Turning Gawker On Itself

THE BREACH OF trust–and the logistical nightmare of contacting 1.5 million users–is humiliating and harmful to Gawker in the short term, but not fatal. Ditto for the possibility that the hackers have up to four gigabytes of the Gawker newsroom’s internal chat logs. Staffers said those conversations would be embarrassing if made public, but few if any great secrets are traded there.

What truly terrifies the Gawker staff is that Sunday’s data dump was only the beginning of a WikiLeaks-style flood. In a juvenile and taunting timeline of their break-in, the intruders implied that they have had access to Mr. Denton’s email for more than a month, and it follows that any staffers who used the same password for both the Gawker blogging and email platforms have had their in-boxes monitored, too–and possibly even downloaded in their entirety. These are emails that contain stories in progress, the identities of anonymous sources and God knows what else.

“I’m confident they have his entire email,” one Gawker Media insider said of Mr. Denton. “I’m fairly confident they have my email.” For a journalist, it is a horrifying prospect. 

“I’m focused on the vulnerability of commenters’ passwords,” Mr. Denton told The Observer. Humbled, he spent Monday in the Gawker commenting trenches, taking abuse from angry readers and explaining what the company was doing to fix the situation; he logged some 101 comments across the various Gawker sites by midnight.

The hack came just as Mr. Denton seemed to be transitioning from his flame-throwing years to more of a grown-up industry statesman role–though he would deny it–complete with a mainstream-certifying profile in The New Yorker.

“It’s a little hard to mellow the dark lord of the Internet,” said Jalopnik editor Ray Wert a few days before the hack, when The Observer asked how Mr. Denton had changed. “But Nick’s smiling a lot more. Meaning at least once a week.”

Something is different about Gawker Media’s writers, too. In late November, in a contemplative mood, Mr. Denton took to his Facebook page one Saturday afternoon in an attempt to capture this–in his way.

“The current cohort of Gawker Media writers seem much less conflicted than the Sicha-Lisanti-Cox-Leitch generation,” he mused. “Why is that? For the kids, maybe the literary or magazine career never seemed a possibility. For them, the New York intellectual life is a fading artifact rather than a personal dream that was painfully dashed.”

His Facebook friends had some thoughts.

“I can attest to this,” wrote Cody Brown. “When I started NYU Local, most students we interviewed for the site day-fantasized about a career at The New York Times or Vanity Fair after graduation. Oh, how this has changed in the past few years…”

“Maybe you’ve become a gentle, benign boss?” asked Sam Loewenberg, a freelance journalist.

“Or all the new Gawker writers work out their personal shit on Tumblr,” wrote Nick Douglas, a longtime Denton ankle-biter.

“Is this even accurate?” dot-com gadfly Rex Sorgatz wrote. “Foster and Pareene and nearly everyone from Jezebel seem counter-examples.”

“The decrease in lashings has helped,” wrote Richard Lawson, a staffer. “Food rations are up. We get to see sunlight for ten minutes every few blogging-modules.”

“I think it’s just nice to have a livable salary typing nonsense about politics,” wrote Jim Newell.

Mr. Newell is a second-time employee at Gawker–like Jezebel editor in chief Jessica Coen, Mr. Lawson and Mr. Cook. It’s true that others have left and returned to Gawker in the past (including Choire Sicha and Doree Shafrir), but there is a feeling among staff that the high-churn era is over–no more overnight firings, and even stay pay for staffers who get job offers from rival publications. Mr. Denton crows that many of his writers have spurned the employment advances of Rupert Murdoch’s iPad newspaper and other suitors; even the notoriously deep-pocketed Bloomberg News was unable to match the pay of one Gawker Media features editor.

Mr. Wert remembers years ago walking into the company’s old offices on Crosby Street for the first time and asking a young assistant what to do with some receipts he had. What was the reimbursement policy?

“The day in which we have an expense policy,” Mr. Kidder said in reply, “is the day in which we are dead.”

“Now, he was obviously kidding,” Mr. Wert remembered. “But it’s funny, because that was my first experience with Gawker on the ground, and now we have an expense policy, we have a leave policy, we have a travel policy, we have a gifts policy.”

Mr. Wert has even suggested to Mr. Denton the most unthinkable prospect of all: retirement.

“This was the big start of the push for the 401(k) plan,” Mr. Wert said. “I said, ‘Look, Nick, I’m willing to continue working here, but if you want me to see this as a place where I could retire from, then you’ve got to be able to put things in place that are going to allow us to have that opportunity.’”

Did Mr. Wert remember Mr. Denton’s reaction? Was he stricken? Aghast?

“Shocked. Stunned. Just sort of like–he’d never thought of that. But it’s not just me. I think there are others in the company who think of it the same way; they just might not be willing to express it.”

nsummers@observer.com | @nicksumm