Elizabeth Spiers on Book Deals, Blogger Firings, and Updating Her Judy Miller Halloween Costume

Elizabeth Spiers

Elizabeth Spiers, who is leaving her job as editor-in-chief of Mediabistro on November 1, is working on her first novel. Prior to joining Mediabistro a year ago, Spiers was a contributing writer at New York magazine and, in 2002, she founded the media gossip Web site, Gawker.com. Spiers has also worked as an equity analyst and a dot-com marketing director.

Liz Cox Barrett: On Monday, Gawker (your former blog) reported that one of its posts led to the firing of a Conde Nast researcher — the researcher emailed an internal Conde Nast memo to someone at Gawker, who published the (rather mundane) memo. Wrote Gawker: “We’re shocked. We’re disappointed. We’re a little mad at our ourselves …”

Two days later, Gawker rival fishbowlny (which you co-edit for at least a few more hours) had it’s own look-we-got-someone-canned! moment, reporting that it caused the firing of one of its insider sources — a CNN employee — after it blogged about internal CNN matters, including the details of a closed company meeting (to which this employee gave fishbowlny access). Fishbowlny’s Rachel Sklar wrote: “I deeply regret this result, and am surprised at it considering that I was never contacted regarding any of my coverage and Thomsen never received any sort of warning regarding the Fishbowl coverage … For the record, there was no malice intended toward CNN, just the desire to report on an influential newsgathering organization.”

First, why are these dismissals surprising to anyone? And what does this all mean — other than, possibly, even better jobs for the fired persons? What does it say about blogs and big media companies and the balance of power? Are major media companies afraid of blogs, mystified by blogs, or what?

Elizabeth Spiers: First, I think the two dismissals are apples-and-oranges, though they look superficially similar, and I understand why you’d compare them. In the first case, “leaking” seems to imply intent, and I don’t think Krucoff intended that the email he forwarded (an innocuous notice about Conde Nast servers being down) to explain his online absence to be used as a “tip.”

The second email Gawker posted from Krucoff, explaining that he got fired, was sent to 11 people, privately (I was one of them). I assume that private emails are implicitly off-the-record because I don’t think good reporters have to burn sources to get stories, but everyone has their own policy about that sort of thing.

That said, big companies layer themselves in bureaucratic restrictions primarily for liability reasons, and not allowing employees to use company equipment for personal use is pretty typical of those sort of restrictions. Any personal email Krucoff sends from his Conde Nast machine, regardless of the nature and regardless of whether or not it’s going to Gawker, is ostensible grounds for termination. I don’t think it’s realistic to assume that employees will never do anything personal between the hours of 9 and 5, but I understand why the rules are in place and I can’t really blame the companies. I don’t think it has anything to do with Conde Nast being “afraid of blogs” (I don’t think they are), but understandably, they’re not particularly keen to have internal information leaked to the public outlets (mainstream press or blogs) and if they think they’ve identified the leaker, I understand why they’d fire that person. That said, I think they missed the target in this case. I know Krucoff pretty well and I don’t think he’s been leaking things to Gawker at all. Ironically, he loved Conde Nast, and was hugely defensive of it to the Gawker staffers after he started working there.

In Rachel’s friend’s case, he told her about the fishbowl-related posters in the lobby and the security staff there let Rachel in. (She told them exactly what she was there for, and if they had a problem with it, they certainly could have stopped it there.) I don’t think Rachel or her friend had any idea what they were doing was off-limits or top secret in any way. That, granted, may be naive, but it was good faith naivete.

LCB: One of the fired leakers, Andrew Krucoff, once wrote for Gawker, the blog you founded and the blog which is now hyping Krucoff as a strong contender to replace you at Mediabistro. And the person doing this hyping at Gawker used to do the job that you are about to leave at Mediabistro. This is all so incestuous and confusing —could you draw us a diagram?

What would the Elizabeth Spiers of 2003 — the “outsider” Alabama native who founded Gawker to mock the New York media elite — make of the Elizabeth Spiers of 2005, a cable news talking head, owner of a book contract, and, arguably, member of the New York media elite?

ES: Well, the Gawker post was entirely facetious. No one on that list, with the possible exception of my current deputy Aileen Gallagher, is, to my knowledge, a contender for my replacement. And there’s a lot of backstory there that Gawker’s not disclosing. I think if you look at my writing, my worldview hasn’t changed very much, and people who know me well personally make a point of reminding me that I haven’t changed, even when I perhaps should have. (Still cranky. Still misanthropic.) But I do think a lot of people compare Gawker when I was writing it to Gawker now and project the current version back onto me even though I’m not writing it, even though I have nothing to do with it and even though it’s materially different from when I was writing it.

Also, I’m pretty sure “members of the media elite” get paid a hell of a lot more than I do, so I’d dispute that characterization.

LCB: During your tenure at Mediabistro, the site was significantly retooled and now seems to be betting the farm on blogs (there are now six gossipy media blogs). What’s the thinking behind this?

ES: Actually, it’s the opposite. We’re not betting the farm on blogs, and it’s a very small part of what we do. But it also happens to be one of the most visible parts of what we do, and that’s exactly the point: it’s the most low-cost method we have at our disposal to do real-time reportage and produce daily, if not hourly, content. We could put that money into the feature well or directly into marketing, but the payoff and the exposure would be much lower. On a revenue basis, ad sales for the blogs are a completely negligible source of money in our projections, but, that said, we’ve greatly exceeded our revenue targets for that line of business since our January relaunch. The blogs basically allow us to broaden our audience and drive traffic to the site.

LCB: Used to be you couldn’t open a newspaper without seeing a story about how people are blogging and blogging — short for ‘web log’ and a sort of an online diary— is all the rage. This stream of stories is slowing down now (although the New York Times did somehow feel the need to write about the Gawker-related firing). Are bloggers’ fifteen minutes almost over? Every news network now has a blog or two — Brian Williams is blogging. Is the era of a book contract for every blogger coming to an end?

ES: The number of people I can name who got a book contract and were only writing blogs pre-contract is in still the single digits, so I don’t think there has ever been “a book contract for every blogger.” I’m not sure what the media fascination with that is, and at least one of my writer friends has been repeatedly characterized as a “blogger with a book deal” despite the fact that none of the publishers who saw his manuscript even knew he had a blog. Most bloggers are writers, and that some of them might also be capable of writing good books strikes me as fairly intuitive, but it’s not something that’s happening frequently or even regularly. Let’s say there have been 20 blogger deals this year—and i think that number’s high. That’s 20 out of X book deals that get done in a year? That’s not a trend; that’s a drop in the bucket.

Regarding bloggers’ 15 minutes — I think the media focus on the format is dying down, which means it’s maturing. I’m on record somewhere in 2002 as saying that the blog bubble was going to burst any minute, and Nick Denton is on record agreeing with me —and that was well before we started Gawker. But you’re not going to stop hearing about blogs; they’re just going to become such a fixture that they’re no longer unique and they’re no longer portrayed as an isolated media phenomenon.

LCB: Monday is Halloween. Last year, according to your Mediabistro bio, you dressed as Judy Miller — “short bob wig, handcuffs, and a can of Raid labeled ‘precursor element.’” Who will you dress as this year?

ES: One of my friends suggested that I dress as Judy Miller again, but this time with a knife sticking out of her back.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.