Nick Denton and the New Old Media

Image representing Gawker Media as depicted in...
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Reading this lengthy New Yorker profile of Gawker creator Nick Denton, I’m struck by how little the rise of New York’s new blogging kool kidz really changed anything of substance. Sure, they have a 24-hour news cycle now, and new page-tracker tools to better estimate each others’ monetary worth, but there’s more overlap than they might want to admit between their guiding principles and those of the much-reviled, stodgy, decrepit old media.

What Gawker shares with the more regrettable elements of the Washington press corps is a certain contempt for their subject, along with a thinly-veiled reverence for the power and influence which accumulates around that subject. It’s this tension that allows old media journalists to deride political and ideological commitments that stray so much as an inch from their studious posture of non-ideological apoliticism, while simultaneously obsessing over which team is winning as if federal politics were just one massive fantasy football league.

Gawker gives voice to these same impulses without the squeaky-clean veneer of respectability. They make no bones about ponying up cash for sources. They’ve discarded any attempts at this mythical art we know as journalistic objectivity—a positive development, except it’s been replaced with a curdled, irony-laden drone that’s become just as boring, uniform and insubstantial as its predecessor. (Not to mention ubiquitous in the New York new media scene, as the article hints.) Whereas the ethical code for old media journalism was ossified and arbitrary, the new code is this: be hip, but don’t let on how hard you’re trying.

Is that an improvement? Of sorts. You might be forgiven for thinking that it’s more honest. But as kool kidz journalism takes its place in the new status quo, the old rationalizations and evasions start coming back. Take this quote, for instance:

This past summer, Gawker published a big “exclusive,” titled “Mark Zuckerberg’s Age of Privacy Is Over.” It featured two dozen paparazzi images of the young Facebook C.E.O., his Mandarin tutor, his sister, and his “comely” girlfriend. They were unremarkable images, and the accompanying text said as much: “His car is nothing you’d blink at on a Bay Area freeway… . Zuckerberg’s house is modest, even humdrum… . He wears nearly identical faded gray t-shirts day after day.” Its winking conceit was that Zuckerberg had become a billionaire by encouraging people to share more of their private lives with one another.

“Zuckerberg is the Angelina Jolie of the Internet,” Denton explained, in response to a critic who charged him with aspiring to “no higher principles whatsoever,” noting with particular disapproval the exposure of the girlfriend. “His lovers, friends, and acquaintances—like those of any other celebrity—are caught up in the vortex,” Denton went on. “He has to make a choice; and they have to make a choice. And none of the choices—retreat from the public eye, abandonment of friendship—are palatable.”

See what Denton’s doing there? He’s removing himself and Gawker from the story as conscious actors. Zuckerberg is the one who “made the choice” the be stalked by paparazzi when he become rich and famous. Maybe that’s true to a certain extent, but it ignores the fact that the people ding the stalking make a choice as well. Denton’s trying to edit himself out of the story here, because that way he can ignore the dimension of personal responsibility that comes along with having a soapbox. It’s the same thing the Washington Post does when they want to cover a juicy scandal: they say it’s “created a media firestorm,” as if they’re some observer from outside the media, objectively observing its goings-on.

This isn’t to say that Gawker isn’t remarkable in some ways. Its formal and technical elements serve as a decent model for how to distribute journalism in the modern age. But it’s not enough to just be faster and flashier. For the new journalism to be a success in anything but economic terms, it needs to be better. More self-aware, more rigorous, honest, compassionate, and courageous. If I thought formal innovations were all the new era of journalism had to offer, then I’d drop out of the enterprise entirely.

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