Gawker Media founder Nick Denton built a multimillion media empire with a ruthless brand of no-holds-barred tabloid blogging often aided by a wide network of anonymous, mercenary spies and tipsters. Lately, though, Gawker Media’s record of protecting those confidential sources has taken a tremendous hit. In the past six months, three tipsters have been outed after talking to Gawker Media editors, victims, perhaps ironically, of the same blend of social-networking savvy and modern reporting techniques that have helped the blog network break numerous scoops about high profile business leaders, celebrities and politicians.
Dustin Dominiak is the latest Gawker source to find himself in the harsh glare of the spotlight. This week, Dominiak sold a tawdry tale about a sexual encounter he allegedly had with Delaware senate candidate Christine O’Donnell in 2007 to Gawker editor Remy Stern. Dominiak was paid in the low four figures for his story, and measures were taken to preserve his anonymity, but within a matter of hours he was identified by another blog, The Smoking Gun.
Dominiak’s story was published by Denton’s flagship gossip site, Gawker.com, under an anonymous byline. His face was also partially cropped out of photos that showed him alongside O’Donnell at a boozy Halloween bash on the night of their alleged tryst. In spite of that secrecy, the Gawker article contained enough clues for other journalists to easily identify Dominiak as the writer.
Foster Kamer, a blogger at the Village Voice, got the ball rolling. Dominiak’s story on Gawker described him only as a 25-year-old who once lived with a former boyfriend of O’Donnell’s in a Philadelphia apartment owned by her aunt. Kamer used those details to identify a man named Brad Kurisko, who once lived in the apartment. After the Village Voice pointed its finger at Kurisko, he became the subject of intense media scrutiny. Kurisko named Dominiak in an interview with The Smoking Gun after that site noticed that the two men severed ties on Facebook shortly after Kurisko began receiving calls from reporters.
Kamer said it was easy to peel through the “thin layer of protection” surrounding Dominiak on Gawker. In a conversation with the Observer on Friday afternoon, he described the story as “low-hanging fruit.” His first clue about the identity of the “anonymous” author came from an earlier Gawker post about O’Donnell’s past boyfriends that identified one as a Philadelphian named Brent Vasher. Kamer was able to tie Vasher to Kurisko through address searches. “Hysterically enough, the first thread was snaking out of the building, just waiting to be pulled on,” said Kamer.
Dominiak’s outing is not an isolated case. In April, Brian Hogan was identified after he sold a prototype of the Apple iPhone 4 to Gawker Media’s technology blog Gizmodo for $5,000. Hogan’s identity was discovered by reporters from Wired who used clues left on social networking sites. After Hogan was named by Wired, he was visited at home by representatives from Apple and became the subject of a police investigation. His attorney, Jeffrey Bornstein, told the Observer that the experience has “taken a tremendous toll” on Hogan because of “the public scrutiny, the financial and emotional cost to him and his family, [and] the continued concern that he and his family have as to what, if any, actions the authorities may take.”
“Brian Hogan terribly regrets the unfortunate decision he made and no amount of money was worth what he and his family are going through right now,” Bornstein added.
Jenn Sterger was never paid by Gawker, but she found herself at the center of a firestorm after telling A.J. Daulerio, the editor of Denton’s sports site, Deadspin, about explicit voicemails and photos she received from NFL quarterback Brett Favre last winter. Sterger told Daulerio that she was interested in seeing the story on Deadspin if there was a way to run it “WITHOUT me being attached to it in any way.” Following his conversation with Sterger, Daulerio was able to verify the story through other sources and to receive copies of the voicemails and pictures from another acquaintance of Sterger’s. In August, when Deadspin published the story, Daulerio named Sterger as the recipient of Favre’s explicit correspondence and published portions of her e-mails to him including a line where she told him, “NOT A WORD OF THAT S**T TO ANYONE.”
Daulerio told the Observer that Sterger’s “expectation was how can she get this story out there without her name attached to it,” but that he never promised Sterger confidentiality. “At no point did I guarantee her that I wouldn’t run it eventually,” Daulerio said. Sterger did not respond to requests for comment.
Denton is not shy about his willingness to pay for information. In July, he told Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab that a new payment structure at the company opened up “the possibility of web-style checkbook journalism.” If Denton’s competitors keep identifying his tipsters, however, finding sources may become increasingly difficult.
But not yet. At Deadspin, Daulerio said, he’s getting more tips than ever in the wake of the Sterger story. “To be honest, the tips have increased. Tremendously,” he said. As of this writing, Nick Denton and Remy Stern have not responded to requests for comment on this story.
Full Disclosure: Hunter Walker has written for Gawker, Deadspin, and the Village Voice.