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With its Manti Te’o scoop, Gawker Media may almost be growing up

Notre Dame Fighting Irish linebacker Manti Te’o speaks to the media in Miami, Jan. 5, 2013.

JEFF HAYNES/REUTERS

At noon on Friday, Deadspin.com's blockbuster story about Manti Te'o's non-existent girlfriend was still pulling in the most traffic at Gawker Media, the New York-based blog network of eight websites. But an article from Gawker's female-oriented site Jezebel titled "Unhappy With Your Gross Vagina? Why Not Try 'The Barbie'?" was running a close second.

That piece, about the apparently increasing desire of women in Southern California to eliminate their labia minora for their vaginas to adopt a "comfortable, athletic, petite look," was essentially a summary of an article from the online magazine Guernica. Then there was the story on Gawker.com about a 20-year-old in Norway who had been promised by his high-school crush that she would sleep with him if he scored one million "likes" on Facebook.

Both of those stories are the sort of content Gawker Media has built its empire upon: a shocking headline calculated to maximize clicks atop an aggregated story – that is, copy that links to and largely reworks content from another publication – which flirts with serious issues.

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But in recent years Gawker Media's properties – comprising the sports-oriented Deadspin, the gaming suite Kotaku, the gadget guide Gizmodo, the sci-fi-oriented site iO9, the auto site Jalopnik, the lifestyle-oriented Lifehacker, as well as Jezebel and the network's original site, the media-and-pop-culture-mad Gawker – have performed a lurching shift into producing serious and important long-form stories.

Still, in a memo to staff issued Friday afternoon, Nick Denton, the chief executive officer and founder of Gawker Media, acknowledged that Deadspin had until this week been best known for publishing a photo of Brett Favre's penis.

In an e-mail on Friday afternoon, Erin Pettigrew, the executive director of business development for Gawker Media, explained: "The Favre story is … a powerful calling card for Deadspin's reach and candor on both the business and audience sides, however lascivious."

As it happens, many of Gawker.com's most popular stories involve celebrities and nudity: The site pulled in an impressive seven million views for the topless photos of Kate Middleton last September, scored almost four million views for publishing a one-minute excerpt of a sex tape featuring Hulk Hogan, and brought in almost 3.5 million views for a scoop about a sex video of the actors Eric Dana and his wife Rebecca Gayheart with another woman.

But focusing on those would be selling Gawker short. Last year, it published a troubling piece of original science reporting that wondered aloud whether pedophiles deserved pity; it also outed a hateful and previously anonymous member of the website Reddit.

Deadspin's scoop on Wednesday brought the site unprecedented attention. It was a jaw-dropper, revealing that Notre Dame's star linebacker Manti Te'o's girlfriend, whose death last fall was reportedly the inspiration that prompted him to lead his team to repeated victories, did not actually exist.

And Deadspin regards the story as a chance to win over new readers. A few hours after posting the original report, the site published a "Welcome" letter for new readers that linked to a short list of its six "Greatest Hits." Stretching back to 2009, they include an exclusive unveiling of the financial statements of a number of major-league baseball teams; an impressive magazine-length article about Brigham Young University's treatment of minority students; and an exhaustive piece, not dissimilar to this week's Te'o scoop, that explored the true identity of a mysterious ESPN.com columnist.

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Gawker Media, a lean operation with only about 100 editorial employees, is in the midst of an unprecedented expansion. In the past 30 days, according to figures from the Web-traffic tracking site Quantcast, its global audience reached almost 40 million; of that, only 22.2 million were in the United States. Figures such as those are why, last month, the company launched a Hungarian gossip sheet, based in Budapest, that boasts what it describes as a "similarly sharp" tone. Gawker has also launched a Spanish-language version of Gizmodo. "We see significant long-term traffic and revenue potential for Spanish-language tech and gadget content," explained Ms. Pettigrew.

As it builds out internationally, though, Gawker must also continue to be aggressive in its North American home turf. New competitors such as Buzzfeed.com have taken Gawker's original model of aggregating others' content, and amped it up with even more extreme traffic-baiting headlines and stories that invite reader involvement.

"Gawker's origination of immediate, conversational publishing has definitely spawned imitation and iteration," acknowledged Ms. Pettigrew. "But we've doubled down on our original mission of producing content that arrives at the truth."

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About the Author
Senior Media Writer

Simon Houpt is the Globe and Mail's senior media writer, charged with covering the industry's transformation. He began his career with The Globe in 1999 as the paper's New York arts correspondent, covering the cultural life of that city through Canadian eyes. More

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