Gawker Stumbles to Traffic Low as Political Sites See User Freefall

Caveat emptor, Gawker gawkers: Any company considering buying the controversial digital publisher should know that its namesake site has hit some serious traffic lows.

Gawker.com’s traffic in April dropped a whopping 37% from the previous month, to 7.6 million visitors — the site’s lowest mark in at least three years, per comScore. That was enough to take Nick Denton’s entire empire down to a 29-month traffic low, even though most of his other brands, including Gizmodo to Deadspin, have held up.

It’s not an encouraging sign for Gawker, which says it has refocused on political coverage rather than salacious gossip about the media biz. But if it’s any consolation to Denton, Gawker is far from alone in experiencing sudden freefall, even as the explosive presidential campaign would presumably be pushing politics-centric websites to new heights.

There hasn’t been much good news for Gawker of late. A federal judge last week upheld a $140 million verdict in favor of Hulk Hogan, who successfully sued the company for posting a sex video featuring the wrestler, and it also came to light that tech billionaire Peter Thiel had been secretly bankrolling Hogan’s legal effort. Denton reportedly had been exploring a sale before the verdict even came down — a move the company didn’t explicitly deny.

Popular on Variety

“Everyone take a breath,” Gawker said in a statement. “We recently engaged [Houlihan Lokey banker Mark] Patricof to advise us and that seems to have stirred up some excitement, when the fact is that nothing is new.”

The rumor mill churned out potential buyers ranging from Vox Media to Variety’s own parent company, Penske Media Corporation, which indicated via a company spokeswoman, “At this time, PMC has been contacted by Gawker’s banker and there are no current negotiations of any kind between PMC and Gawker.”

If the deal chatter is true, the timing couldn’t be worse, considering the number of unique visitors to Denton’s portfolio of websites has sunk to a collective 44.4 million, its lowest level since December 2013.

Regarding the recent traffic plunge at Gawker, a rep points to Denton’s previous comments that the company had expected a traffic decline as the site shifted gears. “In today’s crowded and confusing digital media world, you should focus on your strengths and have a clear message for your audience,” Denton wrote in a staff memo last November.

Gawker’s new political bent has been seen as something of a palate cleanser — and a bid to appeal to a higher-income demographic — after the Hogan affair and other scandals blackened its name, the result of the company’s vitriolic brand of journalism.

But there’s a voluminous stream of political news, opinion, and rabid journalism all over the internet, and Gawker’s snark simply doesn’t stand out as much. (One of Gawker’s most popular stories last week was speculation about the cost of Donald Trump’s hair weave.)

“This election cycle was tailor-made for Gawker-style coverage,” says Benjamin Toff, a political scientist who has been named research fellow at the Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. “But the distinctive voice Gawker once had is not as distinctive now. When one of the Republican nominees is talking about his penis size, and that’s all over the news everywhere, it’s hard to be the one that’s pushing the limits of what’s deemed appropriate.”

That said, Gawker’s traffic problems may have as much to do with a mysterious malaise afflicting the entire political category as from any intrinsic deficiencies.

Millions of visitors to political websites vanished in April, after months of healthy growth fueled by the contentious 2016 election season. The drop, coming off record traffic numbers for many outlets in March, nailed political pubs of all persuasions, according to comScore data. Politico.com saw U.S. unique visitors drop 33%; TheHill.com fell 35%; Tucker Carlson’s Daily Caller plummeted 43%; and ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight.com dropped 32%.

Other political sites that saw steep drops in unique visitors for April, per comScore, included Glenn Beck’s 
TheBlaze.com (-17%), Daily Kos (-24%), Talking Points Memo (-29%), DrudgeReport.-com (-25%), The Nation (-18%), and the Weekly Standard (-32%). Breitbart News Network, the conservative news and opinion site founded by the late Andrew Breitbart, saw uniques decline by 6%.

Click Dips
Politics-focused sites showed surprising traffic drop-offs in April.
-37% Gawker
-35% The Hill
-33% Politico

Some observers speculated that the shift may be partly attributable to changes in content algorithms at Google or Facebook; the latter has been in damage control after allegations it tinkered with trending-news topics to downgrade conservative viewpoints. “I don’t think you’d see that sort of drop-off in traffic just due to ‘fatigue’ with politics,” says one news-industry veteran.

But there may be a more straightforward explanation: There was simply less going on in the political circus tent. In April, there were far fewer primaries (nine) and just one debate, between the two Democratic contenders — whereas in March, there were more than two dozen primaries, including Super Tuesday, and four debates.

Web traffic to political sites in April was still “at a very elevated level versus a typical month,” says Andrew Lipsman, comScore’s VP of marketing and insights. “March 2016 isn’t a fair comparison because, for a number of reasons, it should represent a major peak in activity for these sites.”

And it’s worth noting that visitors to general news websites and viewers of cable news dropped from March to April, although not quite as spectacularly. Fox News Channel averaged an audience of 2.86 million from Feb. 29 to March 27, dropping about 16% with 2.4 million the following four weeks, according to Nielsen data; CNN’s viewers fell 26% from 1.92 million to 1.43 million per week over the same periods.

A FiveThirtyEight rep dismisses the comparison, noting that March was the biggest month in the site’s history. “It’s ridiculous to suggest that a one-month reduction in our traffic has any real meaning when our long-term growth is exceptionally strong,” she says. The site claims it’s getting 30 times as many page views as when FiveThirtyEight began at The New York Times in 2012, also a presidential election year.

“This election cycle was tailor-made for Gawker-style coverage. But the distinctive voice Gawker once had is not as distinctive now.”
Political scientist Benjamin Toff

The Hill owner Jimmy Finkelstein has no concrete explanation for why traffic fell off in April. But “I’ve seen this happen before, where whole categories are down,” he says. “It’s not completely unusual.” He points out that April unique visitors were up 70% year-over-year and says May numbers for The Hill are trending toward a double-digit uptick.

Did political traffic resume an upward trajectory in May? We don’t yet know, but it’s possible the category rebounded, after Trump earlier in the month secured his status as the GOP’s presumptive nominee, and rivals Ted Cruz and John Kasich dropped out of the race.

But comScore’s Lipsman says traffic may be flat with April, and “if [sites] are down a bit, it’s probably because the field narrowed even further, and there are no more debates to drive the same intensity in the news cycle.”

Gawker, along with the rest of the players that have feasted on the bizarre turns of the 2016 election year, is banking on the prospect that the American electorate will regain its appetite through the bitter end of the campaigns.

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