When Leah Finnegan worked as features editor at the notorious media blog Gawker in 2015, she and the other staff would often play a game: what news story would get the most traffic in the world? Traffic was an obsession – writers were ranked by how much they brought in. “There was always pressure to produce as much traffic as possible,” she told me, “and you never knew when they were just going to fire everyone or hire a new editor, which happened basically once a year.” Now when she played the game, she suggested the answer was “maybe an Obama sex tape”.
From 2003 to 2016, Gawker was the epitome of the very best or the very worst of the internet, depending on your perspective. A blog with a gossip-y, insider-y tone, it reported on both the personal lives of popular media figures and global politics. Often, it was home to some of the smartest cultural writing on the internet. Some felt its acerbic sense of humour punched up; for others, it was sneering and toxic. Its popularity among a certain, very online demographic is hard to overstate (Finnegan said, when she worked there, the homepage had 24,000 people on it every morning). It was eventually bankrupted by professional wrestler Hulk Hogan – secretly backed by the billionaire Peter Thiel – after Gawker published a sex tape featuring Hogan.
Now, there is a new Gawker under Finnegan’s leadership – who is also an alumni of the New York Times opinion desk and ex-executive editor of the beloved, shuttered website the Outline. It is part of the Bustle Media Group, owned by media millionaire Bryan Goldberg, who bought the Gawker domain name at auction in 2018 for $1.35m (Bustle Media Group also previously owned the Outline). Finnegan was initially offered the job two years before, but turned it down, fearful of the connotations Gawker still had. “But when I separated the Gawker name from all the baggage, I thought, OK, I can do a new Gawker that is just what I want it to be,” she said. “Which is just something fun to read on the internet. It doesn’t have to replicate what Gawker was, which means so many different things to so many different people.
“Now we’re surprising people with really great features while doing the regular, you know, celebrity maceration.”
Before Gawker relaunched in July, Finnegan said she hadn’t laughed when reading digital media in two years. “I would laugh at things on Twitter, but funny writing didn’t really have a place that made sense for it,” she said. “That was a priority for me, because that was always the stuff I loved the most about old Gawker, just its joyful viciousness.”
Finnegan, 35, explained that earlier this year she had lunch with ex-Vanity Fair editor and Daily Beast cofounder Tina Brown, who said no magazine gets “the mix” right anymore – the best combination of short pieces, criticism and essays, and longer reported features. “That got really embedded in my brain and I was like, ‘The mix! The mix! We have to do a mix!’” Finnegan told me.
She said that, for her, this means publishing a combination of “fun stuff, a bigger thing, the bigger stuff, something serious, something totally dumb, just a cornucopia of stuff to read when you’re bored”. To keep Gawker unique, Finnegan has made it clear she won’t publish what most mainstream outlets are publishing. “There are essays every day about Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill or various wonky political things,” she said. “I don’t want to do the biggest headlines, I don’t want to write a righteous essay about how so-and-so is ruining the government.” She added that Gawker’s essays have a point of view, but she avoids anything overtly political, and that she hopes to get the range that the original Gawker had.
“When I was at old Gawker, I would do pieces on scientology, I did a piece on eating ass, I did a piece on food trends,” she told me. “I’m not naive about our audience being liberal 20 and 30-somethings – we don’t need to convince them that Republicans are bad.”
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While this is largely driven by her personal vision for Gawker, Finnegan also believes this kind of writing has disappeared from the mainstream media since the original Gawker’s death. “When I worked at the New York Times op-ed desk, it was an intense environment, but the ethos was that we’re going to publish opinions that make you think. It might not be what you agree with, but we’re going to seek out interesting essays. We won’t publish a senator just because they’re a senator.
“Now it’s become this craven, cesspool of really thoughtless essays that I just feel are engineered to make people mad,” she continued. “Everyday we’re just arguing about some pseudo-right-winger getting a job that pays a lot of money.”
Finnegan left Gawker a year before its shutdown, just a few days after live-tweeting an internal company meeting headed by Gawker cofounder and then-managing editor Nick Denton – called to discuss the removal of a controversial post that alleged a Condé Nast executive had attempted to hire a male escort. She said her relationship with Twitter has changed significantly since then.
“I’m older now and care less about getting my jollies from Twitter,” she explained. “I used to really find a sick pleasure in being mean and just saying terrible things to people. That wasn’t worth it at all… I think a good policy is to tweet as little as possible.”
Finnegan said that many of the places she used to work for now are “dead”. Does that make her worried about the future of new Gawker?
“Working in media, you come to accept that nothing gold will stay and that your work is on borrowed time,” she revealed. “We’re at the whim of a millionaire CEO who I know can shut down the website at any time and every day I tell him to not do that. So far, I think he agrees with me.”
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