UPDATE: In a truly shocking turn of events, Gawker will shut down next week, days after its parent company was purchased by Univision for $135m. Gawker founder Nick Denton told staff late yesterday, and it was officially announced on the site itself. For anyone remotely interested in a free press and the right to publish fact based journalism, this is very, very bad news. There is much to say about the fall of one of the world's truly original, independent media companies, but this piece accurately represents my thoughts about the dangers all-powerful billionaires pose to many vital industries in America -- particularly the press. The industry is still incredibly volatile with many of the big players still attempting to figure out a viable business model in the age of the internet. They could certainly do without petty tech billionaires decimating hundreds of jobs simply because they feel like it.
Gawker filed for bankruptcy after losing a $140m privacy lawsuit brought by former wrestler Hulk Hogan, paid for by Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel.
Mr Thiel funded Mr Hogan's case saying he wanted to curb the company's "bullying", after the site published an article that outed Mr Thiel as gay.
With the news that Gawker is up for sale after filing for bankruptcy, publishers everywhere should start thinking very carefully about how to protect themselves from a similar fate.
Gawker filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection today while it appeals a $140 million verdict in favor of pro-wrestling legend Hulk Hogan, who sued them for invasion of privacy after Gawker released a sex tape of Hogan and his friend's wife. It turned out that billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel had financed Hogan's lawsuit, apparently angry that Gawker had revealed his own sexuality years before and had gone after many prominent closeted gay figures in the media, politics and business world.
While I have long been a critic of Gawker's style of journalism, particularly its revolting outing of gay people and highly destructive tabloid reporting, it is one of the few well funded independent media outlets that is also unafraid to publish stories attacking the rich and powerful. Gawker may well have a reputation for gutter journalism, but it is one of the few sites willing to do the work mainstream media outlets won't. Gawker routinely reports on labor issues, goes after billionaire tech and media investors, and produces substantive long form journalism about a wide variety of topics. While this is largely funded by the snide gossip it also publishes, it at least puts money into reporting that is in the public interest. Gawker also pays their writers -- an anomaly in the clickbait era that relies mostly on free labor.
Given 90% of the major news media institutions are owned by 6 corporate conglomerates, it is hard to stress just how important it is that independent media outlets survive -- particularly ones that engage in actual reporting with real budgets. Gawker is not perfect, but it is a voice and an important one.
The fact that overly sensitive billionaires can ruin news outlets just because they feel like it is truly chilling, and it sets an awful precedent in an industry already suffering from wildly fluctuating advertising rates, tepid paid subscription, volatile social media reach, and lack of consistent investment.
We here at The Daily Banter are an independent media outlet and are subject to the same market forces Gawker is, albeit on a much smaller scale. We survive because of the immense loyalty of our readers and their generous subscriptions (and yes, that's a pitch for support), but we are perpetually one Facebook algorithm change away from disaster. We have no corporate investors to bail us out, and we would most likely crumble if someone like Peter Thiel decided he wanted to ruin us. Although I am not privy to the finances of other indie media outlets like ours, from years of experience I can say with near certainty that they would suffer a similar fate.
As if life was not precarious enough for those who refuse to kowtow to giant corporate interests and work to increase shareholder profit, we now have a situation where the ultra wealthy can wake up one morning and decide which media company they are going to destroy.
Gawker Media is not and has never been a moral company, but it serves an important function in an age when the investor classes are essentially untouchable. Gawker dared to go after them, and the consequences have been severe.
If this is not a wake up call for the media to get serious about defending freedom of speech, I don't know what is.