Gawker.com, a gossip blog founded in 2003 by Nick Denton and Elizabeth Spiers which grew into a media empire, shut down on August 22. The web site with the tagline ‘Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news’, had gained notoriety over the years for running articles other media organisations would not touch. These included a video showing Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack, a “stalker map” which gave away locations of celebrities in New York in real time, and a Scientology recruitment video featuring Tom Cruise. But it wasn’t any of these that led to Gawker’s eventual demise.
So what forced Gawker to shut shop?
Trouble began after it published a video of wrestler and reality TV star Hulk Hogan having sex with a friend’s wife without the permission of either Hogan or his partner. Hogan dragged Gawker to court, claiming breach of privacy. His argument found favour with a Florida jury, which awarded him $ 140 million in damages earlier this year. Since Gawker.com’s parent company, Gawker Media, did not have that kind of money, it was forced to declare bankruptcy. The company was put up for auction, and Univision Holdings Inc won the bid for $ 135 million.
How did Hogan manage to bankroll and win such a huge legal case?
Hogan did not fund the lawsuit himself, but was secretly backed by technology billionaire Peter Thiel, known for founding PayPal with Max Levchin and Elon Musk. Thiel had been antagonised by Gawker in 2007, when he was outed as gay by Valleywag, one of Gawker Media’s now-defunct blogs. The post’s title read “Peter Thiel is totally gay, people”. Ever since then, Thiel had been looking for a way to punish Gawker — and Hogan’s case became the shoulder he decided to fire from.
Why did Univision buy, then get rid of Gawker.com?
After Gawker Media got a new owner, Denton, who also faces personal bankruptcy, said: “…Neither I nor Gawker.com… are coming along for this next stage. Desirable though the other properties are, we have not been able to find a single media company or investor willing also to take on Gawker.com.” As popular as Gawker.com was, the brand had become a hot potato, with the financial risks of owning it outweighing the benefits. An article published last year about a married male media executive who sought to hire a gay escort, for example, drew widespread condemnation, had to be pulled, and led to the resignation of two top editors. While Univision decided to rid itself of Gawker.com, it will continue to operate Gawker Media’s other brands, including the tech site Gizmodo, sports site Deadspin, and Jezebel, a site aimed at women.
Is it worrying that a web site can be forced out of business in such a way?
In one of its last posts, Gawker.com highlighted the problem with people with deep pockets being able to hold web sites to ransom. In the post, titled “Gawker was murdered by gaslight”, Tom Scocca, executive features editor at Gawker Media, wrote: “A lie with a billion dollars behind it is stronger than the truth. Peter Thiel has shut down Gawker.com.” Scocca further wrote that “Gawker.com is out of business because one wealthy person maliciously set out to destroy it, spending millions of dollars in secret, and succeeded.” He also wrote about how Hogan’s case, which “would have gone away” under normal circumstances, kept being pushed by Thiel till “the company had exhausted the limits of its insurance and was bleeding money on legal fees”.
How has Thiel responded to all of this?
In an Op-Ed for The New York Times, Thiel wrote: “Gay men had to navigate a world that wasn’t always welcoming, and often faced difficult choices about how to live safely and with dignity. In my case, Gawker decided to make those choices for me. I had begun coming out to people I knew, and I planned to continue on my own terms. Instead, Gawker violated my privacy and cashed in on it.” He added that “since cruelty and recklessness were intrinsic parts of Gawker’s business model, it seemed only a matter of time before they would try to pretend that journalism justified the very worst”.