A View from Christopher Mims
Gawker.com's Redesign is the Future of Gawker--Period
The Gawker empire is about to turn into pure energy and ascend directly to heaven, where it will kill its maker and force humanity to look at celebrity gossip until the end of time. Probably.
Two days ago I wrote a post about how Gawker’s redesign is awful and everybody hates it. In retrospect it was lazy and I apologize to the Internet for wasting its time. But this time I’m coming out guns a blazing. To wit:
The redesign of the Gawker empire is, I now recognize, very important. To Gawker. That’s because Gawker no longer aspires to be merely the king of the blog networks – Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton, has compared that goal to being “king of the playground.” What the half-mad Ginsbergian Howl of a layout Gawker’s blogs aspires to is ascendance to a plane now occupied by cable television, which is still the 500 pound gorilla of the media world in terms of audience reach and advertising revenue.
“And — in the long term — we’ll compete for audiences with cable groups such as NBC Universal,” Denton says.
Here’s a video Denton helpfully sent along that neatly illustrates where Gawker is going:
From its roots as a single blog penned by a single freelancer paid $20,000 a year, Gawker is bootstrapping its way up a ladder that only Nick Denton knew even existed. He doesn’t want to be Jann Wenner – he wants to be Rupert Murdoch!
Leaving aside that a world in which Denton is the next Murdoch would be both better and worse than the one we have now, where does this leave all the commentators who are drooling over the prospect of following the Gawker network into a brave new future in which every page is a homepage and every homepage features the most important story of the day?
A colleague of mine who shall remain nameless because he’s content to stay on the sidelines of this debate sent me this:
It’s true that the lack of deks [those bits of text that sit below headlines on e.g. the cover of the Wall Street journal, providing additional context] holds for some other successful sites (although HuffPo actually makes more use of deks than Denton’s tweet would imply). But there may be a fundamental difference between designing a site and redesigning a site.
Fans of Drudge Report cultivated a fondness for its spare design from day one. But fans of the Gawker sites not only got used to the idea of having deks: they really, really liked them there because the voice and style that Denton promoted made great clever use of them. So a dekless design may work for other sites but for Gawker’s audience, there’s no way that the redesign doesn’t take something away from them.
Readers of other sites have shown a preference for the same spare, river-of-news style that Gawker’s second column exemplifies. And for a network that aspires to become ever more visual, ever more focused on video, ever more focused on the “lean back” content consumption experience of both TV and reclining on a couch with iPad in hand – Denton’s favorite way to consume the web – simple headlines may suffice.
More importantly, with the possible exception of Lifehacker, Gawker’s sites do not aspire to inform or enrich. The Gawker team’s single-minded focus on growth and traffic means that by necessity, everything that appears on its sites is there solely because it has been calculated to achieve maximum reach. Stories that can be boiled down to a single, punchy headline are exactly the sort that succeed by these measures.
There is no need for context on Gawker; no need for a deeper level of scannability, hence, to his credit, Denton has realized that there is no need for deks or for a long scannable homepage. Other sites struggle to re-blog their own features or even summarize them up top in order to capture readers with short attention spans, but Gawker just doesn’t produce the kind of content that would break the new design.
That doesn’t mean that other sites – perhaps the majority of news outlets – wouldn’t suffer with a Gawker-like design. There is no room for subtlety in this new layout, and no opportunity to command the attention of the reader beyond the splashiest, most TV-like visual contraptions.
This move can be seen elsewhere on the site. Commenters, for example, are irrelevant to a site like Gawker – what percentage of readers actually comment? And who is actually reading the comments, beyond an only slightly larger subset of readers?
From my colleague, again:
The comments sections in Gawker’s sites were always where a lot of the fun action was, and they were part of what the audience liked. If you look at Denton’s sites now, it’s clear that commenters are very unhappy at some loss of functionality that’s occurred. Some or all of that can maybe be fixed, but it’s currently a problem.
Could other sites afford to abort their only just-gelling efforts to build community? Its prioritization of tips from readers notwithstanding, Gawker is turning, ironically, into exactly what the Internet wasn’t supposed to be: a broadcast medium.
Anyone who has ever realized that cable news is the least efficient medium for conveying insight ever invented – a medium that trades on emotion rather than data or, god forbid, knowledge – knows where this is going. As the diversity of news outlets dwindle, as the aggregators “win” the internet and drive out whatever outlets are left that are still producing original reporting, the news cycle is going to boil down to the handful of stories that carry the day.
Gawker needs to feature those stories front and center. The last volley from my colleague:
The new design has a very all-or-nothing aesthetic. The featured story is big and gets lots of elbow room. The other stories are very small and minimal. I wonder whether there’s too much contrast between the two: does the presence of some middle ground do something to help coax readers from the big inviting story to the others? I don’t know, but if you look at HuffPo and other sites, such a middle ground generally exists.
On a site like Huffington Post, that “middle ground” is given over to fluff and/or commentary, much of it remarkably misinformed. Neither is a model anyone with a desire to preserve the fourth estate should strive to emulate. But at least with Gawker’s redesign, the empire of distraction can continue to grow.
Don’t get me wrong – it beats unwinding with cable news. Which is to say, it is the new cable news. Now if only I could remember who it was who said that Gawker just feels like CNN for young people…