Scandals, Lawsuits, and the Future of Gawker: A Candid Conversation with Its President, Heather Dietrick

Breaking down the blowback from the summer all hell broke loose.

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It's been one hell of a summer for Gawker Media, the news and gossip site which also counts Jezebel, Jalopnik, Gizmodo, and Defamer among its arsenal of cutting, take-no-prisoners blogs. In late July, as Gawker founder Nick Denton and Heather Dietrick, its president and general counsel, were celebrating a temporary postponement in their vexing $100 million lawsuit filed by Hulk Hogan, who claims Gawker violated his privacy by publishing bits of a sex tape, the internet exploded with outrage over a Gawker post outing a married Condé Nast executive for allegedly soliciting a male escort. "Reprehensible," tweeted Glenn Greenwald; "Appalling," slammed Kara Swisher.

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A day later, Denton would yank the post in an unprecedented move that sent several Gawker editors—including Gawker editor-in-chief Max Read and executive editor Tommy Craggs—packing in protest. In the ensuing days, Denton & Co. have attempted to right the ship with a new mission statement (still in the works, apparently) that promises to "inject some more humanity" into the site. 

The longterm impact of what one journalist dubbed Gawker's "Kristallnacht" has yet to be seen. But in an interesting bit of damage control, Marie Claire (and presumably many other media outlets) was offered an in-person interview with Gawker President and General Counsel Heather Dietrick. How could we turn that down?

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Marie Claire: It seems like you've been on a media tour lately [ed note: Interviews with Dietrick have recently run in Fortune and AdAge.).  I'm curious why.

Heather Dietrick: I think there's just a lot of interest in this company—it's part of a function of working here, in media. And probably being the first female executive in this large of a position has also generated some interest. 

MC: I'm assuming that, given the timing, this is a conscious decision to get a little more exposure for you and Gawker at a time when that might be helpful. 

HD: I can't remember if the interest came first or we sought it out, but I think people have questions about what's happening in this place, and I'm one of the people who's naturally suited to answer them. I have a direct hand in editorial management, personnel, budgeting, and legal, which sort of touches every pillar of the company. 

MC: In July, Gawker was at the center of a media maelstrom when it published an item about David Geithner, a married Condé Nast executive who allegedly solicited a male escort. Did you read that post before it went live? 

HD: Yes. 

MC: And did you have any tweaks, any comments on it?

HD: I don't want to specifically talk about the process because it's privileged. I read it for legal review, but I approved it for publication. 

MC: I'm not a lawyer, so I'm not familiar with legalese, but if it's "privileged," is that to say there's been legal blowback? Is Geithner suing?

HD: Again, I don't want to talk about the kind of legal part of it. 

MC: Is that a "no comment"?

HD: Yeah, I just can't talk about kind of legal ramifications that aren't public already. 

MC: The post was eventually removed, but you were in favor of keeping it up, correct?

HD: I was, not because I was in favor of the editorial decision that put it up in the first place. I think it's legally defensible, but the post made me uncomfortable. Even so, I thought, it's hard to un-ring a bell. I thought perhaps we write something and say, look, this editorial judgment was incorrect, it happens rarely but it happens, we're committed to doing stories that we're proud of, and leave it up. 

"I think it's legally defensible, but the post made me uncomfortable. Even so, I thought, it's hard to un-ring a bell."

MC: But your position came from a legal perspective? You thought, legally, it's fine? Or did you think, as president of the company, this is exactly the kind of thing that draws eyeballs, that makes Gawker Gawker.

HD: No, I wouldn't leave it up to generate interest or to draw eyeballs. I would leave it up as part of the editorial conversation so people who wanted to say, look this was the incorrect decision, could point to what they were talking about. 

MC: If you had to do over, would you post it?   

HD: Our editorial group wouldn't agree to post it again. They're now working on a short statement to define exactly what kind of content we want to put up, and what kind of stuff makes us proud. That post wouldn't fit with that vision. 

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MC: Shortly after the post was pulled, Gawker Media's executive editor Tommy Craggs and Gawker.com editor-in-chief Max Read resigned. Do you think they overreacted? 

HD: I understand that the people who resigned made the wrong editorial call. I think they could have stayed. I think they resigned in support of a principle that posts shouldn't come down. They didn't want to stay in an era where...it's hard to say. I'm not surprised they left, but they could have stayed and helped steer the editorial direction into this slight recalibration that we're doing. 

MC: What do you think the media got wrong in its coverage of the whole affair? 

HD: I think people probably missed how passionate people here are about journalism and getting stories out. Everyone here wants to do stories that they're proud of. This was an anomaly, and we drew a line in the sand. 

MC: With regard to the pending $100 million Hulk Hogan lawsuit against Gawker for publishing a sex video of him which he says violated his privacy, Gawker founder Nick Denton has made no secret of the fact that a lot is at stake for the company. That's got to be a lot of pressure. 

HD: There's always pressure when you go to trial, but we're so confident in the legal arguments—and we've already had two federal decisions and a state appellate decision agree with us—that this was a matter of public concern, our publication is a matter of public concern, and it's protected by the first amendment. [Hogan's personal life] was a topic that people were talking about long before we ever wrote a word, and that makes it newsworthy. It's just a great case to defend. 

MC: You've already said that the case has been costly, that Gawker exceeded its insurance cap. How expensive has it been exactly? 

HD: I won't say exactly how much, but going to litigation is expensive. There's a lot of preparation to get there. 

MC: You're a first amendment attorney—how did you become interested in the law?

HD: I was clerking with federal judge Sandra Townes in the Eastern District of New York, but I knew I wanted to do first amendment law. It's a hard industry to break into—it's very small, there isn't a ton of work. I went to a big firm [Heller Ehrman] and worked on a very large first amendment case my entire first year there. 

MC: Which one?

HD: It was about the Solomon Amendment, which was legislation that withheld federal funds from universities that disallow JAG recruiters on campus. We argued that the policy was contrary to the first amendment rights of the law schools. In 2009, that firm collapsed so I went to another firm, Goodwin and Procter.

MC: After that you went in-house at Hearst. [Full disclosure: Marie Claire is a Hearst-owned magazine.]  What was that like?

HD: Every year Hearst has a First Amendment Fellow, which is really extraordinary. The New York Times has one, I think Gannett has one. They essentially train someone in a very deep way [on First Amendment issues]. You start doing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) work, helping the reporters at all of the properties get access to public information. Hearst is willing to put resources behind FOIA, which I think is rare these days. You probably saw the news that Gawker sued the State Department for emails associated with Hilary Clinton, and just recently the State Department has said, we found 18,000 emails, sorry about that. We had to file a lawsuit to do that, and it cost money and people's time—Hearst is one of the organizations that will stand up to do that, too. So I started doing FOIA, then helped their litigation team with other first amendment cases— defamation, privacy—and built out my skills from there. It's a really great one-year training period. I stayed on a little longer and eventually came to Gawker as general counsel. 

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Heather Dietrick

MC: What was the interview process like at Gawker? 

HD: I interviewed with the executives here. I wasn't interviewed by a giant team of lawyers, though they had some of their outside counsel interview me. They asked that I do a trial week. I had the job [at Hearst] at the time, and I really wanted this job. I went to my boss at Hearst and said, I know this is outrageous, but could I take a week off and do this trial week here at what is a dream job for me?  And to his credit, he let me go with his blessing. So I came here for a week and did a sampling of work so they could see my personality and my level of risk tolerance, and then I ended up coming on full time. 

MC: I imagine your level of risk tolerance has to be high to work there. 

HD: Yeah, it does. The company is willing to push the envelope in the name of getting a story that it really believes in. 

MC: Do you read every piece of copy before it's published? 

HD:  We can't read every piece because there's just so much content going out. We have eight properties—it's not just Gawker, it's Gizmodo and Jezebel and Deadspin and Jalopnik and others. The writers and editors are very, very good and sophisticated at identifying things that look risky and need to come through legal. 

MC: How often are you killing stories?   

HD: Rarely. I can't think of a instance where we say we are absolutely not doing this story, but we might make suggestions for some more news-gathering or make suggestions for tweaking the story a little bit. 

MC: In December of 2014, you were named President of Gawker. I understand you now split your time between legal matters and business matters. Does that present a conflict of interest at all?

HD: A conflict how?

MC: In that your interests on the legal front might not align with your interests on the business front. 

HD: I haven's seen it as a conflict so far. I think our interest on the legal front is to support editorial in what they do, which is trying to find out the real story. Maybe this company is unique in that the whole company is aligned with that position. If you ask anyone at Gawker what they're doing here, whether they're a tech person or a sales person, most will say that they're here because they really believe in the journalism we do, and they believe in putting out interesting stories on the internet. I think what we do on the first amendment side is aligned with that; it's also aligned as a business matter because it's important to the whole company. 

MC: What have you learned from what's happened at Gawker in the last few months? What is the management takeaway? 

HD: I've learned how important our people are. I've learned how important it is for everyone here to be passionate about the overall company mission to get the real story, or the story behind the story. I've learned how important transparency is, which I think is counterintuitive and scary for a lot of executives, to have everything out there. At times it can look a little chaotic from the outside. But in the end, internally, it's really healthy to be able to talk about things and know that you're airing it all out and giving everyone a chance to speak, not just amongst themselves, but to the highest levels of the company. 

MC: What's the vibe there right now?

HD: The vibe here is solid. We had a great week in reporting. We broke the Dr. Dre exposé, the Hillary Clinton email FOIA result, the Josh Duggar story. People are glad to have gotten back to work, and we're ready to move forward. 

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