The initial version of this article featured several factual errors, which have been corrected as of September 15th. To go directly to the list of errors and corrections, please click here.
This spring’s imbroglio over the Emily Gould cover story in The New York Times Magazine brought national attention to what might, previously, have been considered a particularly regional, or particularly inside-baseball, tangent of meta-journalism. Her article, about the personal and professional scrutiny she was subject to as an editor of the New York media site Gawker, was itself subject to exacting close readings and debate in a variety of online comment threads. It seemed like every blogger had something to say about Gould. That was, perhaps, the piece’s intended purpose: the author, in writing about how she had served as a lightning rod for controversy at Gawker, brought the Times Magazine the zeitgeisty attention (and pageviews) that Gawker enjoys.
As a reader both of Gawker and of the Times Magazine, I read the story out of habit, but I felt a strangely visceral response as I clicked forward through the pages. I felt both an alienation from Gould and a strange kinship with her. As someone who had once considered himself a “young journalist,” I had seen Gould’s ironic, quick-draw writing style adopted by countless collegiate bloggers, and summarily ingrained in the Columbia University campus media culture, a culture whose pace was set by the widely-read, fast-and-loose Web site Bwog, which had been called “Columbia Gawker” in its planning stages. I had worked at Bwog and its parent, the monthly magazine The Blue and White, until my sophomore year of college, a few months before Gould’s story came out. For better or for worse, Gould had set the standards for my generation of journalists, and that made her story compelling to me. I was able to identify with her identity crisis over blogging as well: writing pithily for a 24-hour cycle driven by commenter appetites hadn’t been what either of us had set out to do.
I had been a reader before I called myself a writer. I began reading Time between the stacks in the elementary school library and The New Yorker between textbook pages in eighth-grade science class. These magazines, and others I read, told a story far greater than the weekly parade of newsmakers and eccentrics found inside the pages of each issue. In the aggregate, they seemed to dramatize their own creation. Time gave a sense of hierarchy and majesty to the passage of years. The continuity of The New Yorker’s typeface, and of the magazine’s lofty place in our culture, spoke volumes to me about journalism as authority or institution.
I began casually reading Gawker during my senior year of high school. Despite, or because of, my ignorance of the names in play and the stakes of the game, Gawker was a light, entertaining read: the internal rivalries, secret allegiances, and anonymous tipsters of publishing houses and magazines. From my computer in Connecticut, I didn’t think Gawker’s, and Gould’s, sarcasm and gossip-mongering represented the way the truth about the media. The New Yorker and Time-Life buildings were zeniths of professionalism and skill in my mind, while Gawker’s streetfront offices just represented a specific amusing and cynical viewpoint—one that was still fun to check in on now and then, though.
But more and more, I would run to the library computers between classes at my small boarding school to see what new items had been posted. Few, if any, other students there read Gawker. While I used to devour magazines like The New Republic in the library during free periods, I now couldn’t escape the thought that these magazines were relics. Gawker flaunted a philosophy that felt less and less blasphemous - that everything was irreparably broken (in the media, in New York, in general) and it was better just to laugh and mock. What was to be done? The less time I spent reading the magazines I once loved, the more time I spent reading just how much I didn’t need to read them. By the time I arrived at Columbia—New York, at last!—I was reading the site daily, as were many of my college classmates, as I discovered when students I’d seen at publications’ meetings (and their parties) began spouting off about Emily Gould.
I became an editor at The Blue and White, in the middle of my freshman year, and soon became involved with the magazine’s blog, called Bwog. The blog was exceptionally popular, while the magazine had a small readership and was almost prohibitively expensive. As a daily editor at Bwog for a semester, I was responsible for five to six posts, one day per week, which could set the tone of campus discussion for the day and would attract perhaps twenty-five comments apiece.
The posts were often cruel. A friend who edited a section at the rival Columbia Spectator told me she often feared what Bwog and its virulent anonymous commenters would say about her work. On Bwog, one could say whatever one wanted with impunity. When writing a late-night report on a nebulous “scandal” in the student council race, I was told to keep an anonymous source anonymous not out of principle but because it didn’t matter; the commenters would make his name public anyway. They did.
Bwog bore a close resemblance to Gawker, and we editors had especially adopted Gawker’s tone in conversation. Blue and White editors mocked entries from classmates’ personal blogs, and speculated as to which juniors would get tapped by secret societies. Internal gossip was often disseminated via online messaging. During our arduous layout weekends, editors would transparently discuss one another’s performance from opposite ends of the room, with furrowed brow and intent focus.
I still enjoyed working on the magazine, though, as it was what I thought journalism could be: intellectual content assembled by hard workers. The Blue and White was rather transparently modeled on The New Yorker: it had a front-of-book section that read just like Talk of the Town, and long-form investigative pieces that were scrupulously reported and fact-checked. I assumed, based on my reading of Gawker, that the presence of gossip did not signify an absence of good journalism. Gawker had laid bare the divisions within much larger and more successful media outlets, and, I assumed, gossip was simply an ugly but necessary fact of life for journalists. It could be dealt with for what it was worth, and then a writer could move on to his writing. (After reading Gould’s piece, and working on this one, I am no longer sure that is the case.)
Believing myself a student journalist immersed in the milieu of Manhattan, I began to turn my attention away from Gawker. There was gossip of my own to focus on—student-journalist gossip, which is small-bore and ceaseless. (Little is truly scandalous, as student journalists are not, comparatively speaking, a fast crowd.) Even so, I was unable to get the hang of blogging—I was either too sarcastic or too credulous. Besides Gawker, which I’d never read to emulate, there was no blueprint. My posts, written hastily between classes at public computer terminals, felt ephemeral. I wrote arts pieces for the magazine on top of my Bwog posts, and began to wonder what my high school fervor for writing had been about, and what it had gotten me.
I left my Bwog editor post after a semester in order to intern at Time, but continued to post on the site. It never occurred to me to quit, though perhaps it should have. Soon enough, I found myself the object of the same sorts of journalistic intrigues I had read about on Gawker. I caught the hints: pitch emails sent to editors and then falling into an abyss, never to be replied to or mentioned again; the editor-in-chief sending emails to the entire staff criticizing a film review I wrote; being asked to apologize to a Bwog writer after I mused that her proposal to cover Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to campus in the voices of a panel of Yorkie puppies was the epitome of Bwog’s sloppy tendencies.
The same sort of absurd story had been a fun free period in high school, a soap opera episode written by Emily Gould, had become unlivable. Everyone else at The Blue and White had been reading Gawker, as I had, and been learning from it that journalism was now a game of sudden death. They had succeeded in establishing a successful blog for a struggling magazine and in climbing to the top of the—admittedly small—campus-journalism heap. My interest in blogging was minimal and my ability to politick even worse. Those who had mastered gossip—running the campus gossip site, or dark mutterings about others—lived online, and they did better there than I did.
The situation was untenable. I quit the editorial board. A few weeks later, I sent Gawker a tip that, under its new leadership, Bwog had shed readers and lost respect. I had thought, naively, that my small exposé might draw the magazine’s attention towards its own insidious gossip culture. I also assumed that this would bring me catharsis, that serving up gossip about others would put me, even temporarily, in a position of power over them. But the comeuppance was mine. The post I had prompted concluded: “The bad news, tipster, is that you might be a sore loser.” I didn’t feel powerful. I felt queasy, and exhausted. Gawker was right: I had lost their game.
Bwog’s editor wrote an email, published on Gawker and elsewhere, alleging that another former Bwog editor had been the anonymous tipster. I admitted my guilt, with a vague and diffident apology, over email. A previous offer to write more arts pieces for the print magazine was tacitly rescinded. I suppose I learned my lesson about trying to create gossip, and a more important and long-deferred lesson too. Even as I write and edit this piece, I seek the well-chosen barb. I want to believe that I am finally writing something that matters, but I am telling a story of rivalry and dark mutterings and clandestine chats and emails, in the language that Gawker established and Bwog brought to campus. Perhaps I am a former trafficker of gossip seeking sympathy from my reader—I at least empathize with the Emily Gould of the Times Magazine piece. What did I learn? Perhaps that I should reconsider law school. Dissembling may as well be lucrative.
A friend at Time, a very accomplished writer long out of college, told me that all newsrooms are fueled by rumor. The rivalries, he instructed, are better-concealed as the writers grow savvier, become real journalists. He wrote for the Harvard Crimson, before blogs and Gchat. There, they wrote their grievances about one another in a public, anonymous “burn book.” My internship at Time was nothing like that, or like anything I’d experienced. I felt a sense of pride as I returned to campus every Tuesday and Friday. It was a rare sensation, offline and worlds away from Gawker and Bwog, looking at the blown-up covers of famous back issues on the walls. It felt like I was doing something important.
Corrections: The initial version of this article stated that Bwog turned a profit via advertising. Bwog has never been profitable. The article also initially claimed that the February 2008 issue of The Blue and White featured an editor’s note thaking every returning editor except the author. This was incorrect, as was the claim that the editor-in-chief sent all-staff emails criticizing the author’s work. In fact, the editor-in-chief sent a single email to the magazine’s editors, including the author. The initial version also featured several chronological errors: the author referred to somebody as “the Bwog editor” at a time when she did not yet hold that position, and referred to several controversial posts as being published during the tenure of that same editor, when, in fact, they had been published during the tenure of the preceding editor. The article has been revised to reflect these changes. CJR apologizes for the errors.