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Media Gawker Technology

Nick Denton finds a little peace and a life after Gawker and talks about Peter Thiel

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By Kyle O'Brien | Creative Works Editor

March 12, 2017 | 8 min read

For a guy who essentially lost his very controversial media business in a very public lawsuit, Gawker founder Nick Denton was surprisingly laid back and realistic about his future.

Nick Denton talks with Jeff Goodby

Gawker founder Nick Denton talks with Jeff Goodby at SXSW

A conversation with Denton is never dull, however, and the “Life After Gawker” panel at SXSW Sunday (March 12) produced plenty of fireworks but also contemplation. In it, Jeff Goodby of Goody Silverstein & Partners talked with Denton about wildly polarizing subjects – politics, lawsuits, fake news, nationalism and social media comments.

Denton founded Gawker.com – which later became Gawker Media with seven websites – in 2002. The site was known for its sensational, and some would say sensationalistic, including Denton, news stories.

In 2012 the company published a sex tape featuring wrestler Hulk Hogan, who subsequently threatened to sue. Conservative billionaire Peter Thiel capitalized on the opportunity to hit back at Gawker after it outed him with the headline “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people,” and funneled $10m to help Hogan fund the legal battering ram that eventually led to the company’s downfall. Gawker has since shuttered and Univision snapped up its remaining network of websites for $135m.

You would think that would leave Denton with his tail between his legs, but quite the opposite. He does acknowledge that the story that got him in trouble probably was a bit too controversial, though he still stands by his efforts.

“That story was clearly close to the line. The appeals court thought it was OK…the circuit court didn’t. They were offended by it. It clearly wasn’t a great story. If you’re going to expose somebody to mockery, there has to be a point to it,” he admitted.

He said the point was to learn more about ourselves, what are our own habits and curiosities, but said it was too sophisticated a point, and the story was essentially packaging a sex video.

“The meta point is worth making,” he said, but stated that he was clueless about the jury in Florida, who saw New York media elitism. “They didn’t like us at all.”

As for Thiel, Denton understands why he came after Gawker through his money and influence.

“You always want the focus to be on your antagonist,” he said, in reference to Thiele being behind the scenes.

He also said that settling with Thiel before the election was wise, since with the new US administration, he is now more powerful than ever. He also paraphrased Thiel, who said a single digit millionaire couldn’t really get justice in this country (actual quote: “If you’re a single-digit millionaire like Hulk Hogan, you have no effective access to our legal system.”). He meant that as long as the legal process is convoluted and extremely expensive, even the middle rich can’t win, and that even if you win a suit, you don’t get your costs back.

On the media, Denton sees an unfortunate shrinking influence, even with the big media companies battling against president Trump.

“Most of the journalism being produced isn’t shaking Trump’s support,” he said, noting that their efforts really just reinforce the passion of his base. “Most of the liberal media is working to halt Trump – getting leaks from sympathetic bureaucrats…Not many people in the middle are looking to bridge those divides.”

He said bluntly that Trump does not believe in liberal democracy, and the press is in opposition of that. Maybe surprisingly, especially since the content on Gawker was decidedly incendiary and fairly left-leaning, Denton sees himself as a centrist – “maybe a radical centrist, but a centrist.”

That said, he’s a staunch supporter of the free press and doesn’t want its power diminished. To that end, he called on the audience to support Mike Masnick, the founder of TechDirt, who is being sued for defamation by Shiva Ayyadurai, the man who claims to have invented email, for $15m. TechDirt claims, backed by evidence they have, that email existed before he invented any software.

It’s that type of fight – money vs the press, which doesn’t have enough money to fight every lawsuit, especially those from the very rich, that Denton sees as his current calling.

“I’m feeling like I want to make lemonade out of lemons…there are a lot of people who don’t like fully fledged expression…Given a chance we want to retaliate when attacked,” he said.

He sees that the privileged class – those with unlimited funds – are winning against a free press. One of the last Gawker columns written for the site, by Tom Scocca, essentially said that there is no justice, only power and money.

“Gawker.com is out of business because one wealthy person maliciously set out to destroy it, spending millions of dollars in secret, and succeeded. That is the only reason,” wrote Scocca.

Even though Gawker was a profitable media business, it still couldn’t compete with the bags of money Thiel could throw at the lawsuit.

“Now you have monopoly profits from companies like Facebook – funding the fortunes of billionaires. The media is financially outmatched. The balance of power has shifted dramatically. If we’re concerned about free expression, profitability has to be at the center,” he said, noting that it must be exceptionally profitable to fund good journalism and the legal challenges that go with it.

Denton talked about the “Putin model” of control over the media, and to overcome the iron thumb of control, the media must get out of the control of the super rich, even if they have the best intentions, a la Jeff Bezos and his ownership of the Washington Post.

“As long as the free press depends on the goodwill and generosity of billionaires, it is vulnerable.”

The media has gotten too detached from the people it is serving, he said, and change, must come from the people. It needs to be organic and come up through the community. With increasing competition for audience, media companies need every cent, and ultimately the small budgets have left digital media in same position that traditional media was in before – on a shoestring and vulnerable.

Looking for positivity in a sea of negativity

It’s not all doom and gloom in Denton’s outlook. He sees personal conversations as something to move the needle.

“I have confidence in the power of conversation,” he said. He added that even those who spew hateful things on Twitter, when addressed one-on-one, can be quite sensible. He sees a model of reasonable conversation as the fix for the media world.

Denton used example of pollsters who had meaningful conversations about transgender people with people in Florida. When they talked for 10 minutes, they were able to help change minds of those who were against them.

Denton likes using Twitter direct message and Google hangouts, so he can share his ideas and get real feedback. Looking forward, he sees “authentic, chill conversation on things that matter” leading the way in mass communication.

Goodby added that he missed the comments on Gawker stories more than the stories themselves, and often he would read from the comments up to the top.

Although Denton has advocated taking a break from media, he still reads news almost every day, but he spends more time reading quality things – deeper articles where he truly learns something, because “all Trump all the time is starting to get boring.”

He reads Reddit (“there’s a vitality to it”) and the site he loves most is the Browser, which features research papers and obscure publications. “It reminds me how awesome the internet can be…The good internet will rise up again.”

Though Denton discussed much more – the wave of populism in Europe, the trouble with being a liberal Democrat in America, how Breitbart is going way beyond the truth, the building up of “cathartic violence” and other touchy topics, he still sees the power of conversation leading the way, and that, he hinted, is where his next venture may bring him.

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