On a winter-cold morning last autumn, before the leaves could summon up the energy to burn and fall, the barbarians entered the gate. A group of feisty young writers, known only to millions of readers by their blog names - Gawker, Gizmodo, Wonkette and Defamer - were in a soigne studio in New York’s Chelsea district to be photographed for the February issue of Vanity Fair magazine.
They represented the cream of Gawker Media - a mini-empire of clever, gossip-driven blogs launched in 2003 by Nick Denton, a former reporter for the Financial Times. But they were also emissaries from the blogging hordes, a raffish army of citizen journalists bent on overthrowing the old guard of the US media.
The irony was sweet: Gawker was supposed to make fun of this kind of inside-the-establishment posing. But the victory was sweeter: it was a signal moment, a benediction from a magazine that, more than any other, has become the plush chronicler of the celebrity establishment. As Vanity Fair put it in the story that accompanied the photo-spread, “With a combination of smart-ass writing and low subject matter folded into crisply designed sites, the Gawker gang is bringing some wit and nasty fun to a dour decade.” The upstart press of the 21st century seemed to have truly arrived.
Gawker made itself known early in its life when its first editor, Elizabeth Spiers, a former equity analyst, scored a frank interview with a young woman working on Wall Street, about the poor customer service ethics of cocaine dealers - an acute problem, apparently, for high-finance slaves pulling all-nighters during tax season.
“The perfect coke dealer would be like a dad,” she said: an immigrant putting his six kids through college, someone who wouldn’t muck you around. This was not the sort of information you were likely to get in The New York Times.
Gawker’s Washington DC outpost “Wonkette” scored a bigger coup when its editor, Ana Marie Cox, wrote about “Washingtonienne”, a 26-year-old Republican staffer pseudonymously blogging about her multiple sexual liaisons, including one with a married Bush administration official who gave her an envelope filled with cash in gratitude. Readers quickly worked out who the staffer, Jessica Cutler, was sleeping with, helped by the fact that Cutler - who has often spoken to the media of her 140-plus IQ - referred to her paramours using their real initials.
Buttoned-down Washington was horrified. Cutler was fired for misusing her office computer, but promptly got a six-figure book deal and an invitation to pose for Playboy in time for the 2004 election, which she accepted. As she memorably told The Washington Post, “Everyone should have a blog. It’s the most democratic thing ever.” And, indeed, having a blog seemed to be the quickest way to fame in a country obsessed with fortune.