Wonkette was written by a journalist in her early thirties named Ana Marie Cox who covered D.C. with a dry and cutting wit that I was sure would be lost on the sort of people who control the Most E-Mailed list. But then she landed her first big “scoop,” about the existence of a blog called Washingtonienne kept by an anonymous Capitol Hill staffer who supplemented her income by sleeping with older, married, power-broker types. This being precisely the sort of self-promotional scheme New York’s great unabashed masses were increasingly obliging Gawker to blog about, I would have totally ignored it had Cox not taken the opportunity to post some photos of herself posing with the Washingtonienne at a club. The Washingtonienne looked sort of damaged next to the elder Wonkette, who looked like she had spent an inordinate amount of time practicing in front of the mirror for this moment. Within months Cox’s image would appear in many bigger media outlets, including on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, which expended numerous paragraphs corroborating my suspicions by chronicling her childhood in Lincoln, Nebraska, spent watching Breakfast At Tiffany’s and dreaming of fame, her bliss over being offered a gig on MTV News, and dejection when said gig did not produce a full-time job. “I couldn’t figure it out,” the author, Matthew Klam, wrote. “Why was she so excited about working for MTV? MTV is for nine-year-olds. It’s so 1992. It was as if her sense of what was cool and what was stupid, so unerring on her blog, had abandoned her.”
Thank the deities, I remember thinking at the time, someone called her out on it. This virulent new self-obsessed model for journalistic success needs to be stopped.
Organizationally, Gawker could not have been a purer embodiment of nothing-based dystopia at work in the media. For most of my time there, bloggers earned bonuses that were tied to the page views their posts received, so the leisurely three minutes required to download a haggard image of Amy Winehouse from a celebrity photo agency and post it with a five-word caption was rewarded as generously as the frenzied hour and a half spent compiling the daily roundup of celebrity gossip, and at least twice as generously as anything I actually wanted to spend an hour and a half writing about. Beyond that, awarding page-view bonuses clearly encouraged bloggers to fight over tips and news items that fell into the realm of “obvious traffic getters,” and discouraged us from collaborating in any effort more substantial than the odd round of company-subsidized drinks.
When hiring female bloggers, the company also maintained a bias toward the young and photogenic, and by the time I got there, it occasionally posted on its sites softly lit pictures of its female employees, much in the way American Apparel had done. During my first few months at the company, Emily Gould, a blogger for the flagship site, even posted a photo of herself wearing an American Apparel swimsuit and giving the finger. Anyone who worked for Gawker Media in the summer of 2007 attaches the swimsuit image to a “phase” our colleague was in the throes of which depleted a tremendous amount of our collective attention via instant message, a phase one veteran blogger likened to that experienced by Cox in her Wonkette era. Gould graced the cover of the Times Magazine the next spring, four years after Cox, lying on her bed in a tank top gazing sleepily at the camera.
The photos, along with Gould’s essay about life as a blogger, elicited a deluge of vicious Internet commentary, often from other bloggers who felt Gould had given blogging a bad name—“Some bloggers are able to write about things other than themselves. Seriously,” huffed New York magazine’s Daily Intel blog, a Gawker competitor. And following numerous demands from Jezebel readers that we somehow “weigh in,” I obliged with a post in which I jokingly advanced a theory that Denton had created Gawker with the intention of destroying journalism by infecting its practitioners with a lethal addiction to a kind of reality-TV version of the media, in which “mundane trivialities” and “the ceaseless trade of imaginary currency” kept them impervious to the alarming shortage of real currency—both pay and prestige—in the business by supplanting any underlying theoretical purpose journalism might initially have been invented to serve. That afternoon I ran into Denton at the office.
“I liked your post,” he said, which was his typical response to negative attention.
“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know what all the fuss is over,” I said. “They’re not even particularly hot photos, for Emily.”