Innovation

How Gawker Media became a social technology company

Gawker Media is more than a gossip blog. The controversial publisher's CMS, Kinja, is a powerful technology and social media platform that distributes the world's biggest news sites.

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Image: Gawker Media Group

Gawker Media's Manhattan newsroom is more quiet than you'd expect. The controversial publisher churns brash and noisy content at a manic pace. Writers and reporters are hunched over laptop screens, furiously pounding out news, memes, and gossip.

To operate at high velocity writers require equally fast and stable technology tools. Gawker's content management system (CMS) debuted in 2003. The CMS was a small stack of code on a server, said Lauren Bertolini, Gawker's Senior Director of Product. It did the trick.

The Kinja brand emerged a decade later on Jalopnik, Gawker's automotive publishing vertical. Today Kinja is home to several well-known legacy brands, like Playboy's safe-for-work site and Gawker Media sites like Gizmodo, Lifehacker, and Jezebel.

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Audience engagement and participation is key to Gawker's success. Kinja closely resembles a social media platform and competes with sites like Medium and Tumblr. "Gawker commenters are a special group," Bertolini said. "Our commenters are valuable. They aren't second class citizens, and Kinja has been designed to elevate and emphasize [comments and commenters]."

Bertolini spoke with TechRepublic about what publishers and media companies can learn from Gawker's unique approach to building a CMS.

What makes Kinja unique?

Kinja is the tool that supports Gawker's mission to start honest conversations. While other publishers have given up on intelligent discussion, we believe it's a core part of our success.

[The CMS] is a lightweight publishing system that integrates blogging and publishing and encourages spontaneous posts that trigger robust discussion. We want each author to get a post up without going through a tutorial.

What technology problems does Kinja solve?

Kinja provides robust inset and embed support. If an author drops an article link into the CMS from anywhere on the web, Kinja will automatically generate a story inset that includes the thumbnail, headline, and source of the article. A link to a Tweet or YouTube video returns a standard embed without the author needing to worry about the complexity of embed code.

Similarly, a link to one of Gawker's commerce partners generates an inset complete with product name, source, thumbnail, and purchase price. This context allows readers to make better purchasing decisions.

Unlike most media companies, we provide a shared identity system for all of our users. This makes it easy for authors to jump into the discussion and gives our users access to the same storytelling tools [authors use].

Some Kinja sites are owned by Gawker. Some aren't. Can you describe the strategy?

Initially, the vision for Kinja was to create an open blogging platform for any user to start a blog and form their own community. In late 2015, we shifted our work to focus on building a closed platform for Gawker Media Group properties and a few core [business] partners. This allowed us to focus on building tools for storytelling, commerce, and community.

What technology and media industry trends have emerged while building Kinja?

The industry is still struggling to find a balance between creating a safe place for honest dialogue and integrating new voices that get mixed in with the trolls and spam.

Kinja has a "distributed moderation" system. We give preference to contributions from our authors and allow them to approve users that bring value to the conversation. That class of approved users are able to approve individual contributions.

While this has [helped] keep spam and the issues that Jezebel faced a few years back from appearing on our posts, we frequently hear complaints that contributions from new users are not getting seen. I feel like this is the same problem that Twitter struggles with. Popular users have told me they would never dare to look outside the "people you follow" section of their notifications. It's a problem we want [Kinja] to solve.

Let's talk tech. What language is the Kinja platform written in?

Kinja is written primarily in Scala, using MySQL as the primary data store. The database layout is nothing you wouldn't expect, except that we generally treat stories and comments the same and store them alongside each other [in the database].

It gives us flexibility in treating replies [to posts] the same as posts. Replies can be embedded in stories, if an author finds them particularly insightful, and most of the formatting options available to authors of stories are also available to our users.

As for our infrastructure, currently we run on our own servers, but we're in the home stretch of a project to move our infrastructure to cloud service providers. This will allow Kinja to benefit from economies of scale and focus on our core competencies.

What should the media industry learn from Kinja?

That the tech you use shouldn't get in the way of the work journalists do, it should support them. And a huge part of doing that is making your CMS as efficient and easy to use as possible. The more barriers you create to get from point A to point B, the harder it will be for your technology or editorial teams to feel effective.

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Note: Some quotes have been modified for clarity and brevity.

Another note: The author worked previously for Gawker Media.

About Dan Patterson

Dan is a Senior Writer for TechRepublic. He covers cybersecurity and the intersection of technology, politics and government.

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