By TOM ZELLER Jr.
DON'T ask Nick Denton, publisher of Gawker Media and its growing list of popular Web logs, about his empire. "People come up to me as if it's witty and say, 'How is the empire going?' " Mr. Denton said, "which is pretty pathetic."
Don't ask him about his business plan, either. He says he never had one. The only reason he formed the company, he said, was to make his network of blogs -- which includes Gawker, the flagship chronicle of Manhattan news and gossip; Fleshbot, the thinking person's diary of smut; and about 10 other titles -- more attractive to advertisers.
"It doesn't help with readers," he said. "It's actually a disadvantage, because it looks corporate."
At a time when media conferences like "Les Blogs" in Paris two weeks ago debate the potential of the form, and when BusinessWeek declares, as it did on its May 2 cover, that "Blogs Will Change Your Business," Mr. Denton is withering in his contempt. A blog, he says, is much better at tearing things down -- people, careers, brands -- than it is at building them up. As for the blog revolution, Mr. Denton put it this way: "Give me a break."
"The hype comes from unemployed or partially employed marketing professionals and people who never made it as journalists wanting to believe," he said. "They want to believe there's going to be this new revolution and their lives are going to be changed."
For all of the stiff-arming and disdain that Mr. Denton brings to the discussion of this nonrevolution, however, there is no question that he and his team are trying to turn the online diarist's form -- ephemeral, fast-paced and scathingly opinionated -- into a viable, if not lucrative, enterprise. Big advertisers like Audi, Nike and General Electric have all vied for eyeballs on Gawker's blogs, which Mr. Denton describes as sexy, irreverent, a tad elitist and unabashedly coastal.
He says that there is no magic behind Gawker Media, his three-year-old venture based in New York. To his mind, it is built around a basic publishing model. But like it or not in the overheated atmosphere of blog-o-mania, Mr. Denton, 38, remains one of the most watched entrepreneurs in the business.
If his reluctance to be interviewed is theater, it is deft theater. A British expatriate and former Financial Times reporter, Mr. Denton is tall, slim, and salt-and-pepper handsome, with the slightly embarrassed air of someone who invested in the dot-com boom and came out unscathed. (He made millions in two previous ventures -- including a company called Moreover Technologies, an online news aggregator that presaged the twitchy, check-this-out linking that now make blogs de rigueur reading for desk jockeys worldwide.)
STRIDING toward the unadorned third-floor TriBeCa loft that is the closest thing to a Gawker nerve center, Mr. Denton reiterated, in a polite, sometimes halting staccato that often fades into a string of inaudible syllables, that he would not discuss money. He declined to say if Gawker was profitable, or how much he paid Gawker's dozen or so bloggers -- editors, as the company calls them.
He fired up a Marlboro Light and, hustling across Canal Street, chattered obliquely about overhead (minimal in the blogging business), libel (always a concern) and Fred Durst.
In March, Mr. Durst, the Limp Bizkit front man, sued Gawker, among other sites, for linking to a sex video in which he appeared.
"Honestly, though, we don't know why you're so mad at us," Gawker's editor, Jessica Coen, sneered in a March 4 entry. "The situation is really rather simple. Someone sent us a link to a video of your penis, we went into shock, and we shared it with the world for about two hours. Then we wept, found God, took a hot bath, and removed the video from our site."
Mr. Durst eventually dropped the suit.
A grueling climb led to the quiet, whitewashed loft space where a few Gawker Media hands -- including Lockhart Steele, the company's managing editor, and Gina Trapani, the editor of one of the company's newest blogs, Lifehacker -- were plucking away at laptops. (Gawker shares the space with another blogger, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan of Apartment Therapy.)
Mr. Steele, who joined the company in February, is the den mother for Gawker's far-flung collection of bloggers and is in near constant communication with them throughout the day via Instant Messenger. About half of the editors live in New York. The rest are distributed around the country. In California, Mark Lisanti edits Defamer, the Los Angeles counterpart to Gawker, and in Colorado, Brian D. Crecente edits one of the newer sites, Kotaku, dedicated to video games. In New Orleans, John d'Addario edits Fleshbot, while Ana Marie Cox covers political gossip from Washington on Wonkette.
Each editor is under contract to post 12 times a day for a flat fee, Mr. Steele said. (Gawker has two editors and now posts 24 times a day.) It is best to have eight posts up before noon, if possible, to keep readers coming back, he said.
The editors scan the Web for the best tidbits. Readers, and apparently even published authors, send in tips. When a Gawker site highlights articles from, say, The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, it is likely, both Mr. Steele and Mr. Denton said, that the article's author sent an e-mail message to Gawker pointing out its existence. (This reporter's naiveté about this process was met with gentle laughter.)
Site traffic is a particular obsession. Gawker draws just over a million unique visitors a month; Fleshbot, the most popular site, lures nearly twice that number, and Gizmodo, a site dedicated to gadgets, roughly 1.5 million. All editors can earn bonuses if they manage to generate spikes in traffic -- say, with a link to the latest Paris Hilton crisis or Fred Durst's anatomy.
Ms. Trapani's hour-by-hour traffic statistics serve as the desktop image on her computer. "It's extremely fast paced," she said. "It's a lot of output. Some days it's overwhelming without a doubt. Other days it goes really smoothly if I get some good reader tips and there's something great going on."
Like Mr. Denton, she was careful not to discuss specifics of Gawker's business, including how much its editors are paid. But a published interview with Mr. Steele earlier this year provides some insight. Bloggers are paid a set rate of $2,500 a month, he told a digital journalism class at New York University taught by Patrick Phillips, the editor and founder of I Want Media, a Web site focusing on media news.
Critics of the blog movement wonder whether the hoopla over the commercial viability of blogs -- particularly as publishing ventures -- is overstated. "Blogs primarily excel at marketing and promotion for companies or individuals," Mr. Phillips of I Want Media said. "I think blogging can catapult unknown writers, and it can give them a platform if they're talented. But as a stand-alone business, I think the jury is still out on that."
Mr. Denton, who says that no one, least of all him, is becoming rich publishing blogs, would seem to agree with that notion. It's not about the money, he said -- or about corrupting the art of the blogger. "If someone is saying that we publish according to a routine of at least12 posts a day and begin in the morning and if someone is sick we replace them, then I plead guilty," he said. "We believe in regular posting schedules."
But he also says that nothing he is doing prevents other blogging models from taking shape, or independent bloggers from logging on and doing what they have always done. "Some of my own favorite sites are ones that have no consistency beyond the wit and charm of the writer," he said. "There's room for both."
And there is, apparently, a ceiling on Gawker's expansion. Last month, the company started Sploid, a Drudge-like headline news blog with a tabloid look, and Mr. Denton says two more titles are planned for the short term, although he would not be specific about the particular consumer itches he'll be scratching this time. Having covered everything from BlackBerries to Beltway gossip, it's hard to imagine what else looms, but he said writers had already been lined up.
That will bring the number of titles to 14, and Mr. Denton indicated that 17 seemed a good stopping point, if for no other reason than that is the number of titles published by Condé Nast.
He also plans to reintroduce Gawker's "blog of blogs," called Kinja - a service that even Mr. Denton says was rather badly deployed and even more awkwardly explained in its original form. A team of programmers has been working for the last two years to revamp the service, which allows users to explore and scan their favorite blogs in one place. The new version will be ready in about a month.
SO, onward goes the nonrevolution. "If you take the amount of attention that has been devoted in the last year to Web logs as a business and something that's going to change business and compare that with the real effect and the real money, it's totally disproportionate," Mr. Denton said, "in the same way all the coverage of the Internet in the late 90's was out of whack.
"There are too many people looking at blogs as being some magic bullet for every company's marketing problem, and they're not," he added. "It's Internet media. It's just the latest iteration of Internet media."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company.
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