THE BLOG

What Do Gawker and the New York Times Have in Common?

06/22/2015 04:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2016

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Digital is everything... but not everything is digital...

My readers know my mantra and are familiar with all my varied and growing proof points from the New York Times...even the printed edition comes from a digital source...to Warby Parker opening stores in highly trafficked retail locations...because the live experience of trying on glasses with friends in a crowd is unique....

And, let me add, the point isn't that digital is less important or somehow diminished -- it's simply that the digibabble surrounding us today skews our thinking and limits our true innovative spirit and opportunity. Let me share a new and instructive case in point and one that to me smashes the digibabble around a digital icon...and to be fair, makes clear what really makes them special and - spoiler alert - it's not digital....

Jonathan Mahler wrote a comprehensive and enlightening piece about Gawker and it's impressive founder Nick Denton for the New York Times... it is a must read entitled "Gawker's Moment of Truth."

As Mahler puts it:

Gawker is going through something of an existential crisis. In a sense, Mr. Denton has been overtaken by the populist digital revolution he helped spur. The original new-media insurgent is now confronting the same challenges as a lot of establishment media companies. Like them, it has to distinguish itself in a crowded, frenetic ecosystem, and decide how much, if at all, to tailor its content to the various social media platforms that increasingly determine what people read and watch.

Bottom line -- it's relatively easy to troll for ephemeral clicks... much harder to create lasting images and memories that ultimately distinguish your journalism from the "crowded, frenetic ecosystem." And the formulistic headlines and writing that help drive Facebook likes, shares and comments were not what Gawker was known for:

Late last year, Mr. Denton put some of his thoughts about the traffic chase into a Jerry Maguire-style memo to his staff. In excess of 4,000 words, it made the case that in its zeal for growth, Gawker had lost sight of its mission to put truths on the Internet. "Editorial traffic was lifted, but often by viral stories that we would rather mock," he wrote. Above all, he bemoaned his company's dependence on Facebook, which is responsible for about 25 percent of Gawker's traffic. "We - the freest journalists on the planet - were slaves to the Facebook algorithm.

Furthermore:

A lot of our traffic last year came from stories that we weren't ultimately proud of," Mr. Denton said. He cited Gawker Media's biggest traffic sensation in 2014, a video compilation of people messing up the Ice Bucket Challenge that has attracted more than 16 million views. "You're going to get a spike from a story like that, but at the end of the year, what does it say about your brand, and are you measuring that?"

And there you have it....

What does it say about your brand... and your measurement....

Clearly, just being "digital" is no longer enough to distinguish anyone (digital is everything...) and the self-imposed constrictions that digibabble thinking forced onto so many is outmoded, outdated and, frankly, future-limiting as the truly free journalists understand that digital is about distribution enablement while, in and of itself, it harbors no creativity and its ability to connect is "mechanical," not emotional...

Once it was simply about the empowerment that digital channels imbued to quickly and without much thought post just about anything...and with time and incentive and little accountability, the "best" grew addicted to the clickstream and oblivious to standards and ethics.

The story was found and posted often within seconds -- all digitally, of course -- and standards were subservient to clicks as was real journalism -- slog a story; live it:

"In my day, people used to go to parties to get stories," Mr. Denton [said], complaining that his writers don't get out enough. "They used to have to be charming to get a story -- trade some information, do some dirty dealing."

Now the dirty dealing was the quick share -- get it out and worry later -- who cares if we get sued but settle and meanwhile we have built a big clickstream...read up on the Yellow Journalism of the late 1800s and early 1900s....

Perhaps the bottom line of the whole article is encapsulated in the following comment:

If the newspaper industry wants to give up hundreds of years of passion and history and make themselves slaves to some 20-something in Silicon Valley who did the latest hot social network, well, that's up to them.... We choose not to.

And there you have it... a full-on digital business struggling with decidedly nondigital issues like quality of writing and coverage; competing with newspapers (begrudgingly praised) in who can use ever-evolving social platforms better without losing brand focus and identity; writers who cannot engage with audiences; and finally understanding that the very digital measurements that drove their early success are no longer valid....

Truthfully, I am inspired by Gawker's searching because at least they are not afraid to confront the issues, and I hope that the very iconoclasm that helped them see the potential in digital and create something new won't weigh them down with the digibabble albatross around their necks...

I found it ironic that the solutions for Gawker's issues were articulated, at the start of the last century, by a man who will forever be associated with the best in timeless journalism...and sadly, by the digibabblists no doubt associated with old fashion...

Listen:

"Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light." -- Joseph Pulitzer

Gawker, take note....

And there you have it... Digital is Everything....

At the end of the day Gawker and the New York Times... Gawker and all journalistic endeavors have a lot in common... digital savvy is only as good as the content it carries....

What do you think?