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Gawker shows possibilities of law firm sponsored blogs

Gawker Media was the subject of a feature story in today’s New York Times. Gawker, founded by Nick Denton, is a network of 11 blogs, each written by a separate editor.

Gawker ain’t no small potatoes, with some of their sites drawing over 1 million unique visitors a month. Their blogs range from cars and gadgets to Washington D.C gossip and smut. Companies sponsor the blogs as way to reach their target audience with their advertising message, as opposed to communicating with customers, the role of other blogs. Big companies sponsor these blogs – GE & Nike.

I was on a panel with Gawker’s business development head, Gabby Darbyshire, in New York City a few weeks ago. We discussed the idea of law firms sponsoring blogs on a subject of interest to their target audience. The firm would not write the content but sponsor the blog as a public service to those seeking certain information. Gaby and I agreed the concept made sense, not that Gawker was going to pick up such a blog with lower unique vistors as part of their network.

Here’s some details on the Gawker model from Denton and Lockhart Steele, the company’s managing editor.

  • Each editor is under contract to post 12 times a day for a flat fee. (Gawker has two editors and now posts 24 times a day.) It is best to have eight posts up before noon, if possible, to keep readers coming back.
  • The editors scan the Web for the best tidbits. Readers, and apparently even published authors, send in tips.
  • When a Gawker site highlights articles from, say, The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times, it is likely that the article’s author sent an e-mail message to Gawker pointing out its existence.
  • Site traffic is a particular obsession. Gawker draws just over a million unique visitors a month; Fleshbot, the most popular site, lures nearly twice that number, and Gizmodo, a site dedicated to gadgets, roughly 1.5 million.
  • All editors can earn bonuses if they manage to generate spikes in traffic.

There is a clear line drawn between news and advertising says Denton:

…[S]o far none of the companies buying space on the sites – including the Times auto section, which advertised on the car blog Jalopnik – have ever tried to influence content. The editors are expected to write a “thank-you to our sponsors” at the end of each week, although this is typically done sarcastically – for example, thanking advertisers for keeping the staff well-stocked in crack cocaine.

It goes beyond any kind of question of church and state or journalistic ethics that the whole editorial tone of the Gawker sites is absolutely wrapped up in the notion of take no prisoners. It owes nothing to anybody, and if one ever started compromising that, it would be grim.

I am not ready to advise most firms to cut the ties between editorial control and sponsorship. However loose control where content is posted by third parties with certain guidelines is a definite possibility.

Bottom line. If you have an environmental law practice targeted to corporate executives, in-house counsel and environmental engineering firms and have editors scanning the Web for content of interest to this audience and posting same to a blog. Your firm and/or practice group sponsors the blog, with disclosure the firm is not writing the content, and lets the audience know you are doing it as a free service for them.

Tell me that ain’t good stuff for legal marketing.

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