Below you'll find a handful of Gawker Media stories from 2014 that I enjoyed for one reason or another. This is only a sampling, not a comprehensive roundup, and I'm putting it here partly as a way of telegraphing my tastes to the many staffers who know me only as the editor of an often impenetrably abstruse sports-and-dicks website. Pranks, scoops, FOIA, good long reads, great short reads, helpful primers: Use this as a rough guide to the sort of things I'd like to see on the sites in 2015.
Lena Dunham's unretouched Vogue shoot
Probably not a popular choice, even—or perhaps particularly—among Jezebel staffers. It inspired the predictable smarmathon on Twitter, where for various reasons Lena Dunham, a multitalented celebrity whose cultural cachet was more or less granted to her as a birthright, is afforded the sort of delicate and hypervigilant treatment generally reserved for imported zoo pandas. Fuck that. And fuck the notion that the purpose of commentary is to fortify a proper and respectable consensus. This was a coup, and a good one at that—just as interesting in its own right as the infamous Faith Hill Photoshop job obtained by Jezebel in 2007. The bien pensant backlash it provoked was more revealing than the photo manipulation: Here was an avatar of millennial feminism in the pages of Vogue, sacrificing a bit of her chin and a chunk of her neck at the altar of feminine standards she'd become famous for flouting—and much of the response was premised on the idea that the coverage had interfered with her right to be the prettiest princess the industry could make her. If that's not a story for Jezebel, then I'm Judith Butler.
Our Sony hack coverage
The full Donald Sterling audio
TMZ got the first piece, but Deadspin got the full thing, which made it plain that Sterling was no doddering old coot caught in a racist slip of the tongue but a doddering old coot with a racist worldview that is round and whole and not too far removed from the plantation. It was a valuable reminder that we have the muscle to make a difference even on stories where we weren't the first to move.
Having learned through Twitter that ESPN talking haircut Darren Rovell had narced on some dude who'd made a joke at his expense, Deadspin went to get the paper trail. By sending an email to the chair of the University of Michigan's political science department, where the dude had gotten his Ph.D., Rovell created a public record of what a petty and vindictive crybaby he is. FOIA is a powerful tool that allows journalists to fulfill their solemn duties as watchdogs of the public interest. It's also a great way to point and laugh at penises like Darren Rovell:
10 scientific ideas you're misusing
I love this post. Clicky as shit but no dumber for it, the story went to plaid on the traffic charts, and it was heartening to watch it bop around my Facebook feed alongside the usual crap, scientific literacy scoring a rare victory on the road. The conceit is simple—humble, even. Here, io9 says, why don't you listen to some people who know what they're talking about? Thanks to some very straightforward reporting, a story that might've seemed hectoring and intellectually claustrophobic comes off instead as helpfully big-minded. More than anything Annalee's post performs the basic function of any good Gawker Media story: It puts neglected truths on the internet.
Tom Scocca wrote about Bill Cosby's multiple sex-assault allegations back in February, not long after Dylan Farrow had published her open letter accusing her father, Woody Allen, of sexual abuse. The Cosby allegations were well known, as was Farrow's case; neither story was news in the strictest sense of the word. But both took hold in ways they never had before, in part because the media landscape had changed, in part because the transgressions of two aging comedians could more readily be fit into the prevailing narrative of their public lives now that they lacked the temporal and creative power to make people talk about something else.
There's a good lesson in this and in other stories around the company. (I'm thinking specifically of Diana Moskovitz's story about the index case in the Cosby saga; Dave McKenna's deep-dive into the various allegations against Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, the former NBA guard who was instrumental in bringing down Donald Sterling; Daniel Roberts's bill of indictment against Floyd Mayweather; a lot of Matt Novak's work on Paleofuture; Alex Belth's best excavations on Deadspin's Stacks subdomain; and Gawker's "Remember when?" series.) A story doesn't have to be new to be of value. People forget. Or people prefer not to remember. Sometimes all you have to do to drive the conversation is to remind readers of an important or interesting truth at a moment when they're most attuned to its resonances.
Caity Weaver's adventures in deep-fried Americana
"Everyone on the boat is racist and nice. Including me." Caity was nominally writing about Paula Deen and TGI Friday's in these two stories, but really she was writing about race, culture, and life in general here at the shank end of the American capitalist experiment, and also about cheese sticks.
Gizmodo's cult beat
The weed-kingpin racecar driver
Leah Finnegan, baby name critic
Nothing displeases the Baby Name Critic more than a name like "Kaya" and its counterpart, "Kaia" (which means, loosely, "by the sea" in Hawaiian). This is a name not meant to age with a child and accompany it through life, but to evoke a feeling, like "Cordovan leather" or "Angelina Jolie." The name Kaya says: My head is full of ocean air, and my hair is full of kelp.
I've enjoyed the proliferation of weekend anchor features on all the sites, from the Saturday essay on Gawker to Foodspin to Robbie Gonzalez's popular Sunday puzzle. Somehow, without really trying, we've created across the sites a sort of deconstructed version of a newspaper's Sunday edition. That's cool.
Kotaku's embedded gamers
This story on its face looks like a bit of housekeeping from Kotaku EIC Stephen Totilo, but it's actually a smart blueprint for covering consumer goods in a way that doesn't require a total capitulation to the bought-and-paid-for hype cycles of any product rollout. He writes:
Short version: While we remain a site that puts gaming first and will continue to tell you about the most interesting games as soon as possible, we are shifting from what has been a heavily pre-release approach to covering video games to one that gives a lot more attention to games after they've been released.
How will they go about doing that? "Each writer is essentially 'embedded' in up to four or five games or series," Totilo writes. "They play games they're embedded in regularly. They keep up with the community around those games."
This may seem like a small shift, but it's actually a conceptual overhaul that moves the locus of the site's attention from the marketing of gaming companies to the experience of the gamers themselves, which is where it belongs. It's a cool move by Kotaku.
Why Gandhi's a dick
There's no news value here. There's no hugely compelling reason for this story to exist, beyond that the bug is funny and the game had lately been on the mind of Luke Plunkett, Kotaku's Civilization beat writer. Just one of those reasons would've been reason enough to write about this.
The dude who gamed a game show
Gamergate Gamergate Gamergate, we've all been there
In his explainer, Kyle Wagner pointed out what was obvious to anyone paying attention: that Gamergate was only the latest in a long line of status-quo movements led by men who felt their hold on the cultural consensus was slipping. The only problem with this was that it arrived so late, long after the orcs had breached the Deeping Wall.
For various reasons too tiresome and disheartening to detail here, we fell down on the job of covering Gamergate the way it deserved to be covered. You could see our failure in, of all places, the prose of this New York Times story, about Intel's craven decision to pull ads from a game-developer site under braying Gamergater boycott (an important story that went cravenly unmentioned on the Gawker sites).
For a little more than a month, a firestorm over sexism and journalistic ethics has roiled the video game community, culminating in an orchestrated campaign to pressure companies into pulling their advertisements from game sites.
"A firestorm over sexism and journalistic ethics"—the phrase, in all its cringing value neutrality, in the way it treated a large flock of gibbering masturbators as high-minded activists pressing a legitimate grievance, suggested that Gamergaters had successfully set the terms of the debate. And they had, because to that point few people outside of the Gamergate cause had bothered explaining the phenomenon to the lay reader in plainspoken and familiar terms, as Deadspin's Kyle Wagner would eventually do in his piece. Because of that void the Times, lacking the intellectual cover to call things for what they were, could only retreat into a lobotomized disinterestedness, which it turn only fed whatever panic advertisers might've been feeling.
There was a lot of internal debate at the time over whether we were giving Gamergaters oxygen merely by covering the "movement," but that was always silly. What gave them oxygen was the absence of good coverage. Wagner's explainer, along with Jay Hathaway's on Gawker, was where we finally decided to take a hand.
Gizmodo and Deadspin stunts
The time Neal Pollack shat himself in a Lexus
No one would publish Neal Pollack's account of shitting himself in a Lexus press car, so he came to Jalopnik, which speaks well of Neal and even better of Jalopnik. The site's in a healthy place if it's known as the sort of publication that would eagerly grant asylum to a refugee story about shitting oneself. In general I wish we'd do a lot more of this sort of thing.
(Tara Jacoby did some fine work on the image here, by the way. Jim Cooke's art department—with Sam Woolley working alongside Tara—had a very good year, even if at times our puerile interests rendered it the most talented penis-drawing shop in the land. Work closely with Cooke, whose editorial mind is as keen and as articulate as that of any writer in the company. If he and his team can't come up with a good image for a story, it's the story's fault, not theirs.)
2004's most exciting phone, reviewed in 2014
This should absolutely be a regular Giz rubric. It's larky, but in the negative space of the story you can make out all the ways that the last decade's worth of gadget evolution has reconditioned our expectations.
Rape at Norman High and delusional pregnancy at Bellevue
... and here. Tom Scocca likes to say that magazine-style features nowadays tend to read like notebook dumps: Reporting on limited time and a limited budget, the writer comes up with a thin set of facts and scenes and is forced to put all of them into the story, rather than gathering a rich body of knowledge and carefully selecting the best of it. For an example of the latter, read Peter Kaplan's great profile of David Letterman, in which every word is fat with Kaplan's mastery of his subject. Or read Anna's "Ghost Child" story.
The way we die now
We immerse ourselves in ectype pain and then treat normal human responses to these enforced emotional tests as badges of honor. We've convinced ourselves that these adventures into the darkest moments of others lives' are a way to honor them, and to honor humanity in general. We put our compassion on display in a Facebook post. We turn grief into a shibboleth for humanity. We stare at someone else's death and then tell others to do the same. It's porn we can share, because it demonstrates our compassion.
We were remiss in not dispatching a reporter to Ferguson at the outset, not for any prestige-pandering reasons but because I wish I'd read more stories from the scene with the sensibility of the two pieces above.
Good white people
Some of the sharpest stories written about Michael Brown and Eric Garner had little to do with the oafish racism that led directly and indirectly to their unprosecuted murders and more to do with its uptown cousin—what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls "elegant racism." These two essays, by Kiese Laymon on Gawker and Brit Bennett on Jezebel, were relentless and discomfiting.
Jason Whitlock and black respectability politics
Greg Howard's story about the columnist Jason Whitlock, who'd been hired by ESPN to launch a black-interest website despite years of smearing and pathologizing the very people the site intends to reach, was an angry and dispiriting look at how to make it as a black pundit in white media. In a lot of ways it was a companion piece to Deadspin's "Big Book of Black Quarterbacks," which was also about the narrow and rigid parameters of black public life.
Ebola and moral panic
As an Ebola panic overtook America, Stassa Edwards reminded us that the response to an outbreak has always been a negotiation—and very often a collusion—between science and the social anxieties of the day.
How not to get fucked over
Maybe this is the embarrassed ex-Naderite in me talking, but my favorite Lifehacker posts are the ones that demystify a consumer experience given over to the for-profit mystification of greedheads and hucksters.
The fight over a college basketball player's coming out
A gentleman's guide to life in prison
Deadspin's coded-language interactive
There's a tedious backstory here that I think illustrates the importance of Adam Pash's new role at Gawker: A freelancer for Deadspin who'd done the scut work of identifying the races of all the NFL prospects had dumped a massive set of scouting-report transcripts on our lap. None of us had any idea of what to do with the project. We kicked around a few notions, the obvious one being some sort of breakdown of key words that tend to take on a racial coloring: "scrappy," "leader," etc. That wouldn't be saying anything new, though, and in any case would've only led to the usual accusations of cherry-picking, race-baiting, etc. We hit upon the idea of making this an interactive, thus letting the readers themselves cherry-pick and race-bait to their hearts' content. With Pash's help, Deadspin's former data/infographics guy, Reuben Fischer-Baum, pulled together the interactive within a couple of days, and the post in its final form, rough-hewn though it was, made our point better than any earnest, table-banging essay could have. Readers led themselves to the correct conclusion, and all it took was a little programming know-how.
"These Photos Of Koko The Gorilla Mourning The Loss Of Robin Williams Are Incredibly Moving," read the dumbest BuzzFeed story ever, which like the press release it had copied-and-pasted was premised on the idea that you are a paste-eating halfwit stuck in a fairy-tale version of life in which the beasts of the planet weep over dead celebrities. It was stupid, cynical shit, BuzzFeed indulging its very worst tendencies, and Gawker, with this exercise in pure id, gave it the treatment it deserved.