The Elizabeth Spiers Interview

November 7, 2003

Today is the day to emit space age noises.


I bet some of you thought that one couldn't find media success via the Internet, and today's interviewee proves you way wrong. She gained fame if not fortune as the editor of Gawker, which might be the third most read New York centric publication behind the Times and the New Yorker, based on my completely unfounded estimates. And, she made the fairy tale leap to the printed medium, now working for New York magazine. Hey Elizabeth, wait up!

The Elizabeth Spiers Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

Congratulations on your new job at New York magazine. Does that mean that those of us with websites can start hoping again that the Internet can lead to a career?

Re: the career-enhancing potential of the lovely Interweb--yes and no. (That's so helpful, right?) Editors at major magazines aren't sitting at their desks, frantically scouring blogs in search of new talent, but if something happens to show up on their radar and they like it, they're definitely open to calling people whose names they don't recognize and asking them to freelance. In some ways it's better than having a pile of clips because the editor sees your raw copy (no editors) and can realistically assess your writing ability.

I hear you might be working for the Intelligencer column,
and you've also worked for Page Six. Does working for a gossip column mean fabulous parties and bubbly, or can it be more depressing, a la Sweet Smell of Success?
I edit the Intelligencer column (my job is to make it meaner and funnier) and contribute items here and there, but it's not my primary responsibility at the magazine, so I'm not that dependent professionally on the fabulous parties and bubbly. But when you're in the mood for it, it's fun. There's always something to do and you meet interesting people (usually not the celebrities.) The downsides: sleep deprivation and you don't get to spend much time with your friends during the week unless you drag them with you to events.

My other responsibilities at the magazine are doing the
blog, some business reporting and short front-of-the-book pieces. Those tend to take up most of my time, so I'm not really doing gossip-y stuff that much.

How did Gawker get started?
Gawker was Nick [Denton]'s idea. He wanted to start a New York-centric blog as part of a series of "micromedia" sites. He hired me to write it because he was reading my personal blog and thought it was amusing.

There are many news sites that start and stop. How did
Gawker become so popular?

Media people started reading Gawker very early-mostly
because I did a lot of media commentary-and that made a big difference because they would write about it in their respective publications. Gawker would get referenced in an article by a writer who was reading it and suddenly several thousand more people would know about it.

Someone suggested a while ago on some website that Gawker was just one big publicity stunt. They meant it as an insult, but the more I think about it, if it had been a publicity stunt, you'd be hard pressed to say it wasn't successful, given the amount of money we spent on PR (none) and the amount of publicity we got (way more than we should have.)

What do you think will become passé first, Gawker or Craig's List? Or is Craig's List already passé?
I think Craig's List was the height of techno-cool (if that
isn't an oxymoron) in the early 90s, when it first started. I wouldn't say it's now passe but it's definitely sort of a fixture now.

Gawker recently got a new editor, so if it was getting
stale, the change will probably revitalize it. Gawker will only get passe if it stops being funny and timely.

Gawker and New York magazine are, by definition, New York centric. What are some of your favorite other cities, either personally or as media/gossip hubs?
I think a Gawker DC would be great. There's plenty of
beltway material for running features. It would be like Roll Call, but funny. London would be good, but Gawker would actually have more competition there. UK publications tend to be snarky anyway. An LA Gawker might work, but it would have to be less acidic. Self-deprecation is more of an East Coast value. Irony doesn't work as well in SoCal.

Do you consider yourself a New Yorker now?
I've lived in New York for four years and I've always felt
more at home here than in Alabama (my home state). I think I considered myself a New Yorker roughly five weeks into my Manhattan residency. It just fits me. Or I fit it. Or something.

Many people consider Gawker among their daily must-reads. What do you check every day, either for work or for pleasure?
I check my friends' blogs. Romenesko, to feed my media
addiction. The usual New York publications (The Times, the Post, the Daily News), Drudge.

I've also developed a habit of clicking "refresh" on Gawker every five minutes, hoping to see new posts, which is a bit surreal.

Gawker is fond of chronicling the goings-on inside the CondeNast building. Did you read The Devil Wore Prada and what did you think of it? (For the record, I read it in about three days and felt dirty for about six days.)
One of my editors at Salon asked me to interview Lauren
Weisberger, so I was forced to read the book. I thought it was terrible and badly written. The subject came up with an editor friend of mine not too long ago and I reflexively started critiquing it from a literary perspective-shallow characters, flimsy plot, etc. He teased me about it: "I don't want you to be one of those journalists who, over and over-as if for the first time-gets upset that popular books are not always good books." And he had a point. It's a beach read. And it's probably good if you like beach reads. (I don't. And I hate chick lit, so I'm probably not the target demographic.)

"Ironic" trucker hats: Is this their peak? Has their time
passed? Or was there ever a time for them to begin with?
Trucker hats are over. (I actually had an essay in the last
issue of "The Face" titled, "Eulogy for the Trucker Hat.") The only time I've ever seen anyone appropriately and justifiably wear a trucker hat was when my deer-hunting, corn-growing, chewing-tobacco spitting grandfather donned one following the purchase of an actual John Deere tractor.

In an interview with mediabistro, you say "I use a bit of an alter-ego on Gawker...I'm actually kind of quiet and shy." What do you think about the internet helps people release a sharper side? Do you think this is especially applicable to female writers?
I think writers generally find it easier to be more opinionated on paper than in face-to-face interactions. The pressure of having a few hundred thousand readers when you publish an article seems psychologically smaller than giving a speech in a packed stadium, even if you're disseminating the same information to the same number of people. I don't think there's a difference between web and print in that respect. If I had a print column that was supposed to cover "Gawker" topics, I think it would have sounded the same.

The difference, if there is one, is how people behave when they're allowed to be anonymous. People say things they'd never say if they had to attach their name to it and be held accountable for it.

I'm not sure it's a better medium for female writers, but I do find that if you use an aggressive tone and it's not clear that you're female, people will assume you're not. My pre-Gawker personal blog was mostly about politics and finance-Michael Lewis-style rants about Wall Street culture and foreign policy stuff. (I also had a bizarre obsession with Christopher Hitchens.) I got a lot of "I thought you were a guy" emails when I was writing it.

(With Gawker, I got a lot of "I thought you were a gay guy" emails.)

As your reputation bloomed through Gawker, did you feel conflicts of interest at all in terms of sending up a publication that you could possibly be writing for?
I think there was certainly potential for a conflict--if, for
example, I were particularly dependent on a specific publication for income or if I really wanted to write for a particular publication and went easy on them as a result. Fortunately, that hasn't happened.

Do you have your eye on book-writing? Do you see yourself as more of a nonfiction writer or would it be fiction (or fiction based on reality, like Devil?)
Yeah, but nothing related to Gawker. I was working on a
proposal for a non-fiction book that would have been somewhat research-intensive when New York Magazine approached me, and I put it on hold until we figured out what my magazine responsibilities were going to be.

I also write a lot of terrible short fiction and at some
point one of my terrible short stories will probably spiral out of control into a terrible book. Since quality isn't a determinant factor in book sales (See, Prada, The Devil Wears) and shameless self-promotion has never been a problem for me, I think it's a possible best seller.

How did you handle it when you get some hot information at Gawker and then you received conflicting information? Obviously, you want the scoop but you don't want to report rumors as news.
With the exception of the Gawker Stalker postings, which were printed from readers verbatim, I used pretty standard journalism practices on the site.

What's your definition of a blog versus a site?
"Blog" is just a word for a site format that consists of
posts in reverse chronological order, usually linking off the page to something else. There's no hard definition, though, and it's a matter of serious religious debate to some people. (Someone once tried to make an argument that Gawker wasn't a blog because we didn't have comments--this despite the fact that none of the major blogging software packages were initially developed with commenting capabilities. Some definitions are more narrow than others.)

If websites were people, and Gawker married the Drudge
, what kind of children would they have?
Children confused about their ideological positions, I suppose. A conservative gossip column?

I really don't think Gawker would marry the Drudge Report. It would, like, never work. He'd be all, "I love you, but I'm not in love with you," and she'd be all "that's total fucking bullshit; you're just a commitment-phobic bastard." Then he'd bring up that time in South Beach, and she'd be all "that wasn't me in South Beach, you asshole, it was that dirty slut you brought to my birthday party!" And so on, and so on.

What advice do you have for young, struggling freelance
writers who can't afford to freelance full-time?

I don't really know what to say to people who want to break into the industry, because I did it in a very passive way and the build-it-and-they-will-come strategy normally doesn't work. There are a number of factors that helped. I was writing about media people, which made Gawker an attractive read for editors. I think it helps if you're writing pieces that are opinionated. It's harder to stand out if you're just doing basic reporting and submitting those clips to editors. It's easy for them to notice you and remember you later if you have a distinctive voice.

How does it feel to be the 80th person interviewed for

I am truly honored. Please remember me when you're rich and famous.

Especially when you're rich.