Gawker, the digital brand whose gimlet-eyed but often caustic tone won it many fans but plenty of enemies, has been brought back to life by Bustle Digital Group.
Leah Finnegan, who was a staffer at the original Gawker, is the editor-in-chief of the new version. It joins a portfolio of brands including Bustle, Nylon and Mic. Bustle Digital Group CEO Bryan Goldberg paid $1.35 million for the Gawker name at a bankruptcy auction in 2018.
The original Gawker, founded in 2002, was abruptly unplugged in 2016 after a Florida jury sided with Hulk Hogan, who sued Gawker Media Group after Gawker posted a sex tape featuring the wrestler. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel spent $10 million to bankroll the libel suit. He said he had been motivated by the site’s 2007 outing of him as gay, something the site did to others on other occasions.
The libel verdict prompted a wide range of reactions in the media business and in the culture at large. Some saw it as a chilling sign, a beacon of free expression being extinguished by a mogul’s caprice and financial resources. Others viewed Gawker’s end as a proper comeuppance after a reckless series of decisions and more than a decade of gleefully walking up to, and sometimes over, ethical boundaries. Through most of its run, though, sharp writing and keen observation were Gawker hallmarks at a time of layoffs and retreat for media, and its demise left a sizable void.
After the trial, Gawker Media, whose other brands included Deadspin, Jezebel and Gizmodo, declared bankruptcy. It wound up being acquired by Univision Communications for $135 million, on the condition that the original Gawker would remain defunct. Univision ran the portfolio at a loss for a couple of years before unloading it in 2019 to a private equity firm.
The new version of Gawker offers up a handful of tangy items with headlines like “Do Justin and Hailey Bieber Hate Each Other?” and “Adam Neumann Spotted in the Hamptons with a Pizza and a Rabbi.” One post gathers impressions from a wide array of media and cultural figures reacting to the rejuvenation of the site.
“If blind items come back, I want people to know that they’re all about me,” Saturday Night Live cast member Bowen Yang said. A few years ago, added writer, director and actress Lena Dunham, “I would have said this was literally my worst nightmare and gotten under my covers for a week. But honestly the Gawker brand of savagery seems almost quaint in our current internet landscape and pandemic life could use the shakeup.”
New Yorker editor David Remnick offered encouragement, albeit with a caveat. “While I didn’t love everything the old Gawker did — and they could be brutal about people once in a while in a way that could be awful — there was also an energy to the enterprise and an eye for young writers when it was at its best that I had to admire,” he said. “Also, I hated the idea of a Silicon Valley baron putting an end to a publication. So, here’s Gawker again, I hope for the best and wish them well.”
Finnegan reflected on bringing Gawker back in a note to readers posted on the site. “The current laws of civility mean that no, it can’t be exactly what it once was,” she wrote, “but we strive to honor the past and embrace the present.” Gawker is returning, she added, “to make you laugh, I hope, and think, and do a spit-take or furrow your brow.” She appealed to readers to greet the comeback “with an open mind and an open heart.”