists, Gawker is “embryonic. This is at most a midsize media group that might, in twenty years, be something a bit more.”

You can count me in with the “all who know him”: I don’t think that Nick is going to give up control of Gawker Media. (Which is why I didn’t take his bet.) But remember his previous musing about how blogs are like cable-TV channels: if Gawker Media is going to be “something a bit more” than its current incarnation as a “midsize media group”, I think that Idov is probably very close to what Denton’s thinking.

Those of us who love the printed word might not be very happy about it, but the fact is that pictures and video have an immediacy and popularity that text will never be able to match. Denton is fully aware of this and knows that any big future growth is going to come through a huge increase in the amount of photo and video content on his sites.

Look at the editorial budgets for photography-driven magazines, compared to text-driven blogs. And then look at the editorial budgets for any kind of television station or cable channel, compared to even the most profligate magazine. Gawker Media throws off lots of cash right now, as a relatively lean operation. Idov says, somewhat unfairly, that “Gawker Media content is produced by caffeine-blitzed youngsters at a frantic churn, spurred on by page-view bonuses, barely supported by a base salary, and often fired (and rehired) on a second’s notice”; in fact that’s much less true now than it was in the past and it certainly doesn’t describe someone like John Cook.

But right now, Gawker’s editorial staffers get those big photo or video scoops only sporadically and unpredictably, while the company’s in-house photo and video capacities are still pretty thin. None of the group’s sites can reliably put a strong video post atop their new front page on a daily basis, let alone support such a post with many other videos which are also fresh that day.

The good news is that none of Gawker’s web-based competitors can do that either, although TMZ.com is getting close. And Denton, having handily won the blogosphere, is now going on the record as looking past the likes of HuffPo and nytimes.com: next up, in terms of competitors, are the big — and hugely profitable — cable-TV channels.

A web-based competitor could be hugely disruptive to the cable channels’ business model, which is based on preventing the public from viewing their content unless you pay big bucks every month to a hated cable company. The cable channels also have to shell out for hours and hours of extremely expensive video content every day.

If Denton somehow managed to find a way to produce just a few minutes of great video content for each of his blogs every day, that could mark the beginning of a game-changing move out of the world where the New York Times is a huge and awesome institution and into the world where it’s a media minnow.

So far, no one has cracked the question of how to succeed by producing video-based content which is designed for web consumption rather than for TV. There have been a few promising hopefuls, but they all fizzled out, even as video has become an ever-growing part of our online diet. It’s pretty clear that if Gawker is going to successfully navigate the transition from writing blog posts to producing video, its budget is going to have to grow a lot. And that’s why I think that Denton might be thinking about bringing in some strategic investors: people with video-production expertise, a real nose for what works online and lots of money.

Would they take control of the company? No. But they would be buying some measure of insurance against Denton succeeding in the video world and upending their current business model.

From Denton’s point of view, such a move would carry risks, to be sure. It would probably make his business cashflow negative, for starters. And he would be entering a battlefield littered with many corpses, rather than his preferred uncharted territory. So if he doesn’t find the perfect partner, he’ll probably be happy to move slowly and organically into the world of video-based content: adding a few staffers here and there across his network of sites, as his cashflow allows it and as he finds the right people to hire. But I’m sure he worries about a day when he looks ruefully upon annual revenues in the hundreds of millions of dollars somewhere like TMZ.com and wonders whether, with a bit more ambition, he could have created something like that himself.

Idov is right that Denton is “having too much fun not to stay with” Gawker Media. But the big question now is about the relaunch of the websites, which will literally sideline their reverse-chronological DNA when they go live next year. My suspicion is that far from being the end point of an incredibly long and over-iterated redesign process, the relaunch is actually going to be only the beginning of a determined move into a new world of photo- and video-based online journalism. That move might well be expensive, at least by Gawker standards. But I doubt Denton’s going to let that stop him.

Update: “Online needs to turn itself into TV, said Gawker Media head Nick Denton” today. Also, intriguingly: “a Facebook edition could be Gawker’s future, where stories are personalized and the reading experience is more intimate.”

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