“One day there will be a book called ‘The Collected Legal Works of Gawker Media,’” said Gaby Darbyshire, the company’s 39-year-old COO and head lawyer.
It was a recent Thursday afternoon, and Ms. Darbyshire was sitting on a couch in her loft in Little Italy. She pulled out her laptop and showed The Observer an email from a screenwriter who was upset that Jezebel, a Web site that is part of the Gawker stable, had posted a small excerpt of a script from his forthcoming movie. He wanted the excerpt removed-exactly the sort of email Ms. Darbyshire receives roughly once per working day.
“Gaby Darbyshire!” began the letter from a screenwriter. “Is that your real name or a nom de plume that seems to allude to Jane Austen in some dreamlike manner?”
The screenwriter (and, later, his lawyer in another email) went on to complain that Jezebel-the Gawker site that has received more complaints from angry subjects and lawyers than any other-had posted the excerpt without permission. The screenwriter said that while Ms. Darbyshire would likely be afraid of a threat from a big movie studio, dealing with a small movie like his own likely left her “happy to stomp (her) little Uggs all over its embryonic face.”
He clearly doesn’t know Ms. Darbyshire. She wrote back. “I’m actually Gabrielle Darbyshire-or to those who think I may be French and don’t understand that Darbyshire is an ye olde English county, or perhaps have read too much Hardy-Gabrielle D’Arbyshire,” she wrote. “Yes, I am British.”
‘People don’t want to take responsibility for their actions. I’m a moralist in that respect. Fucking take responsibility for your actions!’
As The Observer read the note, she smiled. “I digress,” she wrote. “We run a journalistic business here, and it is precisely the point of good journalism to walk up to the line but not to walk over the line, in all things. As such, we very carefully decide what is a small enough excerpt of material to make the points needed in the context and yet still count as fair use, and use only that and no more.”
Her kicker: “And by the way, my Uggs are HUGE. Size 11. Go figure.”
Another fire put out.
“Gawker has had to tread a line between buccaneering journalism and recklessness,” said Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media. “Gaby’s the one that maintains that balance.”
Or, in other words, she’s the person who has to go in and defend Gawker’s rowdy band of pirates when someone believes they have crossed the line.
Virtually all editors who have worked with the site agree that she’s very good at her very busy job, which is not just limited to being the head counsel. She is a sort of everywoman at Gawker, wearing hats that include overseeing law, finance, business development, the 401(k) deals, HR issues, maternity leave policy (which, as a testament to Gawker growing bigger and bigger, now needs to be drafted)-almost anything that is money-related and doesn’t deal with editorial or advertising.
“I’m the glue,” said Ms. Darbyshire.
“Gawker wouldn’t function without her,” said Mr. Denton.
And Mr. Denton might not function quite the same way without her. While Mr. Denton has been the very public face for the media company he started in 2002, she has been the relatively unnoticed consigliere by his side. Ms. Darbyshire said that Gawker writers have referred to the two of them as the mommy and daddy at the company. She’s known Mr. Denton for almost 20 years, they’ve been roommates several times over and she has been intimately familiar with his business ventures for more than a decade.
“She has the institutional knowledge of the place, and of Nick as well, that makes her voice really important,” said Lockhart Steele, the former editorial director of Gawker Media, who founded Curbed.
“She’s hilarious, tough and fair, and she doesn’t take guff from anyone for one second-especially Nick,” emailed Choire Sicha, the co-founder of the Awl and a former Gawker editor. “And Nick, to his credit, loves it, I think. Nick’s view of a media company is that different factions have to push and sometimes come into conflict-and he’s always very clear about how vital Gaby’s been to the company.”
“I don’t know if people realize how much history we’ve got,” said Ms. Darbyshire. “We’re not like most people working in a company. I will say things to him that no people would dream of saying to their boss. Yes, he’s my boss, but I don’t think of him as my boss.
“Will we always be there for each other?” she continued. “Yes. I think we trust each other almost more than any other person in the world.”
“YOU CAN ALREADY tell I’m not a pushover,” she said, bursting into laughter. “I don’t like being bullied, and I don’t like bullies.”
The number of cease-and-desist complaints she has received has skyrocketed since 2007. Over the past three years there have been nearly 600 complaints. Nevertheless, Gawker very-very-rarely pulls down a post and only infrequently has legal problems that escalate. (Gawker Media currently has three pending lawsuits; two-including the sex tape featuring actor Eric Dane-are about to be settled out of court.)
But the threats can still be scary. A couple of years ago, one spurned subject took a trip to Ms. Darbyshire’s office, broke into tears and collapsed on the floor while begging and pleading for a post to be removed.
She didn’t flinch. “Do I feel terrible for her?” said Ms. Darbyshire. “Yeah, of course I do. I have absolute sympathy for these people. Am I going to do what they want? No.”
She has very little tolerance for people who get angry at what Gawker writes, particularly when it has the right to do so. “It’s just dumb,” she continued. “People don’t want to take responsibility for their actions. I’m a moralist in that respect. Fucking take responsibility for your actions! I have plenty of sympathy, but this is the world you chose to live in.”
But while Ms. Darbyshire is firm on principle-she says she has an “extremely strong moral compass”-she prefers using “honey, not vinegar” in negotiations. While she explained that Mr. Denton’s strategy is to “never give in,” she prefers to be as polite as possible, all the while repeating the same point-we won’t budge-unless it becomes sensible to settle.
“One of my pleasures of the job that I still miss is, I would get cc’d when someone would try to cease and desist us, and she had a perfect style to say that they are bloody idiots without quite saying it,” said Mr. Steele. “She has a subtlety of sorts of informing them that they are useless and won’t be tolerated.”
“She’s one of the reasons we can publish a lot of shit that others can’t publish, especially other online places,” said Hamilton Nolan, a writer for Gawker since 2008.
(When we asked Mr. Denton to evaluate her success as a lawyer, he said, “If I say that we’ve escaped the legal doom that many predicted, that just tempts fate.”)
Mr. Denton very gleefully tempted fate a few months ago when Gizmodo, his tech site, published photos of Apple’s new iPhone 4 before it was released to the public. The post has some 12 million page views now, but the district attorney of San Mateo County is now looking into the matter in which Gizmodo obtained the phone.
Ms. Darbyshire said she didn’t have a lot to say about the matter. “I believe it was defensible, and I never believed for a second it was stolen, and of course I’m not stupid enough to let my writers do something that I knew was criminal,” she said.
Negotiations with the district attorney are ongoing.
THE DAUGHTER OF a spy and an intelligence officer from MI6, she was born in Beirut and grew up in London. (Her father spent time as an undercover agent, and was one of those responsible for the coup in Iran in 1953.) When she went to school, Ms. Darbyshire studied to be a scientist at Cambridge. (“I was a scientist and I was a good scientist and I was a smart kid, and everyone thought I was going to win a Nobel Prize in chemistry. So you kind of do the subjects you know.”)
After graduation, she went back to school and became a barrister, but it wasn’t long before she became restless. “This is the career you’re choosing: You want to be a member of society, and you want to be powerful and influential here in London and nowhere else,” she said of being a barrister. “I woke up in a cold sweat one day and said. ‘Oh my God, I can’t do this. And if I do it for 10 years, I won’t be able to do anything else. I need to run away now.”
She became a consultant in London and then moved out to California, where she advised tech companies. When she moved out to the left coast, she didn’t know anyone. Mr. Denton, whom she had met years earlier when she was at Cambridge and he was at Oxford, knew a bunch of people and told them to be nice to her.
By the time he came out to San Francisco, they had the exact same social circle and were very close. (She was roommates with his business partner for Moreover, a Gawker predecessor that reportedly was sold for $39 million.)
Mr. Denton moved to New York, and, later on, recommended she live there before she returned to London, which she was planning on doing. Shortly after he started Gawker, he began to pressure her to join.
As happens many times when negotiating with Mr. Denton, she eventually caved.
“She complements me,” said Mr. Denton, who credits the fact that she is “unlike” him to be the main reason they work so well together.
But if there’s one thing that annoys Ms. Darbyshire about Mr. Denton, it’s that he occasionally-and this seems to be a common complaint with him-says she’s too soft when they’re weighing whether to go forward with a story. She said she wants to make it clear they won’t ever give up their ground, but sometimes-sometimes-it’s worth picking their battles.
“I’ll say something is a risk, and he goes, ‘They’ll never sue,’” she said.
And this is how Ms. Darbyshire can-occasionally-keep Nick Denton in check.
“I don’t care whether or not someone will sue, I care whether or not we’re right, and it’s legally defensible,” she said. “If it is, I don’t care if they sue, we’ll win. Don’t use that line and expect me to buy it.
“He hired me to protect this company in that role,” she continued. “My judgment and opinion is better than his.”
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