Gawker on Stealing Jokes, Personal Obsessions as Literary Devices, and Getting Dissed by Maer Roshan

Jessica Coen and Jesse Oxfeld, freelancers and co-editors of, serve up a day-long stream of media-centric and celebrity gossip from their respective homes in New York City. As part of Nick Denton’s Gawker Media (which includes 13 different blogs), Gawker concentrates on the rumors, missteps, buried leads and suspicious “personnel moves” that the media bubble so loves to gossip about.

Paul McLeary: Are there any big drawbacks to working from home every day? What is a normal day like?

Jesse Oxfeld: I love this job, but I hate starting work at 7:30 in the morning. Now, I work from my house, so my commute to work is fantastic, it varies from to five to seven minutes, but starting at 7:30 drives me crazy.

Jessica Coen: We’ve always got something [posted] by 8:00 am. If I’m not sitting at my desk reading by 7:15, I’m behind. But that’s me. Jesse gets started about half an hour later, which is fine because I like to be done earlier.

JO: Right, I’m usually working until 5:30 or 6:00 or after 6:00, while Jessica usually finishes a littler earlier. At Gawker we have a “flex-time plan.”

JC: Even when we leave the desk and go out we’re still conscious of getting back and getting our emails because even if you leave for an hour you’re going to come back to 60 or 70 emails.

PM: How is the email flow during the day? Do you get a lot of what you write through reader tips?

JC: Tips, outside of spam, maybe 200 emails a day. It depends on what we’re covering and who we’re working with. Links to things we might not see, or breaking news …

JO: That’s what I find most useful — ideally, we could be reading every media item, but you can’t. The things I like the most aren’t some great inside tip or gossip but just something someone emailing in saying “You have to check out the seventeenth paragraph in this story in the Times, where they have this ridiculous quote about such and such.”

JC: We read everything we can, but we’re always going to miss something, especially when it’s breaking. It’s kind of great that readers think of Gawker and send us things. Conventional wisdom is that if we get three reader emails about something specific by 11:00 am, Gawker should have an item on it. People are expecting Gawker to cover it.

JO: Some tips are “I work at such-and-such and someone got fired but here’s what you didn’t know …” but that’s the vast minority. What I really love are the ones not saying “Did you see this front page item in the Thursday Styles section?” because yes, we saw it, but people flagging little obscure things. It’s the classic Jeff Jarvis, Jay Rosen distributive journalism kind of thing: “Our readers are smarter than we are,” as Dan Gillmor said. And it’s great to steal someone else’s joke, and have them thank you for it.

JC: It’s true …

JO: I don’t steal the jokes verbatim, but sometimes there’s a good line and you end up using it, and people are like, “Oh, my god they’re using my joke!”

PM: A lot of what you guys do seems to be run by, let’s say, personal obsessions, such as your continuing harsh-but-funny coverage of the problems at Radar magazine, or the Olsen twins moving to New York or when Jessica kept IM’ing Matt Drudge, with no response. Have you received any feedback from any of these people?

JO: When I went to the Radar launch party — which, in fairness, I was not invited to — I showed up, I walked in, and I made it a point of finding [Radar editor] Maer [Roshan] right away — who I sort of used to be friends with — and shook his hand and said “I want to say two things. First, congratulations, and second I’m ready for my comeuppance.” And he looked at me and said “How did you get in?” And I said, “Nobody stopped me.” And he just said “Oh,” and turned around and continued the conversation with the person on his right. So that was the extent of my conversation with him. As you may or may not have seen, their publicist had this theoretically anonymous blog on which he liked making fun of me, not realizing that it’s fairly easy to look up who owns the blog. So yeah, they’re not too happy with us.

JC: But you know, on the other hand, in their defense, whether or not they’re too happy with us … they’re well aware, I’m sure, that a lot of people bought Radar because they read about it on Gawker, and wanted to see what it was about, and perhaps the press and the attention wasn’t exactly the way they wanted it, but you know, they know that it did help them in some sense.

JO: In fact, when we got a letter from the marketing vice president saying that we didn’t understand what Maer meant when he told Women’s Wear Daily that [the first issue of the magazine] had sold out. [Gawker initially disputed that it had.] She did actually make the point there, she said “We did sell out and you guys don’t understand what that means, and in fact we probably sold out due in no small part to your coverage of us.”

JC: None of it is personal. It’s all business — we’re doing our job.

PM: One of the funnier recurring bits was the coverage of the Olsen twins …

JC: That was a year ago!

PM: No, really?

JC: It’s so funny that people keep bringing that up, because that was when they were starting NYU and it was right after Mary Kate got out of rehab and there was stuff going on with them … they were around. It’s not so much a personal obsession, but there was actual news about them every day. And you may say that our personal obsessions dictate content, but those personal proclivities are also very much shaped by what the mainstream press is covering.

JO: To some degree the “personal obsessions” are kind of like a literary device we use to talk about things that are going on.

JC: The things we choose to focus on are in no small part influenced by what the mainstream press has chosen to focus on. And we just kind of pick up on the absurdity of it.

JO: Right. And so the Radar obsession — that was in our world, our sort of gossipy media world. That was a huge deal at the time, and that was sort of our joke about it, that we’re obsessed about it in the way that everybody is, and we were sort of making fun of all the coverage and hype it was getting. Even the obsession itself was a comment on the coverage these things are getting.

PM: Do you guys actually go out to many media or celebrity events to cover them? I know you usually send the “Party Crash” team to take pictures, but do you go yourselves?

JC: I tend to handle the social stuff, but sometimes Jesse does. A lot of it is just how our schedule works, we have to be up so early and not only be awake, but writing, and it’s kind of hard to have an original take when you’ve got a hangover. A lot of the time unless it’s something particularly huge, I’m gonna send the party crashers. Also, I do Gawker all day, it’s a 10-hour-a-day job — and I’m not complaining — but I kind of like to have my evenings to myself.

JO: Whereas me, I’m such a whore that I’m perfectly [happy] to continue that mindset. But if I’m going out to a party, I tend to drink more than I should and not really be able to report on anything, so I’d rather go to a party and not have to report anything.

JC: We get invited to a lot of things, and a lot of them we’ll cover and people are unhappy with what we say and then that affects what we’re allowed back to, so it’s a tricky balance doing the type of party coverage that one would expect from Gawker and still be invited to the parties in the first place.

PM: On that note, what did you make of the New York Post piece last month when Richard Johnson of Page Six kind of went off the reservation and personally slammed [Jessica] in his column, saying that you’re “Unknown outside the dork-infested waters of the blogosphere,” and you “slather” newspaper and magazine stories “in supposedly witty sarcasm.”

JC: Yeah, that was pretty personal. I have mercilessly made fun of Page Six, and justifiably so, in my opinion, but I’ve never said anything about them personally … but I think [Richard Johnson] just went about it the wrong way. There’s actual gossip-worthy items probably about me — I don’t think they’re gossip-worthy, but certainly he could find something. I’m not asking him to … but that just came off very personal to everybody that read it. It didn’t make anyone look good.

There’s this kind of this sick enjoyment that media outlets have in bickering with each other — it’s fodder and keeps people coming back and so on — but where it takes that kind of turn it doesn’t help anybody. But, whatever, it was a month ago and I think in the collective consciousness of media memory it’s like two years ago.

JO: I was jealous. I thought that it made Jessica look like a total rock star that they were so angry at her that they did this …

JC: Oh, don’t be jealous …

PM: Are there other sites out there that you guys think do that kind of media gossip really well?

JC: I think there are a lot of sites out there that cross beats with us, but the Gawker tone and style is very specific to an extent. There are sites that are doing their own thing that are similar … I think that FishbowlNY is very niche, and what they do, they do well. They may only do four or five items a day but they give it a more thoughtful, longer treatment than Gawker is going to, because that’s just not what we do. Jossip casts a very wide net, content-wise, and does a very nice job of covering what’s going on.

JO: I just don’t know. People always ask me, “What blogs to you read?” and so much of our stuff, or at least what I do is commenting on, making fun of stuff that happens in the mainstream media — and actually I hate that I just used the phrase “mainstream media,” but at least I didn’t say MSM — but I spend so much time looking at the Times and the Post and the Daily News and CNN and Romenesko that I actually don’t really read many blogs.

JC: I used to be like that, but then I embraced my RSS feed and it’s changed my world. I hated it for about the first seven months, then I finally started using it … but now it makes such a difference. It’s good that one of us is reading blogs and one of us is focusing on mainstream stuff because we’re aggregating conversations, both high and low. It’s good to be focusing and criticizing and commenting on Slate and the Washington Post and everything, and it’s also important to find content on these smaller Web logs because there are how many millions of people writing out there? For some people Gawker is the only blog-type thing they read, so I think it’s really valuable to pick up a lot of smaller items from smaller sites and interesting quirky things that you may not see otherwise.

JO: I think there are a bunch of different sites that do parts of what we do or we do parts of what they do. I don’t feel like there’s anyone who is sort of a direct competitor to what we do. Gothamist does more straightforward, straight ahead metro coverage kind of stuff. … Surely you can drop into this some sort of larger Jeff Jarvis point where the great thing about the blogosphere is that every audience can find their own site and blah blah blah …

PM: We’ll leave the meta stuff to Jarvis.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.