How Valleywag Trumps Gawker -- And Enlivens Silicon Valley

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Owen Thomas, the managing editor of Valleywag, has a succinct way of summarizing his editorial philosophy.

"Is there anybody I haven't offended?" he asked.

Probably not.

Bursting bubbles

San Francisco-based Valleywag, a blog that bills itself as a "tech gossip rag," delights in exposing Silicon Valley's pompous and hypocritical icons and publicity-hungry wannabes. Happily, it leaves the thankless task of celebrating tech's accomplishments to Time Inc.'s Fortune, McGraw-Hill's Business Week and the other fogies.

"People get into a bubble," Thomas, 36, told me when I visited San Francisco last month. "Valleywag exists to burst that bubble. Silicon Valley is built on delusions."

Witty but not obnoxious, Valleywag is the Cookie Monster of tech journalism.

Consider some of its items: "Homeland security makes it easier to hire foreign developers and supermodels." "New York Times finally discovers Ritual Roasters, long after San Franciscans have moved on."

It dismissed the news that Internet fraud totaled $240 million last year by pointing out that "Nigerian scammers make more money."

Whatever Valleywag is doing, it seems to be working. Thomas told me that Valleywag crossed the 5 million page-view mark in March, its all-time high.

Valleywag 1, Gawker 0

Valleywag is at its best when Thomas, his "very special correspondent" Paul Boutin ("to say he is a 'special correspondent' isn't enough," Thomas said) and the other writers on the site make subtle, wry observations about the technology scene.

These days, I prefer Valleywag to its first cousin, New York-based Gawker, which purports to offer "media gossip and pop culture round the clock." Both sites are owned by Gawker Media.

At its best, Gawker is hilarious and topical. On Tuesday, Gawker commented on the NCAA men's basketball final by saying: "Hey small Gawker sports fan readership, can you believe Memphis lost that game last night? Derrick Rose looked like he was scared to take it to the hole or something. Probably practicing for when he gets drafted by the Knicks."

But lately, Gawker often seems to believe that the best way to reach an audience is to embarrass the subjects of its stories -- a not-so-subtle approach. It's too bad because when Gawker takes a higher road, it is a pleasure to read.

"Gawker covers a zero-sum world," Thomas said. "If you're rich, you'll always be rich. That kind of thinking doesn't translate into our world. ... In Silicon Valley, anyone can start a company and put out business cards that say you're a CEO."

This is how Thomas sees the New York City journalist's life: "In New York, it's all about sucking up to your editor so you can get the cover and sucking up to other writers. The page-views system says you're answerable to your readers. You people in New York are obviously too busy not changing the world."

Valleywag and Gawker do share one trait: an apparent obsession with Julia Allison, the 20-something bicoastal journalist/gadfly. "Julia has given up on conquering the New York media and has set her sights on Silicon Valley," Thomas said. "She has changed a lot. At first, she wore a va-va-va-voom dress. I told her she'd catch pneumonia. Now she wears a sweater and jeans. I'm very proud of that."

Getting even?

What about the suspicions that Valleywag may publish items as a way to get even with its foes?

"A revenge vehicle? Heavens, no," Thomas replied. "That's the most boring reason to write a story. No one cares what I think."

When it comes to mainstream tech writers, Thomas has harsh words for those who fawn over their subjects simply because they're famous or popular. He dissed a Fortune writer by saying, "Has he ever written anything negative about a tech mogul?"

Thomas reserves his sharpest criticism for the people who take Valleywag too seriously. "I'm a gossip witer!" he said. "It's a gossip rag! It has only as much power as people want to give it."

"You don't have to be a hateful person to report the truth," Thomas added. "Some people say Valleywag will stab you in the back. That's a lie. Valleywag will stab you in the face. We say what's necessary."

Gone but not forgotten

No knock on anybody covering the equities world these days, but I wish my former colleague Julie Rannazzisi could help me make sense of it.

Julie, who wrote MarketWatch's stock-market stories for a few years, died of lymphoma four years ago this week. I suspect she would have loved writing about the current mess on Wall Street because it's such an important story.

She had a simple way of explaining complex situations -- a great gift for a journalist to possess. Whenever I'd wonder about the merits of some publicly owned media company, she would advise me to pay attention to its stock price. She'd say, correctly, that the stock market is almost always the truest measure of a company's worth and value.

In recent columns, I have used the phrase "gone but not forgotten." It sure applies to the lessons Julie taught her readers.

: Which do you like better, Valleywag or Gawker?

: Is the Newseum a great addition to Washington, D.C.'s cultural scene or a gigantic, misplaced monument to journalism? Your answer probably depends on where you live. People who call the Beltway home have lavished praise on the structure while some New Yorkers, in particular, think the whole idea for such a place is narcissism gone amok.

to about Ron Paul:

"First of all, great story. It's about time someone reported something that doesn't deal with Hillary [Clinton] slinging mud on [Barack] Obama and the rest of the world slinging mud on her. But when you said 'Ron Paul may be gone,' I'm afraid that you might be mistaken. Sure, he's essentially out of the '08 race (whether he keeps running or not), but I think he's on to something bigger. He has discovered the future of fundraising and building from a grass roots movement. Whether people think he's crazy or not, one has to give him credit: He got his message out there, and most importantly for him, he got people to believe. No other candidate has as many ardent believers as he does."

-- Chris Smith

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By Jon Friedman
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