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Lockhart Steele: 'There Are Many Different Ways to Be a Blogger'



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In their own words

Lockhart Steele: 'There Are Many Different Ways to Be a Blogger'
Not all bloggers are journalists, says the new managing editor of Gawker Media. The blog company is currently testing an incentive program to pay its writers based on site traffic.

I Want Media, 03/07/05


Lockhart Steele is the managing editor of Gawker Media, a company that aims to build a profitable business out of publishing blogs. Steele, 31, joined Gawker last month after leaving his editorial job at Cottages and Gardens magazine.

Steele oversees the content of each of Gawker Media's 10 blogs. They include the popular gossip sites Gawker, Wonkette and Defamer. Steele is also responsible for hiring new bloggers for the New York-based firm, founded by entrepreneur Nick Denton in 2002. In addition, Steele runs his own personal blog, as well as a blog called Curbed, focusing on New York real estate.

Steele recently spoke with students in a digital journalism class at New York University taught by I Want Media founder Patrick Phillips. He discussed his fondness for blog writing, why Gawker likes to harass Tina Brown, and which of his company's bloggers is paid the most. Excerpts: logo



Question: Which of the Gawker Media blogs is your favorite?

Lockhart Steele: I like Gawker, the flagship blog. I'm a New York City guy. It's a fun thing to read if you live in New York City. And because it was the first Gawker blog, I have a certain fondness for it. I've been reading it since the day it started.

What's cool about Gawker is that there's not one right way to do it. Since there's so much going on in New York City, there's an infinite number of things we can write about. Like, do we want to write about architecture? Do we want to write about a restaurant? Do we want to write about what the Olsen twins are doing?

Q: Do all of your bloggers have to write a certain number of posts every day?

Steele: Yes, 12 is the number. Except for Gawker, which has two writers, Jessica Coen and Matt Haber. They're supposed to do 24 posts every day. But that's an anomaly. Most Gawker sites are written just by one person.

Q: What time of day do your bloggers have to start posting?

Steele: They don't have to start at any specific time. But one thing we've learned is that if we don't have a critical mass of posts done before noon, our traffic is going to suffer that day. So, the Gawker editors will usually get up around 7:30 and have their first post up by 8 o'clock. And then they update throughout the day.

Q: Are your bloggers full-time employees?

Steele: The idea is that this is a full-time freelance gig. They're supposed to be able to do their blogs and have enough time to do magazine articles or something else.

We pay a set rate of $2,500 a month. But one thing that's interesting about Gawker is that we've begun to incentivize our writers based on the traffic to their sites. Our bloggers can earn more money that way. They can more than double their salary based on the number of pages [viewed].

We want people to come to our sites and look at the pages. So we want each of our writers to feel a little bit like an entrepreneur. One of the ways you get traffic on the Net is to get links. There needs to be an incentive for our writers to do that.

One of the things we do is to try to figure out what is going to get us highly ranked on Google. The Paris Hilton losing her phone book thing was huge for us. So, for three days [a few weeks ago], Defamer, our L.A. site, was the No. 1 Google search result for "Paris Hilton Sidekick." We got tens of thousands of visitors from Google.

Q: Did your Defamer writer get paid more because of the link from Google?

Steele: Exactly. Because Paris Hilton is that stupid, our writer gets more money. [laughter]

To be clear, the whole bonus formula is based on the idea that these weird traffic spikes happen all the time. So we incentivize. Our writers have a growing expectation every month. They're supposed to grow the traffic to their sites a certain amount.

Q: Which Gawker Media blog gets the most traffic?

Steele: Would you believe our porn site, Fleshbot? Actually, Gizmodo, our gadget site, is a close No. 2.

Q: Is porn is still the top draw on the Net?

Steele: The guy who does Fleshbot is a genius writer. The whole point of the site is to link to porn in a kind of erudite way. So it's not as unseemly as it sounds.

Q: Are you saying that people visit Fleshbot for the articles?

Steele: Yeah, exactly. [laughter]

Q: Since Fleshbot gets the most traffic, does the guy who writes it get paid more than your other bloggers?

Steele: No, his expectations are different. The expectation is that his site should be doing more pages and should be growing at a faster rate.

Q: Did Wonkette do really well during the election last year?

Steele: Actually, this bonus system is new for 2005. We're now testing it out. The writers don't all like it, to be frank. I think some writers would rather just focus on their writing.

Basically, what we're saying to the writers is that they need to have an entrepreneurial instinct. We're trying to test the idea of asking writers not only to write but also kind of think with a business mindset about their content. This could be a failed experiment.

Q: How involved are you in managing the Gawker blogs?

Steele: All of our bloggers fly on their own. My goal is to read each of the sites every day for the big picture. We might, for instance, choose to torment Graydon Carter for the month. So we'll do a campaign where we post about him every day. Readers get into the idea of a sequential narrative.

Q: Are bloggers journalists?

Steele: There are definitely some bloggers who do really good journalism. Certainly, in the political world, we've seen bloggers who spend a lot of time calling sources and doing real journalism. And then there are lots of bloggers who do pure commentary. The media tend to think about blogging as a monolithic thing. Like all bloggers are all one way or another. There are many different ways to be a blogger.

To me, blogs give you the feeling that you're getting the news straight. And while you may be getting a writer's take on the news, there's no attempt to hide the fact that there are biases in play. In blogs, all of the biases are on table. Obviously, if one person is writing it, it's going to be opinionated. And people like reading other people's opinions.

Q: What do you look for when hiring a new blogger?

Steele: A good writer. We look for people who "get" blogging, who are able to find interesting things to link to. There are many horror stories of mainstream journalists who have been hired to blog, and when they do so they feel paralyzed.

You have to think about blogging as different from how you think about writing an article. You have to put about as much time into writing a post for a blog as you put into writing an e-mail to a friend. That's how I think about a post on Curbed. It's like I sit down and bang it out. I might read it over quickly to check for typos, and then I publish it. That's all the time I'm going to let myself give it.

If I'm free-lancing a story for the New York Times, I will agonize over the copy and rework it six times. And then the editor has feedback and I'll rewrite it again. That's what a news story like that needs to go through.

But blogging requires a reset of the mind. You write it up, then post it. Part of the reason I like blog writing is that it feels loose -- and if it has a typo, who cares? As they say, "Blogs fact check in real time." The idea being that you're not afraid to just post stuff and then, if there are problems, people will let you know about it.

Q: Some of the restrictions of traditional journalism are tossed out the window?

Steele: Yeah. So if you're interested in blogging, one of the best things to do is just start doing it and see if you enjoy it. It's different altogether from reporting. Everybody doesn't have to blog. But I think we're getting to a point where it's helpful to know what's going on in the world of blogging. I advise everyone to read blogs. Especially if you have any interest in journalism.

Q: Do you hire interns?

Steele: Yes. Actually, Choire Sicha, who used to write Gawker, is helming a new top secret project for us, and we're looking for interns.

Q: What can you tell us about Gawker's new "top secret" blog?

Steele: Gawker wants to do its own version of the Drudge Report. The idea is to do a tabloid-y news site, like the "news of the day," but with a Gawker spin. It's going to be a little sexy and a little tawdry. It's going to be a kind of overarching site for Gawker, Wonkette, Defamer and those sites.

The working name is Sploid. We really wanted to call the site Bloid, short for tabloid. Guess who owns bloid.com? MTV. MTV owns it and won't sell it to us. We all think Bloid is the perfect name. We had three months of communication with MTV, and they want it.

Q: Do your interns get paid?

Steele: There's no pay, but they get a lot of exposure. Blogging for Gawker is not necessarily a long-term career move. It's not like, "I'm going to be a blogger for my whole life." You come on board, you do a blog, and it's a high-profile gig for you. And then you probably get a magazine or a newspaper job offer out of it. It's a way to circumvent having to go work at a daily paper in Arkansas for two or three years.

Our interns do all kinds of things for us. Our intern at Wonkette every morning does a little political roundup -- sort of a quick dossier of the news stories in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Washington Times. Bang, bang, bang. Quick links, little summaries. Gawker has its own intern, who wraps up the Tina Brown show on CNBC.

Q: Why focus on Tina Brown?

Steele: Well, Gawker loves to harass Tina Brown. Gawker likes to pick on people, like Tina Brown, Anna Wintour. We try to pick people who are sort of larger than life. We try to find some big egos to take down. We have our interns do those kinds of things.

Q: When your writers leave, do the blogs suffer?

Steele: One of the things Nick Denton didn't really know when he started the company was if readers would abandon the sites if the writers left. And, in fact, no, people seem to like the sites for what they are. Gawker.com is sort of larger than its writers, in a weird way. The loyalty is toward the brand, not the writers.

Q: Are Gawker Media's blogs designed to appeal to certain advertisers?

Steele: We don't design sites around advertisers. Our goal is to build trust with readers by being as honest as possible and to let our bloggers write about what's really going on. The idea is like, if we can build a travel site that a lot of people look at, eventually the right advertisers will find it. These sites don't need to be profitable out of the gate. We're not trying to make our money back over night. It's definitely a long-term play.

Q: Is Gawker Media profitable?

Steele: It is profitable. We're very small, have no overhead, no office space. Everybody works from home. And you heard what we pay our writers.

Nick founded Gawker very specifically with the idea of starting a whole bunch of blogs in very niche topic areas, hire free-lance writers to write each of them, hopefully draw a lot of eyeballs, and then sell advertising around it. He had the idea that no one site would probably ever make a fortune. But if you have 10 sites each making $75,000 a year, then, O.K., maybe it's not like Conde Nast money, but it's a nice little business.



Photo by Everett Bogue



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