Nick Denton’s End of an Era Party for Gawker Before It’s Sold
Conventional wisdom is that it's all over for Nick Denton's Gawker. So why did he sound so upbeat at a wake for the site last night?
“Actually I am a weeper,” Nick Denton confided. “But usually only for TV shows and for movies. Any story of triumph over adversity, teams coming back from behind, brings out the tears in me.”Who knew that the 49-year-old Denton, an even-tempered Brit whose default setting is “dispassionate,” is a sucker for inspirational water-workers like “Hoosiers” and "We Are Marshall”?Maybe if somebody would just make a movie about Gawker’s harrowing crucible—not an implausible notion—Denton could bring himself to sob like Glenn Beck.As he revealed this aspect of himself—in the middle of what amounted to a pizza- and alcohol-fueled wake Wednesday night for Gawker Media, Denton’s lawsuit-besieged digital media company that will be auctioned off next Tuesday under the supervision of a New York bankruptcy court—he was smiling slightly, his customary expression, and speaking with clinical detachment.“I don’t think anybody ever expected that the company would be in as good a shape as it is right now,” he told The Daily Beast. “Traffic is up 20 percent since April. Revenues are up!”
He added: “So far, so good. I just want to focus on getting through the next six days to the auction. It’s going to take a lot of concentration."
Denton was not the only one determined to look on the bright side as Gawker Media’s 14-year run as an independent, privately held company comprising seven different websites—of which Denton, at one point, controlled 68 percent, although now his shares amount to less than half that—was approaching a kind of corporate death.“You are at a party—do you want us to be crying?” demanded Gawker Media event planner and all-around utility man Victor G. Jeffreys II when asked how the mourners could, under the circumstances, seem so jolly. “What do you want me to say? Is this about you or about us?”A few hundred current and former Gawkerites, along with media reporters from CNN, Vanity Fair, The Daily Beast and other outlets, had crowded into Gawker Media’s recently renovated headquarters in Manhattan’s Union Square neighborhood. They attacked pizza boxes spread out on a conference room table, and poured their own drinks from bottles strewn across the bar until the drinks ran out. (At a hearing in bankruptcy court on Tuesday, Gawker’s creditors balked at the expense of a party, but the judge allowed it when Gawker’s lawyers claimed it would only cost $1,000.)Denton was resolutely cheerful as he greeted his guests. And yet, deep down, despite his stiff upper lip and oddly buoyant talk about Gawker Media’s bright future under new ownership, he had to be feeling more than a little melancholy.After all, even now, it is hard to fathom that a cheesy reality television personality and ex-pro wrestler, secretly financed by a vengeful Silicon Valley billionaire, could bring down Denton’s empire over the publication of a 103-second sex video excerpt, only nine seconds of which depicted actual sex.But that’s what has happened. After a two-week trial last March in St. Petersburg, Florida, where a hometown jury, repulsed by the seemingly coldblooded values of the company’s flagship gossip site Gawker.com, awarded favorite son Terry Gene Bollea, aka Hulk Hogan, a whopping $140.1 million in damages.That shocking figure included a $10 million assessment against Denton personally and another $100,000 against then-Gawker editor A.J. Daulerio, never mind trial evidence that Daulerio is essentially a pauper, with a negative net worth approaching $30,000.“Anytime you have a muck-raking kind of site and talk about powerful people who aren’t used to being covered, you’re eventually going to get on the wrong side of someone who has deeper pockets than you do,” said partygoer Elizabeth Spiers, who was founding editor of Denton’s flagship Gawker.com media gossip site more than a decade ago, and today runs The Insurrection, which she described as a virtual reality and research company.“The reality is that our judicial system works in such a way that you really can put somebody out of business just by litigating against them,” she said. “We’re all quietly happy Gawker lasted as long as it did.”Denton filed for personal bankruptcy protection last week and Daulerio—who wasn't present for the bittersweet festivities, and has fled New York to live with relatives in (ironically) Florida—is apparently in the process of doing the same.Two months after the trial concluded, as Gawker Media scrambled in the courts to avoid posting the $50 million bond required by Florida law pending the outcome of an appeal, venture capitalist Peter Thiel acknowledged that it was he who’d paid for Bollea’s legal team.As Thiel explained to the New York Times, it was part of a strategy to sue Gawker Media into oblivion as payback for reporting nine years ago that Thiel is gay, along with other perceived outrages against Thiel and his Silicon Valley friends by the now-defunct Gawker Media site Valleywag.Denton, who is also gay, is married to actor Derrence Washington. “Derrence doesn’t want to hear about Peter Thiel ever again,” Denton said. “He’s sick of hearing about Peter Thiel.”Yet, at Wednesday’s party, it was impossible to escape hearing about Thiel, and even about deposed Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, especially in speeches to the crowd by Denton and Gawker Media executive editor John Cook—whom Denton introduced as “the menschiest man that Roger Ailes ever tried to tag as an anti-Semite.” That was a reference to New York magazine writer Gabriel Sherman’s report that Ailes, upset with Gawker’s coverage of Fox News, once fielded an undercover team of operatives who tailed Cook and his family, and prepared a dossier on him, including a bogus accusation of anti-Semitism that they’d considered leaking to media blogs.In his speech—rather more angry in tone than Denton’s—Cook cited “Peter Thiel’s decade-long secret campaign against this company in retaliation for writing true things about him…There are people here whose lives have been affected at the very basic level, the day to day, because of decisions our enemies have made.”He added, to cheers: “The idea that Roger Ailes is walking away from a 30-year career of sexual abuse with $40 million, and A.J. Daulerio is trying to figure out how to file for bankruptcy, is enraging and absurd to me.”Although Thiel hasn’t copped to it, he is also widely believed to be behind two additional lawsuits against Gawker Media. The same Los Angeles attorney who represented Bollea, Charles Harder, represents the plaintiffs in those other complaints. Meanwhile Cook and former Gawker writer Sam Biddle are targeted as defendants for stories that, in fact, seem meticulously reported and unexceptional.
One of Biddle’s stories chronicled the strange case of a freelance journalist entangled in a soap opera involving executives of Tinder (which, like The Daily Beast, is a corporate subsidiary of IAC); the other pointed out that a man who claimed to have invented email didn’t really invent email.
“I have a great deal of confidence in my legal defense team,” said Biddle, 29, who left Gawker Media and in July joined The Intercept on the technology and surveillance beat. “It is stressful. I think it’s a frightening precedent for anyone who makes an enemy of anyone who is extremely rich,” he said, “The chilling effect is real.”
And so, on August 16 some 15 different bidders will try to acquire Gawker Media. The digital media publisher Ziff Davis announced in June that it is willing to pay at least $90 million for Denton’s company, which only recently was valued in media reports at nearly $300 million. If Ziff Davis is the winner next Tuesday, Denton said he’ll stay on as a consultant for a couple of years.
In his remarks, Denton toasted the writers, editors, coders, lawyers, and sales and marketing team who had contributed to Gawker Media’s success (albeit finite) as a stand-alone enterprise.But company president and general counsel Heather Dietrick toasted Denton, who stood beside her.Her voice quavering, Dietrick said: “We haven’t talked about one person and that’s Nick, who has dedicated his whole life and his whole professional career to this principle that people should be allowed to speak freely and openly, and say what they think.”Choking back tears, she added: “I’m emotional because it pains me that these individuals are being pursued by Thiel….These sites, despite all the stresses, will live on under the warm embrace of a bigger partner….To Nick!”Amid sustained whoops and cheers, Denton enveloped Dietrick in a tentative embrace and wiped his glistening eyes.