Last Monday, Gawker editor Max Read announced that the bloggers and editors on his team were spending too much time chatting on Campfire, one of several group-chat apps that have become popular in newsrooms. Smart ideas aired on Campfire should, in fact, be appearing on the site, he wrote, and there was now a space on Gawker, called Disputations, for those random links and one-liners to be posted. No need to write a formal headline or add art.
When staff writer Taylor Berman piped up in defense of Campfire, Read responded, “There’s a portion of you, your intelligence, and your character that currently exists only in a locked, private space. It’s a huge waste to keep so much ability in a place where only Lacey [Donohue, the managing editor] and Caity [Weaver, a staff writer] and I can see and enjoy.”
Just about every outlet that uses group chat is already comfortable with broadening the editorial decision-making process to include the entire newsroom. Gawker is taking it a step further, making the conversation-before-the-assignment phase public, too. Some see it as another way to wring content out of writers who are already churning out many posts and tweets and comments a day. Read’s choice to take private staff conversations and “turn them into monetizable content is, well, very Gawkeresque,” writes Caroline O’Donovan at Nieman Lab. That’s one way of looking at it. Another, especially for a gossip- and personality-driven site like Gawker, is that the unmediated nature of Disputations makes it a perfect editorial fit. If writers are having these conversations anyway, why not have them in public?
Over the past week, as Gawker’s editors and writers followed their boss’s directive, Disputations became a cross between private office group-chat and the comments section, pared down to include only the most devoted readers. Writers were quick to reply, often because they were replying to each other. Pointless office banter is now front-facing content, albeit not exactly on the homepage. The staff has argued about fruit. One writer posted a screengrab from Gchat, a snippet of an editing conversation that most journalists can relate to: “i mean just make it make some kind of sense.” Often, the posts—which range from tweet-length (or just a link to a tweet) to a hundred words—are directed toward other staffers. “I admit I am not much for this genre of writing,” wrote staffer Michelle Dean when sharing a link, “but Max seems to be.”
When I asked Read how he thought the first week went, he replied, “I don’t really have parameters for success with this experiment yet,” so he posed the question on Disputations itself, where both staff and readers chimed in. A reader noticed that “the authors seem to readily interact here more than in the comment sections following their posts.” One superfan loved the glimpse at “communications between colleagues who seem to love each other as much as I love them.” Staffer Dayna Evans wrote, “I feel like it’s been a good experiment in humanizing the writers.” And even Berman conceded it wasn’t so bad: “It went much better than I thought it would.”
It’s clearly an experiment, and a week is too soon to draw any conclusions, but I can understand why many readers like it so far. There’s something about it that feels like the early days of Twitter, or the halcyon days of the now-defunct Google Reader. The effect is remarkably close to listening in on an office conversation, fragmented across blog posts. Disputations may be public-facing, but because only a small, dedicated group is paying attention, the conversation feels personal. Editors and publishers have long had a hard time getting writers to comment frequently on their published articles—by the time a post goes up, writers are usually on to the next thing, with little time to check back. Disputations is a forum where they seem to actually be interacting with at least a few dedicated readers in real time.
So would other sites—those that don’t share Gawker’s editorial mandate to peel back the curtain on the media business—consider taking their private chats public? Probably not, says Kay Steiger, associate editor at TalkingPointsMemo. Group chat is the primary place they interact, and “I would worry about writers, particularly those who are new to the online journalism game, feeling intimidated out of saying what they think if the general readership were privy to our newsroom chats,” she says. “The best story ideas in our chats end up on the site anyway, so I’m not sure readers are missing out on much.”
When it comes to vetting ideas, “if we can’t stop talking about it in group chat, that’s probably a good sign,” says Molly Fischer, an editor at NYmag.com’s The Cut (where I am, full disclosure, a regular contributor). The same is true in the group chat of The Huffington Post’s politics section. “Seeing ‘[person] is typing’ non-stop and knowing people are rushing to share their thoughts on a subject with the rest of the group are clues that something might be worth sharing with a larger audience,” says Paige Lavender, an editor there. But now that even staid news outlets are experimenting with crowdsourcing and taking audience engagement seriously, it isn’t so crazy to think that some publications might, in the future, opt to make the editorial vetting process public.
Of course, there’s still a place for private chat. “Campfire,” Read told me, “is still active with non-editorial secrets and gossip and lunch orders.” And presumably all conversations about potential scoops, too. There are some things even Gawker won’t make public.