The web site that calls itself the front page of the Internet finds itself mired in tabloid-type turmoil.
Meanwhile, another brash bad boy of the Web, which embraces the motto “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news,” faces a sobering threat to its existence.
I’m talking about Reddit and Gawker, among the discussed, criticized, envied and imitated operations in digital media.
Each right now is moving, publicly, painfully and reluctantly, from rambunctious adolescence to a form of media adulthood.
Reddit, with a small staff but a large cohort of volunteers known as Redditors, offers up links to high-interest morsels, smart tech talk and strong opinions – which sometimes verge into the profane, sexist or racist.
Reddit just cashiered a CEO who was a woman. The catcalls following her out the door did nothing to curb the site’s rep for misogyny. One of Reddit’s founders returned to run the show, to cheers. Swiftly, though, he appalled some Redditors by saying he agrees the site needs rules to rein in its more anti-social impulses.
Why? Because advertisers are not drawn to anarchic sites that, at their worst, make you want to resign your membership in the human race.
Gawker, the site that proves well-wrought gossip is catnip for the clicking finger, is more of an autocracy. The founder, Nick Denton, is known for his blisteringly candid memos to staff and, most of all, his uncanny feel for how the Internet works. His empire includes not just Gawker but other popular sites such as Gizmodo and Deadspin.
Gawker has long trafficked in tales of the sex lives of the famous and semi-famous. But its posting of a sex tape of wrestler Hulk Hogan earned it a pretty scary lawsuit. Then Denton decided to pull a recent story that outed a media executive as gay. That led several top editors to resign in protest. Denton has now told Gawker’s staff he plans to reboot the site in a “20 percent nicer” version.
Normally, I’d be on the side of journalists who quit to protest the business side piercing the editorial firewall. But when editors quit to uphold their right to do morally repugnant work, it gets complicated.
The only thing that’s clear is Reddit and Gawker are coping with an old lesson from the singer Janis Joplin: Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. Once you get a little success and money, the fear of losing those things changes you.
At Reddit and Gawker, the coming changes may actually be for the better. But that still leaves some people pining for their halcyon days of total irresponsibility.