The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?
We talk with writers, editors & entrepreneurs about, really, anything. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them. Small edits have been made for structure.
Episode III: "Predictions are for suckers"
In the third installment, I speak with Gawker senior writer Hamilton Nolan. Topics include Uovo, the tension between editorial and advertising, the “Gawker” voice, BuzzFeed, VICE, HuffPo, Thought Catalog and more.
(Andrew Lipstein) I’m here with Hamilton Nolan, senior writer (and one of the longest tenured writer) over at Gawker.
If you don’t know Gawker, it’s a mystery that you’ve found this site, because it involves the internet. When someone says something is “all over the internet”, what they probably mean is “Gawker”. Given Hamilton’s work for the media giant, there are a thousand reasons I could have asked him to be here, but one in particular is an article he wrote, “Art in Money Prison.” In it he rails against Uovo, a company that built a “brand new $70 million climate-controlled warehouse with high-tech security in Queens, built for the express purpose of storing ‘thousands of works of art, from old masters to contemporary rising stars’ [New York Times Magazine]”. The art in this warehouse can be traded without being looked at, a feature anathema to its existential being.
Back to this art stuff in a second. You’re currently a kilomile away. To bridge the digital divide, would you kindly describe your current environs?
(Hamilton Nolan) I am currently sitting in a pretty quiet office in Soho at a long desk with some other esteemed gawker writers. A very non exciting environment.
Well, I'm sure some of your commenters would pay body parts to be there.
That's why we have a door lock!
Ha. Back to art. In so many ways, the type of “art” that Gawker produces is the ying to the material housed by Uovo’s yang. Gawker’s product is meant to be enjoyed as close to its birth as possible, shared with as many readers as possible, and even interacted with (Gawker has one of the most active, non-idiot commenting communities on the internet). The discrepancy is analogous to the two (only two, really) ways of making money in media—sales and advertising. How much of what I just said do you already vehemently disagree with?
Well I would disagree that our commenting community is non-idiot overall although it certainly has a good number of non-idiots among the idiots. Other than that I would generally agree with you so far. Although I wouldn't go too far in casting what Gawker does as "art." Much more of a "craft," with some rare exceptions.
Rare exceptions in the direction of art, or in the direction away from art?
I mean we sometimes publish pieces I would say are art in the same sense that great nonfiction writing is art, but mostly I think what we publish is more craft--the distinction to me is art is made purely for the sake of expression and craft is made with the idea of satisfying some particular audience in some way. I think journalism tends to be more craft than art. Although it can certainly be art.
Agreed. Sales and advertising each has a long list of pros and cons. One of the advantages of sales is that the money-making part of the operation (usually) never interferes with the product itself. Mixing editorial and advertising is one of the largest looming issues across all major media companies. It's an issue Gawker hasn't shied away from, especially in discussing the faults of your competitors, such as BuzzFeed and VICE.
The trend, it seems, is to increase advertising until there's some sort of breaking point, when consumers (readers) say "enough". How close is Gawker to that level, and how close are your competitors, and are we all just being super hypersensitive to journalistic integrity?
Well first of all I would say that having a publication completely supported by subscriber revenue (I assume this is what you mean by sales) would be the dream of every writer and editor and other editorial employee, because obviously then you wouldn't have to fuck with advertising at all. And that dream is VERY rarely realized anywhere in the media, if ever. So advertising is a necessary evil unless you have another source of revenue, like a rich patron.
That said, it's pretty natural for any business to push advertising as far as it can go, for simple money reasons. So it's pretty common for there to be some tension between editorial and advertising, because they have fundamentally different missions. And at good publications there will be someone to step in at some point and draw a line and say "this is as far as advertising goes and not past this" so that the integrity of the editorial will be fully protected.
I think Gawker is on the right side of that line. I think other places can get a little or a lot over that line. In my dream world like I said there would be no ads, but until readers are ready to pay a lot of money to read journalism (and crappy blogs), it's going to be an ongoing issue.
Agreed, and the way content media is headed, to ask readers for money feels borderline insane. Do you think the "line" has moved in the past few years of Gawker? How about other media companies? Do you see it moving in the future?
The line is always moving because that tension between edit and advertising never goes away. There will always be a little push from each side so the line tends to fluctuate throughout the industry over time. In the past, say, 50 years, the newspaper and magazine industries pretty much set a standard of what ads could and couldn't be and that was more or less followed. Now, online media is having to come up with their own set of standards. I'd say currently the biggest grey area is "native advertising" which means ads written in an editorial style. These are present basically everywhere now. As long as they're clearly labeled as ads they're okay, but you can see that the trend is towards ads that are more like "content," because the internet tends to blend it all together. People just want shit to distract themselves and I think online readers tend to be less discriminating about the ad vs. edit line. So it's our responsibility to continue to be discriminating about it.
Agree with all of that, but I want to focus on the fact you said "clearly labeled", which, I think, really contains the entire issue. How do you define that?
I guess, labeled in a way that is clear to the average reader. Ideally in a box that says "Ad" or "Paid Advertisement" or something equivalent or understandable on a similar level.
Got it. I want to switch gears a little and talk about the Gawker voice, which is conversational to say the least, and yet doesn't lose the quality readers want from a verified source. Is there a style guide involved?
There have been a couple of attempts at style guides over the years, but the voice doesn't really come from that. The gawker voice comes from the gawker writers. To the extent we have writers with engaging voices we have an engaging voice, and to the extent we don't, we don't. I'd credit Choire Sicha for probably being the origin of the classic "Gawker voice" that has now spread over almost the entire online media.
Do you see a shift to the more conversational in the past couple of years? Do you predict other publications will follow suit in the upcoming years?
(I don't mean to imply that we're on a spectrum either, between conversational and formal, as BuzzFeed's conversational is obviously different from Gawker's conversational.)
I think the shift already happened at least several years ago, actually. Gawker was one of the first sites (or maybe the first) to really write like that from day one, and after a certain point that became ubiquitous. It was the default online writing style. And often in a very annoying way and not very well done. I think whole whining discussion you often hear about "online snark" is actually a reaction to a poor, low quality version of that voice pervading the media in general.
Agreed. Would you name names, or am I an asshole for asking you to do that?
Hm. I don't mind naming names, just trying to think of good examples. I mean, Buzzfeed has an annoying editorial tone but one that is much different from Gawker--more relentlessly positive. Thought Catalog has a dumbstruck editorial tone, generally. Some sites like HuffPo are too disparate to even really say they have a tone. I think a lot of smaller bloggy sites are where you'd find the watered down version of the Gawker tone.
Thought Catalog feels hopelessly young. BuzzFeed feels too old to act like they're acting. HuffPo is old and trying a bit too hard. Fair? (That is, all these qualifiers are relative to your audience.)
My only issue with putting a big "editorial tone" label on these sites (including us) is they're all so big and they all print so many different kinds of shit that you have to say what you're talking about. Buzzfeed's listicle tone is terrible, but they also publish straight political reporting. Same with Huffpo. We publish dumb internet videos right next to what might be an incredibly moving essay on race or culture or prison. So tone is largely dependent on what people actually read. When people say a site sucks for whatever reason, I want them to know that part of that reason is probably "you choose to read shitty content on those sites as opposed to more substantive content."
Very good point.
Jon Stewart just announced he’s leaving the Daily Show, a show that made it okay to get your news from an entertaining source. When you’re reporting on a breaking news story, do you think a majority of your audience is learning about the issue first from Gawker? Is that even the point?
My sense is that a lot of people do read news first on Gawker although I don't have stats on that. And I wouldn't recommend that! But when I write about news I do try to write things that are intelligent enough that a reader can get the news just by reading us. We're probably better used as a supplement to straight news: you can read the straight news, then you can come to us to get something more honest or more funny or more insightful about it.
Visitors to the site in the new year found that the structure was a bit different. Can you explain what, exactly, the difference is, and the reasoning behind it?
They're currently trying to post fewer things to the main page, which is gawker.com--fewer updates, more big/ high quality stories daily. Smaller or more niche stories are going to a bunch of different subsites (for example a lot of my stories go to justice.gawker.com, which is about justice and economic issues and etc.), and then everything goes to newsfeed.gawker.com, which is a feed of all our posts. Basically they're trying to impose some order on our output by using sections, like a newspaper. Unfortunately our front page design right now doesn't make it that easy to find everything with this new system, but hopefully that will be changing soon.
There's a feeling that successful media companies grew out of a singular voice, which was successful, and then branched out to a greater variety of content. Gawker is a great example, so is VICE (and so is HuffPo). Other platforms that have tried everything at once have seemed to fail at a higher rate, like AOL's Patch. Am I making this up? If I'm not making this up, do you have insight into why?
You are not making this up, I think that's a fair statement. Probably one reason is that the economics of online media make it a virtue to start small and build slowly. That means that you'll naturally start with a voice and your growth will come along from that. Building from the top down (spending a ton of money to launch something big from the start) has never really worked in online media. Also, online writing is naturally more conversational. It lends itself to voice more than print, which is really a one way medium.
Very true. If you'd been born 10 years earlier, what would you be doing?
Uhh... I'd probably have been laid off from some magazine in 2009? So right now I would probably have joined the peace corps, or I would be a poverty stricken personal trainer or something.
Ha. So writing was always in the cards for you?
I never actually grew up saying "I want to be a writer" but I always liked writing and when I got outta school writing was my only marketable skill except making pizza so I sort of fell into it and now I think it's very rewarding, psychologically at least.
Before I let you go, paint a pointillist portrait of Hamilton Nolan in 2025 and one of Gawker in 2025.
Haha. A pointillist portrait... uh, in 2025 I hope that I will still be gainfully employed as either a writer or, if not, as some kind of psychic or as a pie taster. In 2025 I suspect Gawker will still be around although I'd say there's at least a 30% chance it won't because online media changes fast so who the hell knows, remember Myspace. In general I think predictions are for suckers.
"Predictions are for suckers." Good closing line. Thanks for putting up with me Hamilton—this has been great.
Great, no problem.