Bustle Digital Group has hired a firebrand writer from Gawker’s past to lead its third effort at resurrecting the snarky gossip site it picked up at a bankruptcy auction nearly three years ago.
Bustle had little to say on the effort except to confirm it hired Leah Finnegan as editor-in-chief, first mentioned as a one liner in Ben Smith’s media column in the New York Times earlier this week.
Bustle also confirmed the launch efforts but declined to discuss timing, editorial mission or staffing plans.
Finnegan worked at Gawker for one year during its heyday as a writer and features editor before taking a buyout in July 2015. Despite her short tenure, she gained a reputation for pushing the envelope at the Web site, already famous for its irreverent posts, and for feuding with Gawker founder Nick Denton.
Some media watchers are already predicting trouble ahead for Bustle owner Bryan Goldberg.
Elizabeth Spiers, the founding editor of Gawker back in 2002/03 when it was a buzzy blog site centered on the New York media world, praised the hiring of Finnegan while also predicting clashes between Goldberg and the staff.
“She’s great and I hope it works,” Spirers tweeted Monday. “But Bryan [Goldberg] and I have talked about Gawker before and I told him the first thing he’s not gonna like is that the Gawker team will want to unionize. And he will push back on it. And not want to fight his VCs. And he has no incentive to fight them.”
Finnegan tweeted about her new gig Sunday evening, saying “the rumors are true!,” but Media Ink was unable to reach her further comment.
In addition to her time at Gawker under Denton, Finnegan also spent a year at Bustle as editor-in-chief of The Outline before Goldberg pulled the plug on it at the start of the pandemic. Before working at Gawker, the Brooklyn resident spent 2 1/2 years at the New York Times.
Goldberg has attempted to resuscitate Gawker twice before, but it has stubbornly remained a zombie site since 2016 when then-owner Denton lost a $140 million invasion-of-privacy lawsuit to Hulk Hogan that forced it to shut down and auction off its sites to new owners.
Finnegan arrived a year before Gawker shuttered, just as its leaders were attempting to rein in some of its more outlandish posts — leading to a bit of a culture clash between Gawker’s still bloodthirsty writers and its top executives.
One such feud burst into public view after Gawker ran a story outing a top executive at Condé Nast, a married family man who reportedly tried to arrange a liaison with a gay escort on a business trip. The article triggered a furious backlash for the apparent gay shaming of a relatively unknown executive, and a number of major advertisers pulled ads.
A day after the explosive story was published, Gawker’s top executives voted to pull it down and Denton issued a lengthy apology saying the story should never have been published.
Finnegan was reportedly one of the leaders of the editorial uprising against Denton that followed.
According to an article in Capitol New York in July 2015, Finnegan accused Denton of selling out to please advertisers in what was described as a heated shouting match.
“Do you know how much money we lose all the time, because of cancellations in ads?” Denton is reported to have said in the exchange with Finnegan. “I cannot, I cannot believe that you are actually saying this!”
“Make this into an advertising company then!,” she fired back, according to the report by Peter Sterne. “Say what it really is! It’s not a place for journalism!”
In an all-hands newsroom meeting, Denton tried to quell the storm by explaining that what had began as an upstart blogging site a dozen years earlier had grown up and needed to have different standards. It had become something of a rarity — a digital site with no venture backers that had grown to a half dozen sites and was actually profitable.
Finnegan and Denton also reportedly argued earlier that year after he criticized her for a story she had written in January 2015 attacking the unusual names actress Zoe Salandra had given her two kids, Cy and Bowie. “Zoe Salandra Gives Birth to Hipster Scum,” wrote the headline she affixed to her own story.
According to an article in Business Insider at the time, Denton had emailed Finnegan on the article, “I know you’re joking, but to anybody but your hardcore fans, this is just nasty. You’ll regret writing that headline.” He worried that one day Salandra’s children would Google themselves and become very upset.
Finnegan blasted back, “I never regret speaking my truth and criticizing a poor celebrity naming choice, Nick.”
But around the time of the all-hands meeting, pro wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker, which was being secretly bankrolled by Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, was just getting underway. Gawker in 2012 had published the video showing Hogan having sex with the wife of his then-best friend. He claimed it was an invasion of privacy.
The suit would eventually wreck the company that was making a profit of about $4 million on income of $44.3 million by 2014. Denton lost the case in Florida and was ordered to pay $140 million, resulting in Denton shutting down the popular site as well as its sister titles, which were sold to a variety of new owners in the bankruptcy sale.
Gawker, the original site and still the flagship of Gawker Media by the end was considered a poisoned asset and commanded the lowest price of the bunch that had included Jezebel, Deadspin and several other sites.
Enter Goldberg who made millions as the co-founder of the Bleacher Report, but who was derided by the old Gawker as a “clueless scamp” once he launched the women-focused BDG. He agreed to pay only $1.35 million at a bankruptcy auction in July 2018 for the Gawker name and archive beating out two other bidders.
Goldberg seemed to have little idea what to do with the site once he owned it, however, and waited months before he even revealed a relaunch plan intended originally for mid-2019.
Bustle in November 2018 hired Carson Griffith to lead its first relaunch effort. But before the site got off the ground, the Daily Beast on Jan. 23, 2019 wrote a story accusing Griffith of making racist and homophobic remarks to her tiny relaunch staff.
Its only two staffers quit and over 70 staffers at BDG’s other properties called for Griffith to be fired over the remarks. She insisted she was not racist or homophobic, but stopped working from the office in the midst of the uproar (although she stayed on the BDG payroll until August 2019 after a second relaunch effort was also scuttled).
Last year Griffith sued the Daily Beast, the article’s author Maxwell Tani and the site’s editor-in-chief Noah Shachtman for defamation, claiming that she was a victim of a hit job and that she was never personally contacted by the Daily Beast prior to publication.
Bustle hired an outside law firm to investigate and eventually cleared her of any wrongdoing. A New York Supreme court judge on March 24, meanwhile, rejected the Daily Beast’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
In 2019, Goldberg tapped former Details editor-in-chief Dan Peres to attempt to bring Gawker back from the dead as a gossip site without the vicious streak that destroyed the original version. But by July, Goldberg once again pulled the plug. Peres went on to land a job as the editor-in-chief of Ad Age.
It’s unclear if by tapping Finnegan, Goldberg now wants to revive the snarky site that grew to attract 23 million unique viewers a month at its peak, despite occasional claims of recklessness. And there are questions if a new Gawker can even gain traction in the current digital world.
“My view hasn’t changed since the first time they tried to relaunch,” said a past Gawker editor in chief Gabriel Snyder. “I strongly believe the world needs a publication like the old Gawker, but I fail to see why it has to be called Gawker … Just let it be.” ”