Q&A: Gawker’s Leah Finnegan discusses publication’s closure, her future


Gawker editor-in-chief Leah Finnegan poses at home with her dog. Finnegan spoke about the struggles she faced when the gossip site was abruptly shut down Feb. 1. Photo courtesy of Leah Finnegan.

Trevor Gardemal, news correspondent

For both Gawker and its editor-in-chief, Leah Finnegan, shutdowns are nothing new. This didn’t make it easier when Gawker’s parent company Bustle Digital Group, or BDG, abruptly shut down the gossip blog Feb. 1. 

Gawker rose to prominence due to its irreverent and often biting coverage of media, celebrities and gossip in the 2000s and 2010s. But in 2016, retired wrestler Hulk Hogan sued Gawker Media for invasion of privacy after the site leaked his sex tape. The suit was funded by entrepreneur Peter Thiel, who had been outed as gay by the website years prior. Gawker Media lost, forcing its founder Nick Denton to declare bankruptcy, and the site went down.

In 2018, BDG’s owner Bryan Goldberg purchased the site and its archives for less than $1.5 million. After a false start in 2019, the website was officially relaunched in July 2021 under Finnegan. Finnegan, who is 36, had previously served as an editor at Gawker before a multi-year stint as the executive editor of The Outline, an online culture publication. Finnegan and all of the Outline’s writers were laid off in 2020, 18 months after its acquisition by BDG. Along with Goldberg, she built the new Gawker from the ground up and hand-picked her mostly female staff. 

On the day after the shutdown, The News spoke with Finnegan about her work building the site, its end and what comes next.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 


HN: Did you have any prior notice of the shutdown? 

Finnegan: I knew that layoffs were coming, and I just thought I was going to get laid off, which was fine, because I wanted everyone to keep their jobs. But then I found out, literally 30 minutes before the announcement was made, that they were shutting the entire thing down. 

HN: What did you do in those 30 minutes? 

Finnegan: I had a staff meeting and I told everyone. And then there was an HR meeting where it was officially announced. And then, you know, your email gets cut off during that meeting. It’s super sad. I mean, you kind of learn in the business, every website is going to break your heart. And I can think back about all the websites I worked at, and many of them are gone.

HN: How was Gawker different from your other endeavors?

Finnegan: Gawker was amazing because they just let me build it from the ground up. When I started reaching out to people in March 2021, I thought everyone would be like, “I don’t want to work at Gawker. This is a tarnished brand. It’s embarrassing that they’re trying to relaunch it again.” So I was really surprised and heartened that people actually wanted to work at it. And it was just so fun to build it and hire the best staff I’ve ever worked with and have this money to make the site run until it didn’t. 

HN: When Gawker was initially shut down a couple of years ago, there was a final post from founder Nick Denton. Do you plan on doing something like that? 

Finnegan: No. We were immediately shut off from the [content management system]. So [the story about] Andrea Riseborough is going to be the final post forever. I mean, this happens, like after The Outline, too. It’s nice to have a little time to just be freelance and consult on other websites about launching sites. And I was a ghostwriter last time, which was really fun. You know, there are things to do. I don’t know if I’d want to edit another website or even have the opportunity to edit another website soon. 

HN: You mentioned that you and Bryan Goldberg both did some compromising on your initial plans for the site. How was your initial vision different than what it ended up being? 

Finnegan: You know, we’re different politically, and we both agreed that we weren’t really interested in doing a lot of political coverage because that area is so saturated. And, you know, we weren’t going to hire a bunch of political reporters. So we kind of agreed that it was going to be celebrity-driven and making fun of celebrities. And then we had a really good features editor, Brandy Jensen, who is an amazing recruiter of writers. And she was kind of in charge of the essays section of the site. So that was something that no one really knew was going to happen.

HN: Was there anything coming up that you were excited about? 

Finnegan: I was super excited for the Oscars because covering award shows is a juggernaut, and the writers are really good at it. That is one of their strengths. Like for the Super Bowl, no one knows fuck-all about football, but we were just going to do stuff lightly related, like rank Super Bowl rings and do just wacky, funny stuff around it. But the Oscars, we could do more analytical stuff. So I was excited for that, to see how everyone would nail it. 

HN: Do you see yourself working with BDG in the future? 

Finnegan: Probably not. I don’t know what else we could do. I think I’ve kind of reached the end of the rope with them, having done two esoteric websites that have been shut down. So I don’t think they want to work with me, but I hold no ill will. 

HN: Was Gawker where you wanted it to be, in terms of prominence? 

Finnegan: I think so. You never know how you’re going to be perceived, and you never know who’s going to like you. And Gawker was such a toxic brand and no one wanted it to be relaunched. The first relaunch was totally botched. People were so skeptical of [BDG]. So basically everything was working against the relaunch. And I think we did a really good job in producing stuff that people were actually pleasantly surprised by. 

HN: How was Gawker making money? 

Finnegan: Well, last summer, Balenciaga approached Gawker to advertise, which I thought was brilliant. It was a great collaboration. I thought that was the best advertiser we could have. And then, you know, there is an ad sales team. And I would work with them to present to them content they could sell, but it was hard to sell Gawker. I think they found it to be a real challenge because the landscape has just changed, and Gawker is a weird name to sell to and put your ads on.

HN: Do you think that method of earning profit is sustainable long-term? 

Finnegan: No. 

HN: What do you think the alternative is?

Finnegan: Probably subscriptions, but I don’t think anyone would pay to subscribe to Gawker. 

HN: So are you just going to take a little while off? 

Finnegan: Yeah, you know, I haven’t really taken time off in two years, so I’m looking forward to just watching “Below Deck” for a couple of weeks and then figuring out how to make money again. 

Well, I really appreciate your meeting with me. I know it’s an insane time right now. 

No, now I have, like, all the time in the world.