Hamilton Nolan hadn't even been blogging for Gawker a full year before upsetting someone enough to hire a private investigator to visit Nolan's parents' house in Florida. It was off-putting, sure, but he's not quitting yet. "That was all the result of stuff that I wrote about on Gawker, and at this point there might be more to come on that," he says. We'll stay tuned.
The 29-year-old native Floridian is a media man in the industry's capital city. After spending a few years covering media public relations at PR Week, Nolan moved over to Gawker, where he's been exposing New York City's slimiest flacks and covering the death of the newspaper as media reporter.
"There's always going to be bullshit in the media that someone has to call out."
In the interview below, which has been edited for clarity, Nolan tells Gelf about the PI episode, explains how commenters provide tough love, and laments The Roots' move to late night. You can hear Nolan speak, along with media reporters Seth Mnookin and Jeff Bercovici, at Gelf's inaugural Media Circus event at JLA Studios in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn on April 7th.
Gelf Magazine: With the business of the printed word failing miserably, media folk are trying to find an answer. What's the most outlandish model for newspaper salvation that you've heard?
Hamilton Nolan: Wow. I don't know. It's almost as if the current model is the most outlandish model. They're obviously failing and newspapers are in a death spiral. There's a lot of talk of micropayments and papers going online-only, but the majority of papers are not doing anything new, which is the most outlandish thing to me.
Hamilton Nolan: The problem with micropayments is that some people think that newspapers will be like iTunes and people will just buy stories based on a headline, but I don't think people will do that. It's one thing to buy a song that you know you like, but to see a headline and click on it and know you'll have to pay a nickel, even if you end up not liking the story, I don't think people will do that.
The Wall Street Journal has paid-for content online, and people do it, but that's because the Wall Street Journal has information that people really need. If you're a businessman, you have to read the Wall Street Journalit's not really optional. But places like Time magazine just don't have things people really need and can only get from them. If you're going to charge people to read something on your website, then you have to have something that's unique, that people really need to pay for because they can't find it anywhere else.
Gelf Magazine: Do you subscribe to any print editions of anything?
Hamilton Nolan: Yes. I get the New Yorker, which is one of the only magazines really worth paying for. I also get National Geographic, which is just awesome. Really, magazine subscriptions are pretty cheap. I think I get New York magazine for free, which I probably wouldn't pay for. I used to get the Economist, but I physically could not finish it before the next one arrived.
Gelf Magazine: Before jumping over to Gawker, you were a staff reporter at PR Week. Were you at all intimidated by the new job? Commenters can be cutthroat, after all.
Hamilton Nolan: It was interesting. I was excited, more than intimidated. I liked the idea of being able to write more freely than you can just by being a standard reporter. The most fun thing to me is the freedom to write like a normal person, not just like a reporter.
At first it was really, really hard. For the first few weeks, I couldn't do anything right. Three weeks in, I was thinking, "Holy shit, I'm going to have to quit. I can't do this." Everything I wrote, my editor would say, "This is wrong, and this is wrong." One of the very first things I wrote, a commenter said it was the worst thing that had ever appeared on any Gawker site. But after a few more weeks, I kind of the got the hang of it, and once that happened, it was fine. And then the commenters turn into a good thing rather than a bad thing.
Gelf Magazine: Is that the standard experience for fresh Gawker employees? And is working for Nick Denton really the pressurized, sleep-deprived, traffic-driven experience some imagine?
Hamilton Nolan: I don't know if it's like that for everyone. It's obviously a lot different to come from a regular media outlet where you're a standard reporter to a place like Gawker. I think the part about the workload, people saying that Nick Denton's a slave driver and that we work so much, is exaggerated. I don't think the workload is really worse than my last job. The good thing about working for Gawker is that you go in, you work for the day, and then you're done. You don't have deadlines hanging over your head or thousand-word features to write. It's not as stressful as people make it out to be.
Gelf Magazine: Do you have any arch-nemesis commenters at Gawker?
Hamilton Nolan: Not that can I think of. There are some crazy commenters, and sometimes if they go too crazy they'll get banned. Commenters tell me I'm stupid all the time, but it's generally because I've made a mistake. I actually like the commenters, because they're kind of like our copy editors. Whenever you make a mistake, they'll tell you within 10 minutes. It's tough love. They'll tell you you're a fucking idiot, but they also catch your mistakes. It's pretty fair overall.
Gelf Magazine: You wrote a post shortly after joining Gawker about the most common lies PR flacks tell reporters. Do you find that journalists are ignorant of the PR world?
Hamilton Nolan: I don't think journalists are ignorant of the PR world; it's just that they're locked into dealing with it. If you're a working journalist, your hands are tied on how much you can call out PR people on their bullshit. It has to be a working relationship. You can never piss off a PR person to the point that you can't call them next week to ask them for a statement or an interview with a CEO. But the thing about Gawker is that you can call out bullshit like that.
Gelf Magazine: What have been your favorite Gawker posts?
Hamilton Nolan: Some of my favorite stuff I've written is calling out PR people. We're in a position to do that in a way that reporters aren't. When I came to Gawker, I talked to Nick Denton about covering the PR industry, because I was coming from PR Week, and there were a couple of New York's most terrible industry people that I wanted to write about. I got to write about them, and those were some of my most satisfying posts. And it's not that we invented the fact that these people are assholes. Everyone knew that for a long time, but no one was in the position to lay it out on the table. I got to do that, and that was really satisfying.
Gelf Magazine: There must have been some fallout from upsetting the balance like that.
Hamilton Nolan: I guess the fallout is that now they're my enemies. Because we're not beat reporters and don't have to call up these PR reporters for connections and quotes, they're not in a position to make our lives more difficult. I did have a private investigator hired on me, though. I started hearing people in my hometown in Florida that there was a PI asking questions about me and knocking on my parents' door, saying it was for a background check for a job I'd applied to, which obviously wasn't true. And then, later, there was another PI asking around New York about me. It was really a strange thing. I found out who the guy was and I wrote a post about it. That was all the result of stuff that I wrote about on Gawker, and at this point there might be more to come on that. We'll see.
Gelf Magazine: Your daily Media Crack column is a very readable roundup of the trade's ups and, mostly, downs. Why'd you start it, and have people been eager to send you tips?
Hamilton Nolan: That was my editor Gabriel Snyder's idea. I think he just wanted to have a place where we could round up all the media news. Sometimes it doesn't get as much traffic as some of the other stuff we write about, but it's one of the core things we cover regardless.
We get a decent amount of tips for it. We've actually just started a list of all the media companies that aren't paying their freelancers. As the economy sucks, a lot of places seem to not be paying people, and we noticed we were getting a lot of emails about that.
Gelf Magazine: Twitter has become a pretty inescapable part of personal and professional communication. The New York Times overwhelms by Tweeting nearly every story it posts, and then there's that guy who supposedly microblogged a stranger breaking into his house. Has anyone figured out the best way to use it?
Hamilton Nolan: In my opinion, it's kind of dumb. That said, I'm not our technology correspondentthis is just a personal reaction to it. To me, it seems like one more thing along the line of people talking about themselves unnecessarily, telling the world a lot of stuff about themselves that no one really wants to know. I'm sure there are many people who put it to good use. But most of the time that I come into contact with it, it's just a new way to overshare on the Internet. I'm not a big fan.
"The thing about Gawker is that you can call out bullshit without worrying about pissing off people in PR."Gelf Magazine: Is covering media today more fast-paced and exciting, or mostly just depressing?
Hamilton Nolan: It's fast-paced and exciting until I get laid off, and then it'll be mostly just depressing. It's both, basically. It's depressing to see people lose their jobs, and even to see people whom I work with laid off. But in terms of the media story itself, it's a big story.
Gelf Magazine: When media companies finally get their acts together, will you have to switch beats?
Hamilton Nolan: This is a more exciting time to be covering this industry, but there's always some crap going on in the media. I like covering the media beat. I think it's interesting, but I can see how that might not be interesting to the general public. It's kind of a niche beatit's not politics or sports, but I like it. I don't think I'll ever have to switch beats. There's always going to be bullshit in the media that someone has to call out.
Gelf Magazine: What's next? Is there anything non-Gawker-related on your professional horizon?
Hamilton Nolan: At this point, just remaining employed is pretty much my big plan. It's kind of funny. In the last year, not just me, but everybody in the media is going from aspirational to trying to tread water. If you're treading water these days, you're ahead. I'm pretty happy at the moment just to be where I'm at. If I got a fantastic offer, I'd probably go for it, but I don't think fantastic offers exist right now.
Gelf Magazine: Any reaction to The Roots as house band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon?
Hamilton Nolan: I think it's sad. The Roots are so good, and Jimmy Fallon sucks. I went to see them right before the Fallon show started, and they're just so good, so fucking good. They have a tuba player onstage! And then the fact that Jimmy Fallon has them as a house band just hurts me. I guess it's good for them though they have a job.