Friday, January 13, 2006

More on Snark and Journalism

Okay, so I did say I'd post the third installation of Jon Friedman's series on snark and journalism.

But,'s only the second full week of '06 and you're claiming that Gawker has it sown up for the year?!? for shame! There's a full 12 1/2 months left for the rest of the blogosphere to get more snarkarific. Who knows what might happen.

Then again, what do I know? ;-)

Still, I like that Jon quoted me in the second part, so here's the third:

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) - When it comes to the fine art of publishing snarky commentaries, nobody does it better than Gawker.

Gawker, the flagship of Gawker Media, stands apart because its editors, Jessica Coen and Jesse Oxfeld, are fair-minded and (very) funny. Oxfeld and Coen, who live in New York City, delight in skewering celebrities and newsmakers who do or say especially pompous things.

The four-year-old Internet site's wicked wit and journalistic sensibility are catching on. In November, Oxfeld noted, it had 6 million page views, its all-time high.

Unlike many pretenders to Gawker's throne, this site combines humor and basic journalistic values. Coen and Oxfeld are unabashedly sarcastic -- but seldom mean-spirited. "You take down people who deserve to be taken down," Coen said succinctly.

Their most loyal supporters keep them honest. "My mother doesn't read Gawker because it's too blue," Coen shrugged. "My mother emails me about my typos," Oxfeld said.

Oxfeld began writing for the site last June, Coen in August 2004. "I was the third permanent editor and have been here the longest," she said in an email, "which, I suppose, makes me the craziest." Coen and Oxfeld are carrying on the tradition established by such previous Gawker editors as Elizabeth Spiers and Choire Sicha.

Dynamic duo

I talked with Oxfeld and Coen on Jan. 3, over drinks in a West Village restaurant. During those two hours, it became apparent that Gawker's dynamic duo has a terrific working relationship.

They frequently finished one another's sentences, which is surprising since they work out of their apartments and can go days without even seeing one another (the two are advertisements for the virtues of instant messaging).

Oxfeld, who hails from northern New Jersey, has a background in mainstream journalism. Since graduating from Stanford University, he's had stints at Newsweek, ABC News, Brill's Content, Editor and Publisher as well as Media Bistro.

By contrast, Coen, a native of suburban Detroit who went to the University of Michigan, spent a year teaching 9th and 10th graders in South Central Los Angeles, through Teach For America. It's a national recruitment program which hopes to attract college graduates to teaching.

Then, after working in television for a year, she was accepted into the Columbia School of Journalism -- but turned down the opportunity to edit Gawker.

Actually, Coen might benefit more from a season at the Second City comedy training ground than hallowed Columbia. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Coen's gift for one-liners and deadpan humor someday catapults her to a gig on "The Daily Show."

Oxfeld said Gawker's publisher, Nick Denton (who declined to be interviewed for this piece), has said Gawker should have the breezy, informal feel of reflecting "what journalists talk about over drinks but can't write in their publications."

Because of the confrontational nature of what Gawker does, Denton has also said his staffers "have to be comfortable being outsiders."

Coen said the no-rules atmosphere is "a total blessing. We are free to say whatever we want, when we want."

And so they do. On Thursday, these snark-filled items appeared on Gawker's site:

-- "Macauley Culkin is preparing to marry actress Mila Kunis. We salute her bravery."

-- "Katie Couric's contract with the 'Today' show isn't up until May, and she can't even negotiate with CBS until then. So she'd appreciate it if you'd just shut the f*** up about what's next and focus on her legs."

-- "What's truly heartbreaking about Brad Pitt's forthcoming spawn, currently festering in Angelina Jolie's womb, is what the new baby will do to Jolie's two adopted children, Maddox and Zahara. Kids, say hi to your new, gorgeous replacement!"

Still, being needled in Gawker is a badge of honor. "The meanest thing we can do is ignore someone," Coen said.

The establishment is noticing. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said last year that she is a fan. Her colleague, Times media critic David Carr, devoted one of his columns to chide Gawker for writing insensitive stories during the recent media pandemonium surrounding Peter Braunstein, He's the one-time journalist who led police on a cross-country chase after he terrorized a woman on Halloween in New York. Carr cited "the permanently jaded sensibility of sites like Gawker."

A few days ago, when I told a senior Time magazine editor that I was going to write a column about the leader of snarky journalism, he shot back, "Well, you've got to write about Jessica Coen, right?"

And when I interviewed Justin Smith, the 36-year-old president of The Week magazine, he marveled, "It's amazing to think that Gawker is being written by two 25-year-olds!"

Coen, predictably, shrugged off the compliment. "We're NOT both 25-year-olds," she muttered. She grinned and added, "Jesse is 29!"


Oxfeld and Coen have demanding jobs. Each of them writes 12 items a day.

The heavy workload can contribute to occasional sloppiness. Gawker commented on a Jan. 4 column in which I speculated about who's in and who's out in the media. I'd said that because of MSNBC's "serious improvement," Fox "could feel a pinch."

Gawker's unappealing interpretation: "Jon Friedman is clearly smoking crack, as proved by (among other things) his prediction that MSNBC will beat CNN and Fox News in 2006." (Among those "other things," I'd suggested that Gawker was "in" and the New York Post's gossippy "Page Six was "out.")

When I good-naturedly protested Gawker's account of what I'd written, Oxfeld dismissed me by saying I was "splitting hairs."


For now, Gawker's biggest concern may just be coping with its new-found success.

In a surefire sign that they may be coming perilously close to mass acceptance, Oxfeld, Coen and some of their Gawker Media colleagues were featured in a photo layout in the February issue of Vanity Fair.

"We look so odd," Coen told me, "but at least I got guttered."

Will success ruin Gawker? "If we start taking any of it too seriously," Coen said, "we deserve to be bludgeoned to death with September Vogues."

Oxfeld noted: "We're working to keep it from being a problem by remaining just as tough on everyone as we've always been, including - as the site becomes bigger - ourselves."

The most common quibble I've heard about Gawker is that Coen and Oxfeld don't have bylines, so the readers don't know for sure who wrote what stuff. Perhaps it's fair to say that Oxfeld is the more earnest of the two while Coen lives to get under someone's skin.

When we concluded our interview that night in the restaurant, I thanked the two Gawker editors for their time. Oxfeld, devoid of snark this time, looked me in the eye and said evenly, "I trust you'll be nice to us."

But Coen smiled. "Oh, come on," she said devilishly, "something nasty wouldn't hurt. We haven't had a good catfight in a while."

No comments: