Long Live Blogs: As Readers Flee, Gawker Backtracks on Big Redesign

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Gawker.com rolled out a new design Monday morning. Sort of. (More on that in a second.) We all knew it was coming: Founder Nick Denton laid out the changes in a 3,000-word memo that he published across his properties (the Gawker Network includes Jezebel, Jalopnik, io9, and a half-dozen other websites) in late November: "Why Gawker is moving beyond the blog." "The 2011 template represents the most significant change in the Gawker model since the launch of Gizmodo and Gawker in 2002," Denton wrote. "One could go further: it represents an evolution of the very blog form that has transformed online media over the last eight years." But is that what Gawker's readers want?

Pageviews fell at io9 and Jalopnik, two of the first Gawker properties to roll out the new design, by as much as 33 percent.

I don't think so. And the early numbers seem to back me up. Denton, an obsessive believer in analytics -- he is known for the giant screen in Gawker's office that displays the number of visitors each story has at any given moment -- knows this. That's why he's sort of given up already, though I suspect it will be a while before he admits it.

Before the beta site became the default site, it wouldn't have been unwise to guess that pageviews would actually increase with the new look. Instead of scanning through a handful of excerpts, readers would only be given one excerpt -- that for the primary story. The headlines would entice readers, or so this train of thought goes, to click through and read more. Click, click, click. (And ka-ching! goes the pageview counter, the lifeblood of all digital media properties.) 

With the old layout, there was little incentive to read many of the stories in full. The excerpt from one recent post, "Official Beer from the White House Bee Hive," reads: "The White House got all pretentious with its beer selection at yesterday's Super Bowl party. This concoction, the 'White House Honey Ale,' was made with one pound of honey from the White House Bee hive, and you'll never get to taste it." OK. That's all I needed. Next.

But a series of excerpts is not what Denton wanted. He envisioned a way to call out a particularly compelling story instead of burying it just because it had aged by a few hours -- or even minutes as Gawker's output continues to climb. When he references a transformation in his manifesto, Denton is talking about the move away from the traditional reverse-chronological blog format. In the new design, the blog scroll has been moved to the right-hand column, where headlines of each post are displayed in that old, familiar order. The primary column, which fills two thirds of the page, displays one big story -- "one visually appealing 'splash' story, typically built around compelling video or other widescreen imagery and run in full," is how Denton described it back in November. "At its best, a splash will match in visual impact the cover of a magazine or a European tabloid newspaper; and exceed it because the front-page image can actually move."

But Denton is already conceding, if not in words then certainly in practice. We've yet to see a story "run in full" on the main Gawker site: We're getting bigger pictures, as promised, but those are still accompanied by an excerpt (to click through makes your visit count as at least two pageviews) and, sometimes, a list of stories and excerpts that looks remarkably similar to the old Gawker.

gawker2.JPG

They take up more of the page now -- two thirds! -- but we're still just getting a series of excerpts and thumbnail images in, look at that, reverse chronological order. Glynnis MacNicol noticed this same thing, calling attention to it on Business Insider this morning: "After a bumpy rollout yesterday, and the expected howling from regular readers, Gawker appears to have already dialed back on its redesign plan to only feature one big story on the homepage." She updated the post when Denton responded "that post is just an overnight roundup. Look at site during course of day." Well, I did. The screenshot above was taken yesterday afternoon.

If Denton is slowly crawling back to the old design to keep regular readers comfortable, I don't blame him. Maybe the blog isn't dead after all. We've grown so accustomed to the format that change is shocking. Look at the numbers. Former Gawker editor-in-chief (and current editor of The Atlantic Wire) Gabriel Snyder tweeted on February 2 that pageviews fell at io9 and Jalopnik, two of the first Gawker properties to roll out the new design, by as much as 33 percent. That trend has continued for the past week with weekday traffic resembling what you might have expected on a Saturday or Sunday with the old design. (People, it turns out, still do things away from their computers on the weekend, when traffic across the Internet dips. Sitemeter numbers for io9 and Jalopnik.)

Quantcast numbers from yesterday for the entire Gawker Network show a typical Monday; nothing spectacular. (The biggest day this month was January 13. What happened on that day? Nothing.) Once the buzz has died down and people stop writing about the new design, I suspect pageviews will drop off across the Network as they have at io9 and Jalopnik. Either way, there's only a slim chance that Denton will be able to reach his target of 510 million pageviews/month by October 2011. And there will be pie on his face.

So sure that the new design will prove a success, Denton is putting money on it. When Rex Sorgatz, a digital media consultant based in New York, quipped that there was no way the design would work, Denton took the bait. Sorgatz, Monday morning, on his Tumblr: "Official terms of the bet with Denton: We will check Quantcast on October 1, 2011. The goal is 510M pageviews/month. It's $10 for every million over/under. If the design reverts to the old format, he forfeits and pays out $1,000. (Lockhart is the arbiter of what constitutes 'design change.') New or acquired sites do not count in the numbers. And finally, Nick's stipulation: the money handover is to be done in public and photographed. So bring pies." I'll be there, an early Thanksgiving dessert in hand.

That's an ambitious target. The Gawker Network has never logged 500 million pageviews in a single month. The closest it has ever come is 498 million pageviews for the month starting April 18, 2010, which is the month that Jason Chen was able to get his hands on an early prototype for Apple's iPhone 4. A typical month might bring in 410-420 million pageviews across all nine sites. In order to continue growing, Denton might have to forfeit his $1,000 and revert to the old format. I think he already has, but that's for Lockhart Steele, founder of the Curbed Network and former editorial director of Gawker Media, to decide.

"I think the bet is pretty clear," Steele told me in an email. "If the default homepages of GM sites return to a reverse-chronological story flow featuring headlines, thumbnail images and short excerpts/intros to stories, that would count as a default for Denton."

We'll find out soon enough whether or not Denton defaults completely and loses $1,000. One thing he's shown over the past eight years, though, is that he'll do whatever it takes to win the war, if not the battle. "Never, ever bet against Nick Denton," Steele wrote. "Were I not arbiting this bet, I'd put as much money as I could must on Denton's side of the wager. I just hope Rex has enough money left when this is all over to afford a place in Montauk this summer."

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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