For five years, the pioneering gossip website Gawker has lain dormant with a blunt message from co-founder Nick Denton: “It is the end of an era.”

Now Gawker, which came to represent the freedoms and excesses of web-only publishing before it was closed down following a convoluted $140m libel case brought by the wrestler Hulk Hogan in 2016, is set to be rebirthed (again).

But Gawker’s original purpose as an independent publishing meteor could be tough to replicate.

The company behind the rebirth is Bustle Digital Group, a company known as a clearing house for a dozen publishing sites, among them Bustle itself, Romper, Nylon and W, which purchased Gawker for $1.35m at a bankruptcy auction in 2018.

Bustle is the brainchild of Bryan Goldberg, described by the New York Post as “a scruffy, 35-year-old media mogul”.

Sources close to Gawker told the Guardian that Peter Thiel, the German American billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist, who had funded Hogan’s libel suit over a sex tape Gawker had posted online, had also looked to buy the company, with a view to preventing the site and its archive from ever returning to the public domain.

Thiel’s crusade against Gawker started after the Gawker-owned tech blog Valleywag, published a post that had outed him as gay.

Bustle has said the new editor of Gawker will be Leah Finnegan, who had worked at Gawker for a year as a writer and features editor before she took a buyout in July 2015. Finnegan subsequently edited the Outline before it too was sold to Bustle.

Among her best-known columns, under the heading ‘Unconventional Wisdom: challenging those faux-profound bits of knowledge so often taken for granted’, she reflected on an earlier post in which she had described her boss hitting his head on a lamp during a meeting.

Some great advice I once got was ‘Be less yourself.’ I was 27, and going through a righteous phase that unfortunately coincided with having a national platform on which to write. The results were not always great.”

While praising Finnegan as a journalistic talent, a former Gawker staffer said many from the old era are unconvinced by its relaunch. “Anyone who cares about Gawker thinks it’s a terrible idea,” said one. “There’s no way to capture the old anarchic spirit under the control of venture capitalists.

“Goldberg is an opportunist who thought he could buy an asset on the cheap, plus the archives, and get all the sparkle, branding and name-recognition to build a large-traffic site to go with his group – and all of which is antithetical to what Gawker stood for. But he knows how to build traffic using content that we all hate.”

The problems independent journalism sites face under ownership of venture capitalists are well-known. Bustle has already attempted a Gawker reboot, only to see it collapse before launching after problematic tweets by its editorial director were dug up.

Gawker’s original travails began when it refused to take down a 2006 sex tape of Hogan, real name Terry Bollea, with the wife of his best friend, Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

Hogan sued Gawker. Gawker stood on its right to publish. And jurors sided with Hogan, who shed tears in the courtroom when the verdict came down.

The verdict was widely interpreted as a perceptible shift in how the public and juries view privacy rights.

Five years on, freedom of speech is, if anything, more contentious. It may again be up to Gawker to find out where the lines are currently drawn.



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