It was a cross-border bombshell: Last May, John Cook, the editor of New York-based Gawker, reported that he had seen a video that appeared to show Toronto mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine. In the tumult that followed, Gawker raised $200,000 on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo to buy the video, only to be informed by its source, Cook later reported, that it “was gone.”
On Thursday evening, Cook will appear in conversation with Jeffrey Dvorkin, the director of the journalism program at the University of Toronto (Scarborough). Hosted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation, the event is titled Gawking, Gossip, and Crowdfunding: Is this the New Journalism?
Mr. Cook spoke to Simon Houpt of the Globe and Mail ahead of his visit about Gawker, the Ford video controversy and his views on the media and democracy. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Is this the first time you’ll be up in Toronto since your trip in May to see the Ford crack video?
This is the first time. I actually just learned that Ford Fest is on Friday, so I’m trying to decide if I should extend my trip.
What would you hope to accomplish?
It would be fun to see if I can get an exclusive sit-down with Rob Ford at his house.
Would you hope to see some of your old buddies from your trip back in May?
No comment on that.
How did it come to be that you were invited to address such an august body as the CJF?
Jeffrey and I got in a fight, a very polite fight, on Jian Ghomeshi’s radio program, and he contacted me not long after that to reprise it. I thought it would be fun.
So you’re going to go in and starting throwing bombs.
I don’t throw bombs. I will go in and speak my mind, and truthfully answer whatever questions are put to me. Canadian people have always been very kind to me, and I’ll return the kindness.
Indeed! We turned you into something of a semi-celebrity back in May and June, after you broke the story of an alleged Ford video.
I don’t have a sense of how my presence was perceived up there but I know I was speaking with Canadian television and radio and print reporters on a daily basis for what felt like a month. My cellphone bill for that month – both from the trip, because I was roaming for a couple of days, and then afterwards, because I had exceeded my monthly minute allowance – my cellphone bill was $748. Which I expensed.
I’m pretty sure Gawker can afford it. Jeffrey Dvorkin was the NPR Ombudsman and is now a ‘media ethics commentator.’ What do you think of media ethics?
I think of media ethics the same way I think of plumber ethics: I think that, as a human being, I’m bound by certain ethical precepts I try to live my life by, but I do not think as a profession that reporters and editors need to think of themselves as bound by an additional, secondary set of ethical restrictions – the way that, say, lawyers or doctors think of themselves as bound by an additional set of conditions. I think it’s more instructive to think of reporters the way people think of tradesman and women. I think it’s a trade rather than a profession – it’s certainly starting to pay more like a trade than a profession. And I think the idea of building up a superstructure of journalism ethics is part of a process of trying to exclude the hoi polloi from the process of reporting and commenting on the news.
The press has always comprised the hoi polloi. And yet there have been press councils in Canada going back until at least the early 1970s.
In Canada maybe, and in England. There’s not a history of that kind of regulation in the U.S., and in the States at least the process of professionalizing reporting is a post-war artifact. If you look at the way print journalism operated in the first half of the 20th century and even earlier, it was – anything goes. Back then, the power you were able to wield if you were William Randolph Hearst and you wanted to gin up a war, and you didn’t care about truthful and accurate reporting, that power was unhealthy and antidemocratic. And that’s simply a function of the fact that only people as wealthy as William Randolph Hearst could afford a printing press. There was no countervailing voice. In the environment we find ourselves in today, it’s very difficult to build up that kind of power as a publisher, because your critics can find you wherever you are, and they can instantly have exactly the same audience you have. So there’s been a devolution of that professionalization process, and I think by and large that’s been a good thing.
Crowdfunding - which you did with Crackstarter - is part of that shift of power to the people. Had you done that sort of thing before?
The model for this was something that my colleagues at Deadspin, the Gawker-owned sports blog, did a year ago. Someone was trying to sell them a photograph of (Olympic swimmer) Ryan Lochte’s penis. They wanted more money than we were willing to pay, so we started something called Cockstarter. It never really went anywhere and didn’t raise the money, but that was our model. And frankly Crackstarter was launched in the same spirit. I never expected we would raise the money.
When (the video’s owners) said $200,000, I kind of wrote off the idea: We’ll do it and it’ll just be a stunt, it’ll be a little bit of fun. And then, sure enough, it seemed to become a political act in Toronto to donate to this thing, and then it took off.
How important was the Ford story for Gawker?
I said something insulting on that show with Jeffrey, the Jian Ghomeshi show, to the effect that we don’t care about Canadian readers. Because our metric is U.S. readers; what we sell to advertisers, and what we look at internally, and calculating bonuses, is all U.S. users. The traffic that I looked at didn’t really change that much. It was a good story in the U.S., it wasn’t huge. It’s a good classic Gawker story, I think, and it was good reputationally – a lot of people in the U.S. picked it up and it sort of linked our name with a good city corruption story.
One of the things we always get is ‘you’re just doing this for traffic’ – which is amusing because that’s why anyone does anything. Anyone who writes, wants people to read it. Including the Globe and Mail, and Toronto Star, and anyone else. But this is actually not a story we’d look at and say: Let’s do this for traffic, because it does not pay off for us in traffic that we like.
You’ve been editor of Gawker since February. How would you characterize your editorial approach?
My idea is to put true things on the Internet, we’ve got a really great staff of talented writers who are really great at what they do. I really like trying to expose secrets: the founding idea of the site is that the real stories are the ones that are told at the bar on the corner near the newspaper, after the paper goes to press, and that’s sort of still the aspiration and the ideal, is getting those stories out there that are whispered about among reporters and politicos, and surfacing those and giving the regular folks a chance to share that information.
Initially it was about the New York media world.
Yea, and we sort of look at ourselves as a national tabloid now, that’s the direction we’re going in. International, I guess, now that we’ve got Toronto.