In a world of global audiences hungry for the familiar tropes of scandal, gossip websites are finding that borders are less important than ever.
So when the New York-based pop culture news and gossip website Gawker.com received a tip about the possibility of a cellphone video alleged to show Toronto Mayor Rob Ford smoking crack cocaine, editor John Cook understood the story would play well for its readers around the globe. He hopped a flight to Toronto, viewed the video and published a story on Thursday evening that quickly ricocheted across the planet.
Within 24 hours of its publication, the story had been viewed almost 640,000 times on Gawker.com. Another story, about the site’s attempt to crowd-fund $200,000 to buy the video, had racked up almost 100,000 views.
“It’s such a wonderful story,” Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media, which comprises Gawker.com and seven other blogs, said in an interview conducted on Friday afternoon over instant messaging. “This is a human-interest story – and it transcends all politics.”
The Canadian origin was irrelevant, Mr. Denton insisted. “We have the same interest in Rob Ford as you must have had in Marion Barry.” (The Washington mayor was arrested in 1990 for crack cocaine use and possession; he served six months in prison.) “We’re pretty simple. We’re journalists. We love to break stories. Anything we might gossip about amongst ourselves, we try to publish.”
This new approach coincides with more gossip sites going global. Daily Mail Online, which features an almost bottomless scroll of celebrity sleaze, tabloid tales and photos of barely dressed British starlets, claimed 46.4 million unique visitors in March, including 17.2 million in the United States, according to the ranking service comScore.
Gawker’s no-holds-barred approach leads to explosive scoops: The site obtained and published a notorious video in 2008 of Tom Cruise speaking passionately about his relationship with Scientology; last month, it drew almost four million views when it posted a sex video of the wrestler-actor Hulk Hogan; its sister website, Gizmodo, which covers personal technology, snagged almost 14 million views for its 2010 scoop revealing the iPhone 4. And earlier this year, the Gawker-owned sports site Deadspin beat the sports-media world by reporting that the dead girlfriend of college football star Manti Te’o did not exist.
Gawker’s audience “is 10x the size it was in 2007, before we started pursuing scoops more aggressively,” Mr. Denton wrote. According to Quantcast.com, the Gawker Media sites have 51.6 million unique visitors around the world. In April, Gawker.com alone had 7.8 million U.S. visitors.
The scoops do not translate directly into more money. Ads on the Gawker network are bought ahead of time, in contrast with sites that serve up more ads with each new page view. And ads are often removed from stories such as the Rob Ford tale. “Not many advertisers want to be associated with crack smoking – or Rob Ford, for that matter,” Mr. Denton explained.
It appears to be coincidental that on Friday, as readers were flocking to read about Mr. Ford’s alleged crack cocaine troubles, the site featured an ad for the alcoholic beverage Palm Bay Spritz that declared: “Crack Open Summer.”