Nick Denton has written precisely one book, a 1996 exposé of the collapse of Barings Bank called “All That Glitters.” It did not perform particularly well commercially, nor did it receive outstanding critical acclaim. His work as a journalist for the Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, and the Economist was, if not unremarkable, at least unremarked upon. Despite his own sterling academic bona fides as a graduate of Oxford, the class he co-taught at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism with an academic and former Hungarian legislator from his Financial Times days, Peter Molnar, proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Denton abandoned the project mid-semester and no longer speaks to his former colleague. Similarly, his transition from traditional print media to online properties, First Tuesdays and Moreover Technologies, made him rich through fortunate timing with the dot-com bubble, but failed to satisfy his developing ambitions. At a glance, the man who now gleefully refers to himself a pornographer and gossip merchant is not the most obvious heir apparent to, let’s say, beloved American satirist/moralist Mark Twain.
And yet, upon deeper observation, Denton represents not just a new kind of journalist, but a new kind of public intellectual; one who prizes radical authenticity over objectivity, the democracy of pageviews over the preferences of the media elite, and the clarity of an outsider perspective over access to the powerful. As the media mogul behind the Gawker Media family of websites (Gawker, Jezebel, Gizmodo, Deadspin, Lifehacker, io9, Kotaku, Jalopnik and the soon-to-be-resurrected Valleywag; and formerly, Wonkette, Idolator, Consumerist, the wildly NSFW Fleshbot, Defamer, Gridskipper, Sploid, Cityfile, Oddjack, Screenhead, and Gawker.TV), Denton has tied the digital future of media to its historical roots in the sensationalism of “yellow” print journalism. In a profile in the New Yorker, Ben McGrath writes:
“Like all gossip merchants, Denton fancies himself a truth-teller who relishes flouting the conventions of good taste and privilege. He grew up in London, where the Fleet Street tabloid culture is cutthroat, and he shares the Murdochian view of American journalism as effete, earnest, and uncompetitive. ‘The staples of old yellow journalism are the staples of the new yellow journalism: sex; crime; and, even better, sex crime,’ he wrote in a memo to his staff. ‘Remember how Pulitzer got his start.'”
In fact, Denton’s clearly defined editorial voice and eye for writing talent spread throughout the nascent blogging platform like a virus. Young editors and writers steeped in Gawker’s trademark outsider snark have made their way into an astonishing number of traditional, ‘legitimate’ outlets: Alex Pareene to Slate, Emily Gould to the New York Times, Jessica Coen to Vanity Fair, Ana Marie Cox to MSNBC, Gabriel Snyder and Richard Lawson to the Atlantic, Doree Shafrir to Rolling Stone, Gabriel Sherman to the New York Observer, and on and on. Clearly, this pattern of migration is unique to Gawker among gossip hawkers; one will not find a similar revolving door between the New Yorker and TMZ, for instance.
Additionally, former Gawkerites Choire Sicha and Alex Balk, after making the rounds of New York media (NYT, Radar), began their own blog, The Awl, which began turning a tidy profit in an astonishingly short amount of time. They have since expanded to a family of sites (specializing in comedy, feminism, finances, and technology) which resemble an early incarnation of Gawker in both tone and design. In terms of influence, there can be little doubt that Denton’s peculiar sensibility has issued a challenge to the media establishment that they have been forced to answer. However, while pure influence may be enough to qualify him for a regular table at Balthazar’s and the literally rarefied air of the Aspen Ideas Panel, does it truly make him a public intellectual?
In a 2008 New York Times post, Barry Gewen argued that the old ways of evaluating who is and is not a public intellectual – and by extension, whether or not public intellectuals as a class are in decline – from a classic postwar, New-York-centric perspective are still superior to the overly-inclusive definition of modern academics. Between the lines pulses a disdain for a laxity of standards, this new group of wildcat intellectuals who will, as he writes, practically let anyone into the club, so long as they have written a book. The old guard, however, had standards:
“Broadly, they viewed the public intellectual as someone deeply committed to the life of the mind and to its impact on the society at large. Irving Howe refers to the pursuit of ‘the idea of centrality’ among the writers he knew, and the yearning ‘to embrace . . . the spirit of the age.’ That is, public intellectuals were free-floating and unattached generalists speaking out on every topic that came their way (though most important for the New York Intellectuals was the intersection of literature and politics). They might be journalists or academics, but only because they had to eat. At the most fundamental level, ideas for them were not building blocks to a career….Drezner includes, for instance, Fareed Zakaria and Samantha Power. I yield to few in my admiration for these two writers, but for them to be considered public intellectuals in the old New York Intellectual sense — with its commitment to cultural “centrality” — I think they would have to demonstrate greater breadth than they have so far displayed. Zakaria would have to write, say, a thoughtful essay on the novels of Philip Roth and Power a book on the history of the blues.”
He continued on in that vein, approvingly discussing the shame that the Great Old Ones had if they were forced to find gainful employment. How too, terribly bourgeois. This served, he theorizes, to maintain tension between academia’s demands that one actually be an expert at something, and the conflicting belief on the part of the New York intellectuals that people who have jobs are simply not that cool.
Stephen Mack counters with another perspective on what it means to be a public intellectual which addresses an important angle of Gewen’s “dynamic tension” requirement by tackling another form of snobbery:
“Donatich’s smugly theatrical notion of a ‘conflict,’ a popular view within the intelligentsia, is both wrong and wrong-headed. It is wrong in the sense that it traffics in the self-serving fiction of American anti-intellectualism. And it is wrong-headed in the sense that it undermines the value of citizen responsibility by subordinating it unnecessarily to the most elitist argument for the public intellectual, the one grounded in the myth of an aristocracy of experts…. what is sometimes identified as anti-intellectualism is in fact intellectual—that is, a well articulated family of ideas and arguments that privilege the practical, active side of life (e.g., work) over the passive and purely reflective operations of the mind in a vacuum. Hence, for example, when John Dewey built his career as a philosopher on a thoughtful, systematic, elegant, and sustained repudiation of the Cartesian notion of mind and, instead, argued for ‘experience’ as the foundation of human endeavor—he was hardly exposing himself as an anti-intellectual bigot. ‘Nuff said.”
Within the interplay between these writers on who deserves to be called a public intellectual, what role experience in the material world plays, and crucially, who decides who gets into the club, a commonality emerges. As Mack puts it, “public intellectual” is not a class or a type – it is a function. The most important duty of a public intellectual, the work they must do, he claims, is “…to keep the pot boiling.” It is difficult to imagine any current figure who serves in this role of pot-stirrer, critic of the mighty, instigator, and general shit-starter better than Denton. In a 7 page long article reacting to brutal mockery from Gawker for her overly precious wedding announcement, New York Observer writer Vanessa Grigoriadis explored her own professional and personal discomfort with Denton’s model:
“Of all the ways in which Gawker is antithetical to journalistic ethics—it’s self-referential, judgmental, ad hominem, and resolutely against effecting change in the world—it pushes its writers to be honest in a way that’s not always found in print publications. Little is repressed; the id, and everything else, is part of the discourse (including exhibition and narcissism). Even the Gawker office, a kind of journalistic boiler room, can serve as a metaphor for transparency, open for anyone to see, operating behind a plate-glass window in a Crosby Street storefront. Some of Denton’s bloggers are onboard with this mission: ‘Quite frankly, fuck discretion,’ writes Moe Tkacik, a former newspaper reporter, on Denton’s newest site, Jezebel. ‘Discretion is how I didn’t figure out how to come until I was 24 years old; discretion is why women’s magazine editors persist in treating their fellow humans like total shit; and when you’ve spent a career trying to catch others in their own indiscretions, discretion just feels a little dishonest and superior.'”
Tellingly, Grigoriadis opened her piece with: “At the risk of sounding like a wounded old-media journalist…”
For Denton and his staff, the accountability of page views are an inoculation against the myopia and elitism that plague old-media journalism. Although a cursory search will turn up oodles of photographs of Denton hobnobbing with Arianna Huffington, Cory Booker, and Bill Maher, publishing private emails from Brian Williams, or and toasting champagne with Janine Gibson, Denton believes that chasing after access in return for favorable coverage is the true form of selling out. Though he has become a fixture of the Manhattan cocktail party circuit, he is widely considered to be ‘skunk at the garden party’- as he was in his time as a relentless, ruthless reporter. His obsession with providing readers with what they really want, rather than what he or any other expert might think that they should want, has resulted in higher traffic on his websites than the LA Times, Time, the Washington Post, or USA Today.
It has also resulted in experimentation in technique and methodology, including “traffic whoring,” which naturally spiraled into additional obsessing from media observers, as well as interest from large, shady investors which Denton was able to leverage into an election year scoop of the Republican candidate’s former business. It has, of course, also provided him with a Greek chorus of media figures who relish the opportunity to put him in his place; after Ben McGrath’s profile ran, his colleague John Cassidy aggressively dismissed any claims that Denton might be the next Murdoch in a follow up piece:
“Denton has moved beyond the stage of running a cottage business, but suggestions that he has joined, or is about to join, the ranks of moguldom, where revenues are measured in the hundreds of millions, or billions, are absurd….That said, he runs an innovative little company that has some well-known online brands, and he has bigger ambitions.”
Whatever the case regarding revenues, Gawker has made it a point to expand their targets from just celebrities and old media, taking on hackers, Vladimir Putin, closeted tycoons, Apple, football players and their fake dead girlfriends, topless congressmen, and soon, the world. Denton has shown that he will not only tolerate, but actively cultivate a reputation as an outsider, even as his experiments provide a microcosmic view of the evolution of media; as he told NBC News, “This is going to sound really, really pretentious, but I believe in the larger truth and I believe that the truth is arrived at often in a rather messy fashion.” There is no more precise way, in my view, to define the function of a public intellectual.