The Experience of Working at Gawker
Talking to Gawker writers and editors about metrics, it was immediately clear that traffic data was a central feature of the organizational culture.ix Most writers and editors consulted the Big Board regularly and looked at the counts of page views and unique visitors that appear next to each of their posts. Those who checked Chartbeat frequently directed most of their attention to the count of concurrent visitors as an early indicator of whether a post was going to “blow up” or “take off” (meaning, garner lots of uniques). Almost no one mentioned Chartbeat’s other metrics, such as engaged time, recirculation, or visitor frequency. When I explicitly asked about such metrics, a few staffers reported consulting them, but the typical response was one of indifference. Writers and editors who did look at these metrics were not always hoping for the sustained audience engagement that Chartbeat’s tool is designed to measure. For instance, the concurrent visitor count can be boosted by a higher number of people reading a post or by each person’s spending a longer time reading it. Thus, some staffers said they found it disappointing if a post had a large number of concurrent visitors and high engaged time, as it meant the post was not bringing in as many uniques as the concurrent visitors number seemed to indicate. Similarly, a high proportion of frequently returning visitors, intended to indicate that a site is building the coveted “loyal and returning audience,” could be considered a negative at Gawker, because the company (and, perhaps more to the point, its advertisers) put such a high premium on drawing in new people.
Data about uniques inspired strong feelings at Gawker. Staffers admitted to feeling “depressed,” “upset,” “worried,” and “desperate” when their traffic or their site’s traffic was low. The flip side, of course, was that getting exceptionally high traffic felt validating, even exhilarating. But the thrill of a hit story was inevitably fleeting: because monthly traffic targets were based on a site’s past performance, high historical traffic meant even higher expectations for future traffic. Even when you were doing well, you could always be doing—and, indeed, were expected to do—even better. One site lead described this unceasing pressure:
It can be quite taxing. I find that the start of every month in my life for the last two years has been stressful, because I start with maybe some of that terror that I had when I was [first] thinking about what it would be like to be a newspaper reporter …“What am I gonna write about?” Well now it’s, come March 1st, “well, hope we do as well in March as we did in February.”
A writer described a similar feeling, which he linked to Chartbeat specifically:
Chartbeat is rough because it’s relentless. There’s never gonna be a time when you can close your MacBook and be like, Chartbeat’s all set, our traffic’s good, we’re ready to go. You can always do something else, or post something else to Facebook to see if it sticks, or try tweeting a story again to see if maybe it’ll get pickup now instead of this morning.
The never-ending cycle of highs and lows, facilitated by real-time analytics tools like Chartbeat and expressed materially in bonuses and raises (or the lack thereof), meant that working in editorial at Gawker could be an emotional roller coaster. In the words of a site lead:
When traffic is just average or low, or if we have a really spikey period and it goes down to what it was pre-spike, I get upset. I feel like I’m not good at my job …I notice it all the time.
The ups and downs could also be highly addictive. Some staffers made explicit analogies to drugs when discussing metrics. The writer who called Chartbeat “relentless” also admitted to having been a “Chartbeat addict” at previous digital media jobs. He said he was trying to limit his exposure to the dashboard, with limited success: “At Gawker Media it’s like I’m a cocaine addict on vacation in Colombia.” Others compared the perpetual hunt for traffic to playing a game or gambling.
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that when I would ask staffers what personal qualities were needed to thrive at Gawker, nearly all of them mentioned competitiveness. As an editor succinctly put it, “if you aren’t hard-working or hyper-competitive, I can’t imagine how you would work here.” Several employees cited their backgrounds in extracurricular sports and video gaming as experiences that had prepared them for Gawker’s company culture. While Gawker’s reputation for being metrics-driven undoubtedly causes it to attract already competitive employees, the looming presence of the Big Board and the Kinja leaderboard in the office intensified this trait and, as one writer put it, “massaged [it] into productivity.”
But the leaderboards ranking stories and staffers don’t just harness employees’ competitive tendencies; they shape the very nature of competition in the media field, namely by turning it further inward. In Deciding What’s News, his 1980 ethnography of Time, Newsweek, CBS, and NBC, sociologist Herbert Gans documented the extreme lengths to which these rival magazines and news networks would go trying to outpace each other in scoops and audience growth.19Media employees saw their company as competing with other large or rapidly growing digital media entities, such as BuzzFeed, Vox Media, and Vice Media. But in everyday work life, staffers generally did not compare their individual sites to rival, similarly themed sites; rather, the prevalence of metrics in the newsroom meant that most of their competitive zeal was focused on other Gawker sites, even when these sites covered vastly different subject matter.
Of course, newsrooms have always had competitive internal dynamics. But metrics can highlight and intensify them. For instance, a staffer at Jezebel, Gawker’s site devoted to feminism and women’s issues, fervently wanted to surpass the traffic of Deadspin, the sports site, but evinced only an abstract curiosity about the traffic of other women’s sites, like XOJane. This is largely attributable to the fact that Gawker Media employees did not generally know the traffic figures of other companies’ sites beyond the broadest strokes or estimates. A staffer at Kotaku, Gawker’s gaming site, explained:
I don’t even know what other gaming sites are doing. I also don’t care, because I know that this sports site [Deadspin] and this politics and celebrity gossip site [Gawker] and this tech site [Gizmodo] that are part of my company …I know how well they’re doing. I see how much they’re growing every month. And if sites about all these other topics can grow to the extent that they’re growing, then why can’t my site?
It is striking that an employee at a site with a relatively niche audience would hold it to the same standard of growth as sites about more mainstream topics like consumer technology or celebrity gossip. But the intention of the Big Board and the Kinja leaderboard was precisely to render seemingly dissimilar sites and writers comparable according to the same metric and thereby place them in competition. This dynamic occasionally caused bad blood between coworkers and resentment from the smaller sites. During the time I spent in the online group chat of one of the company’s smaller sites, writers expressed annoyance that a writer for a larger site had published a post about a video their site had covered first, rather than simply “splicing” their post (and thus ensuring that their site got the additional traffic).
Given the prominence, publicness, and power of metrics at Gawker, what kinds of actions did editors and writers take to boost their numbers? My research revealed three main effects of Gawker’s metrics-driven culture. First, writers and editors had a tendency to go with what works, or had proven to work in the past. A writer ticked off the types of posts that reliably “do well” on her site: “People love unhinged letters …Unhinged sorority girl! Unhinged bride! [Or], ‘look at what this douchebag wrote me,’ …And people like cute things that kids did. People like heartwarming videos with inter-species friendships.” In the event that a post outside the realm of surefire traffic-getters became a surprise hit, a site would try to follow up on it or replicate it. One site lead, after being shocked by the traffic garnered by a short post about the upcoming series finale of a popular TV show, told the writer to do a follow-up post immediately after the final episode aired: “[I said], ’I need you to cover this first thing in the morning. I don’t care what you write, but you need to cover it.’ ”
Second, writers posted very frequently. While most staffers could rattle off a list of topics that could be counted on to get good traffic, many also stressed that traffic could be highly unpredictable. Nearly everyone I spoke to could cite examples of posts whose traffic far exceeded—or, in a few cases, gravely disappointed—expectations. This element of randomness or surprise meant that the only way to guarantee higher traffic—both individual and site-wide—was to post as much as possible. Many sites had adopted this strategy. As a writer put it, “it’s more or less like playing the lottery. You pick your numbers and you’re diligent about it and the more lottery tickets you buy, the more likely you are to hit it big.”
As this writer acknowledged, though, there were costs associated with frequent posting: “[Traffic] compels me to produce more. However, producing more, blogging more, keeping the post count up, necessarily means that I don’t take time to work on the longer, slower, reported-out features.” This was a recurring theme. Site leads said they were happy when writers did manage to produce longer features or essays, even when these were unlikely to attract major traffic. Yet they acknowledged that this could cause problems. In the words of one site lead: “Sometimes there are things that are really long beautiful pieces that are very thought out and only do 10,000 uniques over 24 hours, and that kinda sucks. But I wouldn’t change it. It’s just the pressure now to be like, OK, what are we gonna do now to make up for that?”
The extensiveness of metrics-driven employee monitoring could easily give the impression that Gawker was an oppressive work environment. Some commentators and reporters have characterized Nick Denton as running a “digital sweatshop”; listening to writers and editors speak about their efforts to keep pace with growth expectations, it was not hard to see why. Yet some staffers had turned down offers from legacy media organizations where there was far less of an emphasis on traffic; others had left Gawker for such organizations only to subsequently return to the company. This pattern has become so common that Capital New York gave it a name: the Gawker boomerang.20why they return, or why they chose to build their careers at Gawker in the first place, the answer was nearly always the same: writers and editors cherish the freedom and autonomy they feel they have at Gawker. When John Cook departed from Pierre Omidyar’s embattled First Look Media, he tweeted, “there’s more autonomy at gawker than any other editorial shop, First Look or otherwise—that’s the operational principle.”21to turn down job offers at two well-known magazines:
[At Gawker] you’re really visible and you’re allowed to be yourself. And I think that’s one of the great things about writing for any of the Gawker sites, is that they encourage you to have an opinion and to have a voice. Whereas at [one of these magazines], they’d be like, “be yourself, but be yourself through us.”
A site lead who had returned to Gawker after working in magazines echoed this point: “Nick lets us do whatever we want. We can write whatever we want. We can take the site wherever we need to go.”
Obviously, the Gawker staff is a self-selecting group: those who apply, get hired, and stay at the company (or return to it), are unlikely to find metrics overly oppressive or debilitating. Even so, Gawker’s multiple systems of metrics-driven monitoring could make employees’ paeans to their editorial autonomy seem hollow or even deluded. After all, site leads were free to take their sites “wherever they need to go” only as long as they kept their traffic numbers up. But to see employees’ perceptions of editorial autonomy as a form of false consciousness oversimplifies the issues at stake. Statements like Cook’s raise a broader question: what is the meaning of editorial freedom in a digital media landscape saturated with metrics? Many online-only media companies, including Gawker, have dispensed with, or at least scaled back, the stylistic and ethical norms of twentieth-century journalistic professionalism, such as objectivity, nonpartisanship, and the prohibition on paying for scoops. They also tend to have a flatter organizational structure than legacy media organizations, such that writers face far less editorial oversight. Yet such freedoms coexist with levels of metrics-driven surveillance that would be unthinkable at more traditional news organizations like The Times. This suggests that the contemporary digital media landscape encompasses multiple conceptions of editorial freedom—and those who populate it have conflicting notions of what constitutes the most onerous constraints for working journalists.