On July 12, 2018, at the law offices of Ropes & Gray in a midtown Manhattan high-rise near Rockefeller Center, attorneys and bidders gathered for a bankruptcy auction. Up for sale: the domain name and online archives of Gawker, the once-mighty website whose know-it-all attitude and everyone’s-a-target modus operandi helped define the New York media landscape in the 2000s.
The site hadn’t published a story in two years.
Only three potential buyers showed up: Kevin Lee, the executive chairman of Didit, an online marketing firm; someone from a company called Online Logo Maker; and Bryan Goldberg, 36, founder and CEO of Bustle Digital Group, a collection of content-creating websites led by Bustle, a site written by and for women.
Goldberg arrived with BDG’s senior director of legal affairs as well as his chief financial officer, and won the auction for $1.35 million, a relatively tiny sum that would have been considered the steal of the century during Gawker’s heyday but now seemed—well, put it this way: Plenty of people were wondering why Gawker was worth anything at all.
On his way out of the Ropes & Gray offices, Goldberg encountered Lee, who had been waiting for him.
“I waited for Bryan after the auction to congratulate him,” says Lee, who had wanted to relaunch the brand as Gawker for Good, with positive stories about celebrities. “I asked him what he was going to do with it. And he said, ‘I haven’t exactly decided yet—but it is Gawker, so that makes it special.’”
Gawker had once run a story about Goldberg under the headline “Who Gave This Asshole $6.5 Million To Launch a Bro-Tastic Lady Site?” back when Bustle was first starting, one of several fiercely unflattering stories about him. So his wide-eyed reverence for Gawker—not to mention his willingness to pay seven figures for it—was maybe a little curious. And yet there he was, buying it—or what was left of it two years after a weird, public, and spectacular downfall involving a sex tape.
Lee continues: “[Goldberg] said, ‘I’m actually surprised nobody else is here—BuzzFeed isn’t here, Vox isn’t here, Complex Media isn’t here. It was just the three of us.’ And I said, ‘You gotta remember it comes with a lot of baggage.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but it’s still Gawker.’”
The media business has always drawn a particular breed of ego. With owning media outlets—whether a small-town newspaper or a TV empire and everything in between—comes the power to direct the flow of information, and the money that can be made from people’s desire for information. Into the small club of media moguls comes Bryan Goldberg, Libertarian, liberal-arts educated, unpredictable in his taste for media properties (The Outline? Inverse?). He has been ridiculed as a clueless, alpha-male dilettante. And yet he has somehow made himself impossible to ignore.
When Bleacher Report, his first site, succeeded in the mid-2000s, it was a surprise—a fan-driven site that paid next to nothing and was largely unedited and yet had 10 million monthly readers. A fluke, people said. Goldberg and his partners sold the fluke to Turner for a reported $175-200 million.
When Bustle succeeded—his second from-scratch business—it was harder to dismiss it as a fluke.
Then he went on a buying spree: Elite Daily, Mic, Nylon.
And there was the Gawker thing. A year after he bought it, hired a pricey staff of media veterans, and announced big plans, Goldberg and Bustle Digital Group abruptly shut it down. Or, to be more precise, decided not to get it going again in the first place.
The master plan of Bryan Goldberg, potential media mogul, was becoming increasingly difficult to decipher. But a close examination of what, exactly, happened at the new almost-Gawker reveals a great deal about a man who appears to know what he wants but isn’t exactly sure how to get it.
When news broke that Goldberg was the new owner of Gawker, he sent a memo to his staff saying, “You are probably wondering what happens next. The short answer is this — not much. We have no immediate plans to re-launch Gawker.”
(Gawker had been a zombie site since the summer of 2016, after it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy following a high-profile lawsuit brought by Terry Bollea, the wrestler known as Hulk Hogan. On October 4, 2012, the site had published a clip of a sex tape of Hogan and his friend’s wife, and Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel was later revealed to have funded the lawsuit in an effort to destroy the company.)
But in fact Goldberg was beginning to quietly meet with potential editors who could help him define Gawker 2.0—and embarking on a kind of goodwill tour with the brand’s former editors in chief. Not everyone wanted to listen.
“I did hear from Bryan or maybe somebody working for him either right before or right after he purchased Gawker,” Jesse Oxfeld, who co-edited the site from 2005-06, told Esquire via email. “I told him (or his person) that one of the great joys of not working for Gawker in nearly 15 years is that I haven’t had to give a shit about anything that has happened or will happen to it.”
Gabriel Snyder, however, took Goldberg up on his offer to chat. Snyder, who edited Gawker for about a year and a half before he was let go by founder Nick Denton in 2010, sat for a meeting in Goldberg’s office at Bustle. On Goldberg’s coffee table sat an issue of Spy, the 1980s satirical magazine founded by Graydon Carter and Kurt Andersen that every member of New York media is required to revere.
“I got the sense that he was allured at being sort of part of the buzzy, snarky New York City publications that tend to burn bright and fast,” Snyder says of the meeting.
Emma Carmichael, who was managing editor at Gawker and editor in chief of Jezebel from 2014-17, met Goldberg last summer for a drink at Outpost, a bar in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. He arrived wearing bellbottoms and a burgundy-colored silk shirt, telling Carmichael a story about his personal trainer, then settled in to talk shop. He asked for suggestions of Gawker alums who might be willing to work for him, and he explained he’d been going through the Gawker archives to figure out which kinds of stories brought in the most traffic. “He was very excited to share the big reveal that it was celebrity news, which is like, yeah, no shit,” Carmichael says.
John Cook, who ran the site during most of its Goldberg criticism, says he reached out to Goldberg himself after hearing he was the buyer to ask, “Why are you fucking around with my child, basically … The demise of Gawker has been one grotesque irony after another, so, by that point, it was sort of, like, of course… What’s the most depressing and dispiriting possible outcome of this whole sordid affair? And it would be someone like Bryan Goldberg trying to hump the corpse of something I once cared about.”
Gawker’s ascent was fueled by reporting (some of it journalistically questionable) that led to juicy scoops about media personalities and celebrities. Though Goldberg has a portfolio of successful brands, his priority has been scale rather than reporting and prestige. Today, Bustle, his company’s flagship site, publishes about 300 stories a day, most of which are hidden from the homepage, a practice used by digital media brands to varying degrees in an effort to showcase the stories they’re most proud of to advertisers and audiences.
About 30 million people view Bustle each month, according to ComScore. At its height, Gawker published about 25 stories a day and had 23 million users a month.
“The work he’s brought into the world, mostly through Bustle, is not quality,” Cook says. “I mean, it’s clear that what he has set out to do is to sort of chum for clicks.”
In its heyday, Gawker was irresistible because of its ability to create characters, turning unknown media and tech personalities into villains. One of its early targets was Goldberg’s cousin, CollegeHumor.com developer Jake Lodwick, who was the subject of dozens of posts in 2007 and 2008. Each twist and turn of his relationship with dating columnist Julia Allison was documented and snarked about. They dubbed Lodwick the “world’s saddest millionaire.”
Five years later, it was Goldberg’s turn.
He’d just moved from California to New York, where he knew nearly nobody. But in August 2013, he made his grand entrance into the city’s media scene with his tone-deaf announcement of Bustle in which he essentially claimed to have invented women’s media.
“He definitely wants to be the new [Rupert] Murdoch or new William Hearst, and I think he always saw a future for himself in this space. I think when he sold Bleacher Report, he was not in the room anymore in some ways, and he wanted to get back in the room and be a player,” a Goldberg friend tells me. “And Bustle was a way of getting that.”
If landing in Gawker’s crosshairs meant you’d made it in media, then Goldberg had arrived. The site delighted in Goldberg’s missteps, calling him a “clueless scamp” and “not a smart man.”
“I think they were unjustly harsh on me. And perhaps, on Bryan,” says Lodwick, who advised his younger cousin, “don’t let it get to you.”
“It was pretty satisfying to see [Gawker] destroyed by Peter Thiel,” Lodwick told me this spring. “My favorite thing about how the Gawker story ended for us was we got to own it. It wasn’t even a big deal for Bryan; he just bought the brand for, relatively speaking, pocket change at an auction. It was kinda like Gawker was destroyed by the world, and then we got to have this little victory lap at the end.”
Goldberg’s next step was to—again, quietly—begin building Gawker’s staff.
In September 2018, he announced the relaunch would happen in early 2019 with Amanda Hale, former associate publisher at Talking Points Memo, the site for politics junkies, and senior vice president of The Outline (“a new kind of publication…focused on the increasingly complex confluence of culture, power, and technology”) as Gawker’s VP and publisher.
Tracie Egan Morrissey, who helped launch Gawker’s sister site Jezebel in 2007, reached out to Goldberg after reading the announcement—mostly out of curiosity about the burning question of what Goldberg would do with the brand. Goldberg invited Morrissey in to meet with Hale one afternoon in the summer of 2018.
Morrissey remembers Hale’s desk littered with printouts of old Gawker stories, like Caity Weaver’s piece about her search to find the limit of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers—a Gawker classic. Hale explained they wanted the new Gawker to be like the old Gawker—but less mean.
At one point, Goldberg entered Hale’s office, and Hale left Goldberg and Morrissey alone. Morrissey had never met Goldberg, though she’d seen him on Raya, the dating app for celebrities and creative types. Goldberg cut to the chase.
“What I really want to talk to you about is Jezebel,” Morrissey remembers Goldberg saying. “Is it worth it to buy it? Do people still care about Jezebel?” He told her that he thought he could get it for cheap, she recalls, and then he asked, “Would you be interested in running it?”
Morrissey said she wasn’t—“been there, done that”—but that she’d be interested in overseeing both Jezebel and Gawker. “I liked the idea if it was the two of them together, like salt and pepper shakers. That seemed like it could have been fun,” she says. “I think he didn’t like that idea.” A spokesperson for BDG says Goldberg “asked [Morrissey] what she thought about Jezebel. But by no means did he ask her about running the site.”
After that meeting, BDG never followed up with Morrissey, and she didn’t follow up, either. (In April, Jezebel was sold to a private equity firm.) Morrissey says, “I have a pretty good instinct of when I know something’s going to be a mess, and that seemed messy.”
Ten months after he bought Gawker at auction, Goldberg sits on a couch in a blah meeting room at the headquarters of BDG. The 6-foot-or-so window behind him looks out onto gray clouds and the concrete and steel neighborhood.
He’s brought a black dry-erase marker to a painstakingly scheduled 60-minute conversation. He pops the cap off and on as he answers many questions about his childhood, his upbringing, and his career so far.
“I was the benchwarmer on the fourth grade basketball team,” he says.
“Thematically, that’s my life.” Click, click. “From a young age I’ve been pretty realistic about where I’m strong and where I’m weak and what the future may or may not hold for me.” Click, click, click.
About 20 minutes in, he gets to the part of his biography where he interned at Credit Suisse, after college at Middlebury. He stands up, walks to the window, uncaps the pen.
He points to a nearby office tower, counts up 25 floors.
“I’ll show you something—I’ve never said all of this, but I have you here,” he says, almost shrugging, as if it’s something he just thought of. He draws a circle around a window in the nearby office tower, his marker squeaking against the glass. “That’s where I sat… I was competing against Harvard students who were smarter than me. I was competing against the type of guys who wake up at 4 in the morning and go rowing to start the day. I don’t have that energy. I don’t have that ambition. Ultimately I didn’t get an offer to join full-time at Credit Suisse, which, in the world of banking then, was basically a scarlet letter. ”
He snaps back on the cap as he returns to his seat.
The rejection by an investment bank, he says, drove him to reconsider an old idea he and his friends had back in college: a sports site for fans, written by fans. He eventually turned this idea into Bleacher Report, a site that was criticized for low-quality content and not paying writers but that Goldberg turned into a windfall—which he has since turned into Bustle Digital Group, which, according to its website, is “The Fastest-growing Publisher In Modern Media.”
Soon after the meeting with Morrissey in which he brought up Jezebel, the Gawker rebuilding began.
Goldberg hired Carson Griffith as editorial director. Griffith got her start at the society blog Guest of a Guest, where, according to a 2009 New York Times article, she interned in the Hamptons “for food and gas, living rent-free in a three-story home with two acres of beachfront property and a pool.” She went on to work on the gossip column at the New York Daily News, then freelanced for a few years before landing at Architectural Digest as entertainment editor in 2017.
Though the original Gawker built its early staff with scrappy outsiders willing to jab at the media establishment, Griffith positioned herself as an insider. As the first editorial hire for the reboot, she had a significant hand in recruiting writers and defining the direction of the brand, which she described to one writer she interviewed as “Spy magazine crossed with Peter Kaplan’s Observer,” both oft-used journalism touchpoints meant to signal a smart, insider-y tone.
Vanity Fair tech reporter Maya Kosoff, who’d covered Gawker and the rest of digital media, met with Goldberg, Griffith, and Hale in late 2018.
“I asked [Goldberg] at the time what I thought were the right, hard questions to ask the new owner of the site. I specifically asked about editorial independence, how he would handle Gawker covering more controversial topics, and how often we’d be seeing him in the newsroom,” Kosoff says. “He said all the right things and assured me he would be too busy running a business to interfere with matters pertaining to our site. I took him at his word.”
Kosoff signed on at the end of the year, along with Anna Breslaw, a freelance writer who’d been a Jezebel weekend editor and then a staff writer at Cosmopolitan, and Ben Barna, who was a features editor at Interview. The reception desk at BDG’s Park Avenue offices had metallic nameplates announcing Bustle, The Zoe Report, Romper, and Elite Daily. The small Gawker staff was tucked into a small conference room in the back corner.
It’s clear when talking to Goldberg and anyone who has worked with him that his interest in media lies mostly in the business side. During our conversation, he told me, “I like digital media right now and I like digital publishing in particular because it’s an economic problem that nobody has solved it yet.” His colleagues at Bleacher Report say he spent long hours with the sales team, and when I asked former Bustle editor in chief Kate Ward about Goldberg’s editorial judgment, she laughed, “I have no idea. I’ve never worked with him in that capacity, so I couldn’t answer that question.
“He gave us the reins,” Ward says of the early days at Bustle. “And so when it came to coming up with the edit strategy, whether it was the way that we were producing content, or the voice, we just did it ourselves. We checked with him from time to time, to make sure we were just communicating, but he left it in our hands.”
But Gawker was different.
“I saw him virtually every day,” Kosoff says. “He would pop into our little Gawker office regularly, if not daily, and just sit there and hang out when we were discussing story ideas and people to recruit,” Kosoff says. “He was distracting and didn’t have much to offer, and it was peculiar to me that the CEO would be so interwoven with our editorial operations.” (A BDG spokesperson denies Goldberg attended or participated in Gawker meetings.)
As the small Gawker staff began reaching out to possible writers that winter of 2018 and ’19, digital journalists across New York City were being called into human resources to find out their jobs were being eliminated. In a two-week period in January, more than 2,000 journalism jobs were cut, many from non-startups BuzzFeed, Vice, and The Huffington Post.
In the midst of the reports of downsizing, news broke of Gawker 2.0’s freshman class.
The new staff—Kosoff, Breslaw, Barna, Griffith—was announced just after lunchtime on January 16, as much of the media establishment sat in rooms at Columbia Journalism School judging the National Magazine Awards.
Less than an hour later, Laura Wagner, a reporter at Deadspin, hit publish on a post about a series of tweets she’d unearthed from Griffith’s feed. Wagner published the piece on Splinter, a news and opinion site that was something of a successor to Gawker before it shuttered earlier this month. The tweets contained racial stereotypes about Asians as well as gay slurs and derogatory comments about celebrities Griffith believed to be overweight.
“It’s assured her valuable perspective of a rich white lady will be a guiding light for Bryan Goldberg’s Gawker,” Wagner quipped.
That evening, Goldberg did damage control. When he phoned Kosoff, she told Goldberg it wasn’t just the Splinter story which concerned her, but that she and Breslaw had seen offensive behavior from Griffith in the office as early as their second day working there.
“He was roundly dismissive of my concerns, talking over me, telling me how her tweets weren’t that bad, how her references said only good things about her (of course!), that he really liked her,” Kosoff told me in an email. “‘We don’t fire people over their tweets,’ he told me. I don’t like to use the word gaslighting, necessarily, but the half-hour phone call was certainly crazy-making. I could tell he was digging his heels in, that he definitely didn’t want to and wouldn’t capitulate to what he perceived to be ‘outrage culture.’”
A BDG spokesperson tells a different version of the call. “Maya Kosoff asked Bryan if he would sideline Carson Griffith and appoint her (Maya) into the leadership position. She also immediately began lobbying other Gawker employees to endorse her own promotion.” A former employee disputes BDG’s account.
While Goldberg fixated on the tweets specifically, according to Kosoff’s account, some of Griffith’s former colleagues now echo Kosoff’s concerns, saying the language in her tweets was not surprising to them.
“When I read those stories I said every word of them is true,” says one of Griffith’s former Daily News colleagues. “‘If you weren’t from New England and your parents don’t have a ton of money then you were trash. She would throw things like that around… I thought, she must’ve cleaned up her reputation or pulled the wool over this guy’s [Goldberg’s] eyes.” (Griffith didn’t respond to an interview request.)
The bad press about Griffith and Gawker continued. On January 23, Maxwell Tani at The Daily Beast reported that Kosoff and Breslaw quit over their concerns about Griffith. The reporters said they’d reported to BDG’s human resources department that Griffith had shared an email chain about “the penis size of a prominent businessman,” along with transphobic comments about potential employees.
Griffith’s preoccupation with wealth seemed to have continued as well, as Breslaw recounted that in her interview with Griffith, the editorial director joked about saving a free snack from the office then saying, “That’s so poor person of me,” Tani reported.
Two days after the Daily Beast story broke, Goldberg issued a statement rebuking the tweets.
“Nobody at our company, myself included, condoned or stood behind the tweets. Those tweets absolutely do not reflect the company’s values. That’s certainly not the direction Gawker will go,” Goldberg said in a statement to TheWrap’s Jon Levine, who he later attempted to recruit to work at Gawker. (Levine started at the New York Post in June.)
In March, Goldberg told the New York Times that BDG had hired a law firm to investigate Kosoff and Breslaw’s claims, and that the review had “cleared” Griffith.
“I think there were a lot of rumors on social, and a lot of the things that were said were not actually true,” Robin Li, who sits on BDG’s Board of Directors and is a member of the Mergers and Acquisitions committee, told me in the spring. “People don’t actually take the time to dig in to see what actually happened. We were fine with it because we knew what actually happened. I don’t think it has really affected that much.”
Into this mess came Dan Peres, who Goldberg hired as editor in chief of Gawker in March. This was a big hire for Goldberg. Peres had been the editor of the now-defunct Details for 15 years, during which the magazine was nominated for 11 National Magazine Awards, and had most recently been the editorial director at The Players’ Tribune, the sports site owned by New York Yankees legend Derek Jeter.
Peres came out swinging, declaring—as Griffith had before him—that the new Gawker wouldn’t be like the old Gawker. “I don’t believe edginess and journalistic ethics are mutually exclusive. I have no interest in being snarky for the sake of being snarky—there’s no more shock value in that,” Peres, who had himself been the target of Gawker snark, told the New York Post. “I have no intention of being mean just to get clicks.”
Nate Hopper, a former associate editor at Esquire and Ideas editor at Time, was hired as senior editor in June. That same month, Ben Barna quietly left Gawker to return to Interview. Another one of Peres’s early moves was to engage Joshua David Stein, who had written for Gawker regularly in 2008, to contribute restaurant reviews. “The guidance that Dan kept on mentioning was that we didn’t want to be … He seemed very concerned about it not being as mean as Gawker was mean,” Stein says. “I think he had been on the receiving end of some Gawker coverage that was not complimentary and had a different view of what we did than the view that I had.”
Though Griffith remained, there was a reset at Gawker 2.0 as the rest of the editorial team turned over: Kosoff, Breslaw and Barna were gone, replaced by Hopper and Peres. The editors set out to find writers and editors who could help establish a voice for the brand. Though Goldberg has a reputation for undervaluing and underpaying writers from the early days of Bleacher Report—where writers typically weren’t paid—he was willing to pay people to write for Gawker.
When I talked to Goldberg in the spring—our exactly-one-hour conversation—I asked about a blog post he wrote in 2013 declaring media outlets shouldn’t pay more than $500 for an article. He’d written: “I have no idea how an article can justify a $500 price tag in 99.9 percent of cases. Is it worth it for ESPN to pay Bill Simmons more than that? Probably. He is a cultural icon. The same goes with Tom Friedman. But people like [investigative journalist] Nate Thayer are far from being household names or cultural icons, and so they have to play by the rules of economics.”
Many believed Goldberg’s hot take showed a lack of respect and understanding for the time and resources reporting takes. He told me his stance is different now only because “the economic reality has changed. The industry was so much smaller then. The multi-million dollar ad deals had not yet come to fruition.” For Gawker, which he said would be “reporting-heavy,” he said he’d be willing to pay “thousands” for a story. “The hope is that within a year of launch, it will be one of the best places to write,” he said. “We’re thinking about how to build a site that is great for readers, great for advertisers, but also great for the writers… If we can relaunch this successfully, that will be a win for the industry.”
One writer I spoke with described the fees Gawker was offering this way: “They weren’t competitive with The New Yorker, but they were competitive in 2019 … enough to do good work but probably not enough money to convince someone who is super skeptical.”
Still, Peres, Hopper, and Griffith faced serious obstacles with recruiting. There was the reputation of the original Gawker—for better or for worse. Plus Goldberg’s notoriety, the stench of the drama surrounding the first staff announcement, and writers who had real issues with what Griffith had tweeted and reportedly said—and the fact that she remained on staff.
“I was approached to write for the new Gawker in the spring, and aside from the fact that I didn’t have any ideas for the very wide editorial net they were casting, I didn’t feel comfortable contributing. Who would want to be associated with this project?” says freelance writer Kaitlin Menza, who has written for New York magazine, Marie Claire, and Esquire. “At best, it would be a ghoulish retread of a very specific publication and voice that existed during a very specific time and maybe shouldn’t now; at worst, it’s a place that seemed to very publicly defend transphobia and other putrid forms of discrimination from the top down.”
The small Gawker staff still aimed high, reaching out to high-profile features writers and investigative reporters, including National Magazine Award winners and New York Times contributors.
Some writers were interested. In the spring, Gawker editors assigned an ambitious project about white supremacy. There was talk of pop culture pieces, political profiles, and stories about power figures in real estate who are influencing politics. Writer Jason Tesauro was researching his theory that the #MeToo movement had precipitated an increase in men hiring prostitutes, even though he had no data to support his thesis, he admitted in an email to Melissa Gira Grant, a journalist who has written about the sex industry. Grant declined to work with Tesauro on the story, saying, “As a former Gawker writer—god no, I will never help anyone who has anything to do with that doomed, desperate zombie relaunch,” then took a screenshot of the email exchange and posted it to Twitter.
“My first taste of grade-A internet trolling made me sad for our world,” Tesauro tells me via email. “It also told me everything I needed to know about the radioactive half-life of Gawker’s brand. The whole affair was my bad, though, for being a naive pollyanna in light of vitriolic, cannibalistic times.”
When he wrote to Grant for help with the prostitution story, Tesauro described the new vision for the site as “100% less trolling and celebrity gossip.” In one solicitation for pitches from Griffith, she describes it to a writer this way:
Since we’ll be very different than the old iteration of Gawker, I think a summation of what we are looking for could be any pitches that have to do with the outskirts of culture at the moment, are steeped in clever irreverence, character-driven pieces, and anything to do with the “power sphere” really.
The team continued to meet with prospective editors to build the site’s staff; the goal was 15 editorial hires. Around the beginning of July, New York magazine veteran Ben Williams signed on as a part-time consultant for Gawker, and the team began assigning features.
Some writers came into the BDG offices to meet with Peres on the 12th floor. Others met Hopper and Griffith at coffee shops or bars around Manhattan and Brooklyn. The goal, they told writers, was to produce 15 to 20 stories a day, a mix of essays and reported pieces.
On July 30, Williams had been emailing with Stein to set up a time to talk about reviews of San Francisco restaurant The Vault and BLT Prime in DC’s Trump International Hotel. Then, at just after 8 p.m., the New York Post broke the news that Gawker would be indefinitely postponed and that the whole staff was laid off.
“Sorry, was on another call,” Williams emailed Stein that night. “However [link to New York Post story]. I haven’t talked to Dan yet but I don’t think there’s much point in us discussing stories.”
Elsewhere in the city, a writer who’d been interviewing for a Gawker position was sitting down to work on an edit memo when the news broke.
“I really could not bring myself to write that memo—it was a mixture of non-guidance I had gotten from them, but also the sense that even if I had some dream story ideas, it was hard to envision a rebooted Gawker under Bryan Goldberg as the place to do the five stories that I’ve really wanted to do,” the writer says. “It was night one of the two-night Democratic debate. I had written a few lines and then I saw the Post story on Twitter and I was like, ‘Well, I guess I don’t have to do the memo anymore.’”
Gawker’s promised launch date had gone from early 2019 to summer 2019 to fall 2019 to probably never. “It’s no secret that we have faced a number of challenges from the start,” Goldberg told the Post. “We want to thank Dan Peres and the rest of the Gawker team who have worked tirelessly on this project. We’ve made a number of acquisitions over the last year and intend to focus our efforts on those brands.”
Indeed, Goldberg had turned his focus to more acquisitions while the Gawker crew was busy trying to create a successful editorial product. In June, BDG had purchased Nylon, a once-buzzy fashion and culture magazine. And in July, just before the news of the Gawker shutdown, Goldberg’s company bought Inverse, a tech and culture site started by Goldberg’s longtime friend and Bleacher Report cofounder, Dave Nemetz.
To the statement about Gawker, a BDG spokesperson added: “For now, we are focusing company resources and efforts on our most recent acquisitions, Mic, The Outline, Nylon and Inverse.”
BDG had bought Mic the previous November, before even announcing the Gawker staff. It bought The Outline in March, right after hiring Peres and before bringing on Hopper. The company has grown shockingly quickly, and board member Robin Li told me in May she believed the company was “probably [in] early stages of” acquiring properties.
In this context, the decision to give up on Gawker relatively quickly, in the midst of hiring a high-profile staff, seems sudden. One writer who interviewed for a role at the new Gawker says the site was pitched to them as the prestigious, journalistic gem of BDG, kept afloat by the profits of other sites like Bustle and Elite Daily. “I think there was, ‘This is going to be apart from that. Those sites are going to pay the bills for this site until it gets off the ground, and then this will be a premiere product that will give out a shine on the whole empire,’” the writer says.
The leading theory seems to be that what the writer says was true, but that the BDG board and Goldberg soon lost interest in a site that was proving difficult to staff, a lightning rod for controversy, and, ultimately, expensive to operate (reporting is expensive) while not generating commensurate revenue.
“There are risks if you stretch yourself too thin, if you take on a property like Gawker that has a lot of baggage with it. There are going to be things that backfire that you’re not expecting,” Goldberg’s friend and Bleacher Report co-founder Dave Nemetz told me back in May. “They’re getting to the point now … they have a lot of sites. It’s a different challenge to kind of manage all these different brands instead of being focused on one or a couple.”
Two months after Nemetz and I spoke, Goldberg bought his site.
Will Gawker finally rest in peace?
Kevin Lee—the bidder for the Gawker domain last year who stuck around to talk to Goldberg after the auction—says he reached out to Goldberg after news broke about the relaunch being postponed.
“I shot Bryan an email and said, does it make sense to have lunch?” Lee says. “I was going to pitch to him the idea of turning it into a nonprofit.”
Goldberg never responded.
For now, Gawker is still his. The homepage still shows the old logo—not the new one that had been designed for the relaunch which was supposed to happen last month. The last byline belongs to original owner Nick Denton, posted on August 22, 2016 at 4:33 p.m. It’s a 4,000-word final note to readers explaining why the site was shutting down and a summary of the brand’s mission and legacy. Goldberg could give the relaunch another try next year, or the year after.
When asked last week if they plan to relaunch Gawker in the future, a BDG spokesperson responded with a single word: “Yes.”
Lee points out, unloading the property may prove to be difficult: “I don’t know who would be interested in buying it now who wasn’t interested in it then. The base bid was fairly reasonable.”
Though he’s had years of bad press, Goldberg has had few professional failures, thanks to an arsenal of traffic growth with which to respond to critics. By August, BDG reached 57 million unique visitors. And he’s managed to sustain and, in some cases, grow the properties he’s purchased. Gawker is the only one he hasn’t been able to get off the ground—so far. So, what of the “premiere product that will give out a shine on the whole empire,” the one that establishes Goldberg’s seat at the table? Does he still care about having a peer to Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, or The Atlantic, as he promised Bloomberg Businessweek Gawker would be?
I didn’t get the chance to ask Goldberg about that myself. When his decision to shut down Gawker became a major focus of my story, BDG declined to make Goldberg available for additional interviews.
The last thing I discussed with Goldberg was the topic of heroes. I was curious what success looked like to him. Was it simply money and scale or did he have journalists or media moguls who inspired him? Mostly, I was curious how Gawker fit into his vision. Why would a guy only inspired by business titans and techies care about the nerdy cache of Gawker? So, I asked Goldberg who he admired in the fields of technology, business, and journalism.
“I gotta follow up. I owe you a good answer,” Goldberg said, placing his dry erase marker on the table in front of him as he stood to walk me out. “This isn’t our last conversation. I want to give you good answers on those guys because I do—but I want to say why.”
Goldberg and I never spoke again.
Illustrations by Tara Jacoby
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story stated Laura Wagner was a reporter at Splinter. Wagner works at Deadspin.