A calm Denton, dressed in a slate gray suit, white button-down shirt and slim charcoal tie, gave an almost professorial rundown of his career to date, which included a high-profile career at The Financial Times with plum reporting assignments in Eastern Europe during the fall of Communism. As his career progressed, the Oxford-educated journalist explained that he wanted to tell stories that pulled back the curtain on newspaper reports.
“I did find newspapers a little restrictive,” Denton said. “If you work for a newspaper, you know the version of a story that appears…it’s accurate…but there are a lot of things missing.”
The “deals” that are done “behind the scenes” and the “strings that are pulled” by publicists are the stories he wanted to tell.
“You can call it gossipy; I like to call it true, reading between the lines,” he said, noting that ultimately the telling of those back-room stories gave him the impetus to start Gawker Media.
Gawker’s lawyer asked Denton to go over the foundation of the company for the St. Petersburg, Fla., jury, who will decide whether Bollea’s right to privacy was violated when Gawker published covertly recorded video clips of him having sex with his friend’s wife.
Gawker, which Bollea is suing for $100 million, claims it has freedom of the press under the First Amendment on its side, citing the fact that the clip of his escapade was “newsworthy.”
Earlier in the day, A.J. Daulerio, who served as editor in chief of Gawker.com in 2012 when the video was published, addressed the “news value” of the video, and de facto exposure of the former WWE wrestler’s penis to the public. While he acknowledged that Bollea’s penis “had no news value,” he contended the tape had never been seen, and was thus, “new.”
The importance of shining a light on “new” material in the form of exclusives and scoops was echoed by Denton during his testimony.
“If all you are doing is repeating or rehashing what other people said…there’s no real point of that,” he said, referring to his mandate to nab exclusives. “It’s supposed to be new…a new idea, a new product, whatever it is.”
He explained that this holds true for all publishers, and in the case of digital outlets, it helps drive traffic, which in turn brings in more advertising revenue. Since Gawker Media launched in 2003, Denton noted that the company has published 960,000 posts, or about 100,000 stories a year, which equates to 2,000 posts a week.
In 2012, when he served as publisher, Denton told his 60-person editorial staff via a memo to “be even more of a hustler” in order to drive traffic. Reporters who earned more unique views would be up for higher bonus compensation.
While Denton explained in court that he meant for reporters to “provoke conversation and be aggressive,” Bollea’s defense team claims that mandate was key in the decision to post the sex clip.
Daulerio denied that idea, calling the clip “interesting,” but not necessarily a traffic driver. (The clip would generate a bump in traffic and garner 2.5 million views).
The prosecution also tried to show lack of empathy on the part of Gawker, which would play into Bollea’s testimony about the harm caused by its posting the clip.
When asked whether Daulerio cared if the tape would put the plaintiff through “emotional distress,” the editor said: “That’s not my job.”
Jezebel editor in chief Emma Carmichael, who served as Daulerio’s managing editor at the time, parroted that sentiment, but in a more delicate way.
During her brief testimony on Monday, Carmichael noted that as a journalist, she “grapples with” knowing a story may harm the subject.
The editor was also questioned about her experience at the time; she had just one year at Gawker under her belt before she was promoted to managing editor. Hogan’s lawyer pointed out that she was just 23 at the time, and asked whether she had bothered to consider if the Hogan tape was “revenge porn.”
Carmichael, who often covers such topics at Jezebel, explained that it didn’t fit the criteria, as it normally is more “relationship-focused.” One element of revenge porn, however, is the lack of consent from one or more of the participants in the circulation of the content. Carmichael admitted that she wasn’t sure if Hogan was a victim of being secretly taped, a point which is key to the right to privacy claim.
Before the editor left the court, the judge was notified that the jury had a follow-up question.
Jurors inquired whether Carmichael “ever had an intimate relationship” with Daulerio or Denton. (Denton is openly gay.) The supposition, it appeared, was that Carmichael could not have had such a meteoric rise at Gawker otherwise.
The question immediately spawned outrage from reporters covering the trial, in addition to a few stories from other media outlets that were monitoring the live-streamed testimony in court.
Carmichael politely said, “no” before leaving the stand.
Denton will continue his testimony on Tuesday.