Will Gawker’s pivot to politics win over wary ad buyers?

This week, Gawker Media announced that its flagship site would double down on politics coverage. The move came after founder Nick Denton indicated three months ago that Gawker.com would need to become kinder and gentler. The site had just pulled a widely criticized exposé about a married media executive’s relationship with a gay escort, and Denton said stories like that cost the company an estimated $20 million in annual revenue.

The question is, how the pivot will solve its advertising problem. The options are limited. Gawker.com’s not making a play for political advertisers, who are risk-adverse and already have a lot of more established outlets to spend their dollars. And news, even less edgy than Gawker.com’s brand, is notoriously hard to attract advertisers to for the same reasons.

Rather, the goal is to get more advertising from the entertainment, tech and auto categories by convincing advertisers that the new site has a narrower editorial focus and won’t be running as much gossipy stories as it used to.

“I don’t see gossip as a category advertisers want to align with,” said Michael Kuntz, senior vp of global sales and partnerships at Gawker. “I don’t know that there’s a huge appetite among advertisers for that editorial.”

Kuntz said he doesn’t even see big ad growth potential for the company’s flagship. The idea is that the Gawker.com shift will lift all Gawker Media’s seven verticals, though. So as an example, Kuntz said, an auto advertiser that has a campaign on car site Jalopnik might be induced to extend its buy to the repositioned Gawker.

Gawker.com’s own history is instructive here. It tried politics before with its Wonkette blog, but it was hard to make money on it. Eventually, Wonkette was sold off.

“Brands are afraid of alienating big parts of their audience, and editorial with a point of view can do that,” Gawker co-founder Elizabeth Spiers said. “When you throw it in with lifestyle coverage, it mitigates it. Doing it as a standalone seems weird.”

To make things trickier for Gawker, the site is stepping up its politics focus deep into the election cycle — and the field is crowded. “There’s good talent, but there’s just going to be so much noise. It handicaps them a lot,” said Spiers. “The politics elections tend to be more national. I don’t think they’re in a position to send people on the campaign trail.”

Gawker.com’s new editor Alex Pareene is a political journalist, which is part of the reason for the political pivot, but he’s made it clear that the site’s new focus will take a broad view of politics that will encompass “business, money, the Internet, culture,” among other beats.

“There is a huge variety of stories to be told through this lens that are not political campaigns,” reiterated John Cook, Gawker Media’s executive editor, pointing to past reporting on Rob Ford, Bill O’Reilly and Fox News as examples of coverage that the site will do more of. “We’ve seen in every campaign season, the entire cultural world gets dominated by these political struggles. The model is really The Daily Show.”

That seems to makes sense given that it’s questionable how much political coverage is the first stop for Gawker.com’s audience. According to SimilarWeb, the top four referrers to the site are other Gawker Media properties, starting with Deadspin (sports) and followed by Gizmodo (gadgets) and Kotaku (gaming).

Even if Gawker doesn’t go after political ads, it’ll have a lot of skepticism to overcome with ad buyers, though, said Erik Requidan, vp of sales and programmatic strategy at Intermarkets, which helps publishers including Drudge Report and Political Insider market their ad inventory to buyers.

“They’re going to have to sit down with buyers and say we’re not ‘that’ anymore,” he said. “It’s going to be very, very hard to prove [readers] are going to stick with you. Buyers are going to be absolutely skeptical.”


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