Nick Denton’s paradoxes

March 3, 2011
my chat with Nick Denton at PaidContent 2011 today.

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I enjoyed my chat with Nick Denton at PaidContent 2011 today. He wasn’t shy about ducking questions he didn’t want to answer — he wouldn’t put a number on Gawker’s revenues, for instance, and he wouldn’t say why Gawker refused to publish that Scientology story. And to nobody’s great surprise he was still very bullish about the Gawker redesign — even after admitting to having made big mistakes in rolling it out, and even with the site far from being fixed, three weeks after the launch. I asked him about his bet with Rex Sorgatz; Denton said he’d recently offered to double the stakes.

For me the most interesting part of the conversation was how aggressive Denton was when it came to AOL’s acquisition of the Huffington Post. Before we went up on stage, he leaned over to me and told me to be sure to ask him about the deal, which he has been very vocal about criticizing. As he was today: he claimed to be very disappointed in Arianna Huffington’s decision to sell. “They should have gone all the way and become the liberal Fox News,” he said. “They could have bought MSNBC.”

This comes as little surprise, coming from Denton: when Jason Calacanis sold Weblogs Inc to AOL in 2005, Denton said he’d sold “10 years too early”. And Denton himself made very clear, later on in our conversation, that Gawker is not for sale and will not be for sale. If you want to buy a stake in Gawker, he said, he might be open to that — but only on the explicit understanding that you’re buying a very long-term income stream, rather than a chance to get rich quick.

I don’t really understand Denton’s position here. At AOL, Arianna Huffington has much deeper pockets to be able to invest in growth, not least by trying to get some real value out of the hugely expensive Patch franchise. And I’m pretty sure she has more freedom now to build something great over the long term, than she did when her company was owned by venture capitalists looking for an exit. Denton is highly prejudiced against AOL for reasons which aren’t entirely clear: while admitting that some AOL franchises, like Engadget and Joystiq and Techcrunch, are excellent competitors, he still said that attacking AOL was like “kicking a blancmange”.

Denton’s reference, I think, is to a wonderful Clive James review of Judith Krantz from 1980, where he wrote that “to pour abuse on a book like this makes no more sense than to kick a powder-puff”. The review is required reading for anybody who thinks that snark didn’t exist before the Internet — but it’s worth noting that James’s review in a highbrow, low-circulation magazine, and its subject was a huge bestseller which tapped straight into the mass market which Denton so covets.

There’s a longstanding tension in the Gawker universe, between cultivating smart and important and witty readers, on the one hand, and building a mass audience, on the other. Denton was very complimentary about my post on the end of micropublishing — and it’s my feeling that if he wins his bet with Sorgatz, it will be by gaining more of a mass audience while further eroding the amount he’s read by the media elite. On the other hand, if you look at the people Denton hires, they tend to be funny in a very Clive James kind of way, as opposed to having the mass appeal of say Sugar, the network Denton reckons AOL should have bought. Denton likes to sacrifice the highbrow for a mass audience anyway he can, and boldly said he’d be bigger than HuffPo next year. (I’ll take that bet.) But sometimes he can’t help himself.

The statement of Denton’s which got the most pushback on the Twitter backchannel was when he said that Gawker was a technology company rather than a media company. I agree with the snark mob on this one: for all that Denton has invested a lot in technology and is very proud of what he’s built, he knows journalism in a way that he doesn’t know technology. (He could take over as editor of Gawker any time he likes; he could never take over as CTO.) Gawker has a long history of technological chaos, and the relaunch mess only serves to underline how difficult it is for Gawker to get its tech ducks in order. Denton wants to be a tech company. But he’s not.

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