As part of our end-of-year process, all Gawker Media site leads were asked to submit planning memos for the next year. In the interests of transparency, here's mine.
The main goal for Gawker 2015 should be to maintain the momentum we've built in the last two months: high traffic, fast metabolism, good story sense, collective responsibility for the site, and most importantly (and giving rise to the rest of it) growing confidence in our voices and abilities. That confidence allows us to take risks and gives the site the kind of energy and—for lack of a better word—glee that it should have. We've done a good job of working through the insecurities and second-guesses that have made us hesitate, hold back, or otherwise fail stories at various times this year; the next step is to work that confidence, adventurousness, and energy into a coherent vision of the site and the world.
In that spirit, below is a broad outline for how I'd like to direct and structure the site next year. While I have confidence in this plan, I'm sure it can be honed and improved; I welcome your suggestions.
1. What is Gawker?
Nick and I were playing around with taglines for the site a few weeks ago, and we arrived somewhere around here: Gawker is your one-stop guide to media and pop culture. It is the place you come to learn the real story—the account you won't (or can't) find anywhere else.
The experience of going online was pretty bad in 2014, and it's only going to get worse. The internet next year is going to be unbelievably stupid and condescending, confusing and deafeningly loud, red-hot with misplaced outrage, unable to calibrate its reactions. "News" is going to be increasingly served by companies whose only real mission is to create shareable units of distracting content; "#longreads" increasingly self-impressed and decreasingly intelligent. Already ankle-deep in smarmy bullshit and fake "viral" garbage, we are now standing at the edge of a gurgling swamp of it.
Gawker's task is to be a trusted guide to the overwhelming new internet, your escort through and over the bog of Facebook and Twitter, your calibration tool for the cycle of incident and outrage and parody social-media account. What's actually happening here? Is this story news? Is that photo real? Which viral video is worth watching? Which new TV obsession is worth following? Is the new book-of-our-times really any good? Should I be outraged about this issue or ignore it? How should I feel about this story? Why does everyone hate that guy? Gawker can tell you, and if it can't, it can help you figure out for yourself.
While we obviously have no trouble using "explainer"-style meta-coverage to undertake this mission, we can succeed just as effectively by being the best versions of our opinionated, conversational, gossipy, selves.
Coverage that guides doesn't need to always be reactive, stilted, or distanced the way "explainers" tend to be: We can break stories that cut through bullshit and expose backdoor dealings, a la Sony, or drive conversation and buzz with well-argued and unflinching opinion, a la Cosby.
Earlier this year, we came up with a set of qualities that described Gawker. By living up to each item on the list, we can grab scoops, break stories, say things no one else will, drive conversation, and generate buzz. I'll reproduce it here, to give a sense of Gawker's character. At its best, Gawker is:
- fast: Our readers trust us to be a one-stop comprehensive news source; therefore we report quickly and iteratively.
- sophisticated: Our readers trust us to provide full context; therefore we are aware of the structures and narratives that guide and shape news coverage; we are familiar with the characters who appear and how and why they act.
- sharp: Our readers trust us to tell them what's real and what's not; therefore we are smart, pointed, skeptical and critical; our bullshit detectors for fact and narrative are set on hair triggers.
- funny: Our readers trust us to be engaging; therefore we are conversational, direct, and funny—not desperate, annoying, quirky, or wacky; not trying to be funny—just funny.
- surprising: Our readers trust us to be bold and original; therefore we take risks, try new things, and remain open to argument and persuasion.
- fearless: Our readers trust us to be unflinching and unbeholden; therefore we don't bullshit, prevaricate, omit, avoid, or hide for anyone or anything.
- finally, and most importantly, honest: Our readers trust us, period. Therefore, if we are nothing else—if we can't be fast, sophisticated, sharp, funny, surprising, fearless or even correct—we are honest. This is our fundamental value. We do not lie or fabricate facts, opinions, reactions, or emotions. We say what we mean. We are transparent about our processes. We are clear about our sourcing. We acknowledge our own shortcomings.
What Gawker is not: smarmy. Stupid. Affected. Snobby. Prudish. Condescending. Forced. Bored, or boring. Interested in respectability.
2. How is Gawker?
We've been frustrated for a long time by the limitations of the reverse chronological home page, where posts are quickly pushed down the front page and where every story is given more or less the same visual weight. Starting next year, we're going to take advantage of Kinja's sub-blog and sharing properties to change that.
The basic structure is simple. Rather than publish everything directly to the home page, we'll publish our stories to a set of beat-focused sub-blogs, some of which already exist and some of which will be launched in January. From those "diagonals", the best and most representative work—original stories, reported news, personal writing, smart arguments, breakout viral, breaking news—will be shared to the front page, which will update at a somewhat slower rate than it currently does. Everything will be pushed to Facebook and Twitter, as well as to a comprehensive Gawker "news feed."
Why do this? For readers, it's a better and more personalized experience. Infrequent homepage visitors will be served only our best stuff; frequent homepage visitors and loyal pan-Gawker readers will still have the "news feed" to check up on. Readers who love Caity's pop-culture coverage but hate Valleywag, or love Morning After but hate Hamilton's politics writing, can visit individual subject sub-blogs as they see fit. And readers who only ever see us on Twitter and Facebook will see the same thing.
I'm even more excited about the possible effects this kind of sectioning-out could have on writers, who would no longer be limited by the constrictions of the front page and its wide audience. "Is this worth a front-page post?" is a damaging question to the freedom that leads to our best moments, and smaller sub-blogs give writers the opportunity to experiment and push.
The current sub-blog lineup looks something like this. Each of these blogs will have an editor or senior writer overseeing it to ensure that it's maintained and populated, though no one will be restricted to a single blog:
Valleywag: Silicon Valley tech news, gossip, and opinion.
Defamer: Hollywood and celebrity gossip, entertainment news, and movie writing.
Morning After: TV clips and recommendations.
Gawker Review of Books: Author conversations, book excerpts, and book recommendations.
Domesticity: All-in-one lifestyle.
In addition to those five blogs, we'd be launching five more. None require extra hiring; all are open to suggestion and modification:
Media: Media criticism and New York-centric power gossip.
Justice: Politics, inequality, business, the economy, opinion, argument.
Internet: Cybersecurity, dark web, internet culture.
True Stories: This would be, essentially, a bucket for our regular first-person features: Weekend and weekday personal essays, oral histories, collected stories.
And, finally, we'd have the " news feed," overseen by Taylor, which would share all content from the other nine sub-blogs as well as be the home for the "churn": the breaking news and viral stories everyone is talking about and that we need to cover, but don't yet have anything major or lasting to say about.
In addition to these outlined diagonals, we'll keep Dennis Mersereau's excellent weather site The Vane, and reboot Antiviral as a solo blog for our viral correspondent, Jay, centered around critical/skeptical looks at viral video, hoaxes, fakes, marketing stunts, and other bullshit. Jay won't give up on positive viral coverage—there are plenty of great and funny videos that will go viral that we don't need to shit on or treat skeptically—but he'll also be able to further develop and refine Neetzan's "ethical virality" as a workable and sustainable concept. I'm also excited by the pop-up sub-blog concept (see sonyhack.gawker.com) and expect us to do a lot more in that vein as big stories arise.
It's a lot, but we have 20ish staffers and are currently publishing 60+ things a day, so we'd easily be updating each of the sub-blogs frequently.
For now, these dozen sections cover the vast majority of what we do. Once we're standing on two feet with the new structure, we can easily create or spin off new sections: Domesticity, for example, can be split into a number of different blogs: food/parenting/home/product reviews. Lacey and I have talked for a long time about launching a travel section. Between our success with true crime and the larger success of Serial there's an obvious audience for a crime section; same goes for the success of "Remember When?" and history/nostalgia/"today I learned." A journalist friend in Beirut has contacted me interested in running a Middle East blog with good explanatory journalism and reporting. The possibilities for building new wings are endless, once we've finished this first home renovation.
Obviously, before we can do that, we'll face some challenges. Here's what we need for this to work:
- Flexibility: If we find quickly that one sub-blog or another isn't "working" the way we want it to, we don't need to maintain it; if we find that there's a category or beat we really need to be dedicating ourselves to, we can add it.
- Identity: In the medium term, if we want to make these sub-blogs landing pages that people visit regularly, they'll have to develop identifiable voices (as Sam did on Valleywag), or consistent regular features (e.g., servicey recommendation stuff on Morning After). This is not hard, but will require maintenance and direction.
- Branding: Kinja's current design isn't great for this plan. Two major problems stick out: One, it's hard to see that sub-blogs are attached to larger sites; no one has heard of "Morning After," e.g., and we should be helping it piggyback on Gawker's recognizability. We need to find a way to include logo or language that makes it clear what each site's relationship is to Gawker.com. (This is one reason I haven't named the newer sub-blogs [yet].) And two, the author bylines and photos need to be bigger and more prominent! We're developing strong voices on the site right now, but they need help standing out. Gawker works best when you know that each post is coming from a specific person or individual.
- Patience: The first few months will be weird, and sometimes embarrassing, and in all likelihood horrible for traffic. That's okay. It will take some time to re-organize the site and the way we think. But the writers are finding their voices and seizing on the energy that comes with that kind of confidence. Given direction, support, and a structure that encourages risk and ambition, our experiment will pay off—and 2015 will be a banner year for us.