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April 30, 2017

The Vital Lesson in Craggs' and Read’s Gawker Jeremiads

It’s the awful story that keeps on giving. Dodging for now the death threat that comes from Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit, Gawker freakishly made new serial news in midsummer. In so doing, the almost anachronistic site both exposes a raw nerve of journalist-publisher relationships, and renews old questions about who in the press can really be trusted.

On Monday, Gawker executive editor Tommy Craggs channeled the full fury of a journalist scorned as he quit. He castigated Gawker owner Nick Denton’s removal of the controversial (and misguided) story about a media executive and a male escort, writing in a memo to his staff, “The message was immediately broadcast to the company and to its readers that the responsibility Nick had vested in the executive editor is in fact meaningless, that true power over editorial resides in the whims of the four cringing members of the managing partnership’s Fear and Money Caucus.”

“That this post was deleted at all is an absolute surrender of Gawker’s claim to ‘radical transparency’; that non-editorial business executives were given a vote in the decision to remove it is an unacceptable and unprecedented breach of the editorial firewall, and turns Gawker’s claim to be the world’s largest independent media company into, essentially, a joke,” Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read, who also left after the post was pulled, wrote in his own note.

Those are words we don’t often hear in America.


First published at Capital New York

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Remember when much of The New Republic’s editorial staff walked out on their newish owner, last year? They were pissed, but so relatively genteel about it. They noted the arriviste they saw in owner Chris Hughes, a Facebook-made multimillionaire, and took their leave, defending their work but refraining from a full-frontal jugular assault.

“The narrative you’re going to see Chris and Guy [Vidra, the site’s C.E.O.] put out there is that I and the rest of my colleagues who quit today were dinosaurs, who think that the Internet is scary and that Buzzfeed is a slur. Don’t believe them,” wrote Julia Ioffe, one of the resigning senior editors, in a Facebook post. “As for the health of long-form journalism, well, the pieces that often did the best online were the deeply reported, carefully edited and fact-checked, and beautifully written. Those were the pieces that got the most clicks.”

Gawker’s shake-up, as we would hope, was much more Gawker-like, and we have to wonder whether that Gawker era—separate the print from the chaff, and publish both—is indeed coming to an end. Maybe Craggs and Read are right: Nick Denton’s decision to kill the beyond-the-pale piece is simply a cave-in to commercial pressure, as a couple of major advertisers began to pull ads given the outrageousness publication.

We can hope that the spirit now filling Denton is not solely commercial. If we can find a bright light in this particular Gawker mess, maybe it’s a sign of adolescent maturation as digital news grows into its millennial adulthood.

Gawker has long confused license with right. Maybe in 2015, the rules are clearer—not laws but sensible trade rules that ride right along with the classic standbys of accuracy and fairness.

Just maybe, it’s part of a larger movement toward accountability as the wild West of the web settles a bit. We see some of that in the “trust” push, articulated by Jeff Jarvis, and now being launched at Santa Clara University. In 2015, with all the changes we’ve so far seen in news, we’re asking the basic question of owners and of journalists, “whom do you trust?”, and that’s a good debate to have again.

As distasteful as was the Gawker story’s publication, the virulent reaction of Craggs and Read does feel a bit like a tonic. Though applied on principle to the wrong-headed decision to publish a hurtful non-story, we could use a little more of the boys’ fighting spirit. Even with the advent of the Vices, Voxes and Buzzfeeds, the Slates, Politicos and HuffPosts, U.S. journalists have been remarkably tame in their public utterances about the incredibly uneven state of the craft.

By contrast, French journalists have taken their direct bond with their readers much more personally. Their sense: owners may come and go, but the journalist-reader connection is forever. The mass resignations at Le Monde in 2014 forced a managing editor resignation in just one of numerous journalist revolts.

This March, broadcast journalists took their strike at Radio France to the public, saying “Public service has no vocation or possibility of being profitable …. Radio France is a heritage to be defended just as much as the wood in the president’s office….This enterprise is our identity, our DNA, our present and our future. We are so proud to work for it and consequently so angry to see that we are just the puppets in a pathetic game of role playing.” In May, 40 French women journalists openly protested the sexism in the trade.

In Europe, the old bonds are breaking down as well, as families and individuals exit ownership. That happened decades ago in the U.S., as families sold out to chains, which have more recently fallen into the clutches of private equity companies.

In France, the “Clause de cession” enables journalists to take their leave if they don’t like their new owners. It’s a right won through collective bargaining, and it’s a big lever on change, bad or good. Departing journalists get one month of severance pay for each year worked, based on current salary and bonus. Further, there’s no cap (so, yes, a 30-year employee could get two and a half years of severance) though one in the 15-year range or so can be further negotiated at sale. Wait, there’s more: the severance is tax-free. That’s the environment awaiting a current sale as LVMH, owner of the French business daily Les Echos, moves toward its purchase of Le Parisien.

Given that French particularism, such a right can block new blood, sanguine or otherwise, from entering the trade.

“No doubt that the Clause de Cession is a powerful deterrent when it comes to attracting investors for French traditional media,” Frederic Filloux, editor of Monday Note told me, explaining its implications. “Before making any productive investments, the new owner will have to cough up €5, 10 or 15 million just to see some of the best, most valuable writers and editors taking a fat check and accepting a job elsewhere.”

The press battles in France often seem wrongheaded—an attempt to hold back the digital wind, rather than learn to fly with it. Yet in them the passion for the news cause makes itself known. What may be in oversupply in France finds itself in undersupply here.

Witness the ongoing destruction of the daily local press throughout the U.S., far worse than in France or any part of Europe. Digital disruption acts as the main culprit, but the actions of private equity owners, like those tearing Digital First Media properties down to the bones (which I’ve recently chronicled in two columns, here) tells the opposite story.

I’ve heard so much fury by email, before and in response to the columns I’ve written about D.F.M., but none publicly. Journalists who see the destruction of the news business and the social compact with readers are cowed. As news products—both print and digital—have shriveled, where are the editors and journalists standing up for the work, the reporting, the journalism, the service to a reading public in a democracy?

Publishers and journalists alike bemoan the toll on their business, blaming various outside forces, but failing to publicly note the strong connection between ever-weaker editorial offerings and ever-weaker business performance. It’s real, yet who have you heard point a finger to it? Maybe Craggs and Read can lead some assertiveness-training seminars for America’s remaining journalists, afraid to publicly voices views different from their bosses, as their numbers continue to dwindle every day.

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