Why Did Gawker Refuse to Run John Cook’s New York Observer Article on Scientology?


On Tuesday afternoon, the New York Observer, now under the editorship of founding Gawker editor Elizabeth Spiers, published a juicy feature about Scientology by current Gawker editor and investigative journalist John Cook. Atop the article is a purposefully placed Observer editor’s note in italics that reads, “, where the author is employed as a staff writer, declined to publish this story.” Right away, the note sparked the discussion it was likely meant to: Why didn’t Gawker want a big, exclusive and original story, especially in light of its admitted struggles with a new redesign and stated thirst for unique and scandalous features? “I’m not quite certain,” Cook told Runnin’ Scared. There’s more inside Press Clips, our daily media column.

Cook’s article tells of Vanity Fair contributing editor John Connolly, also formerly an NYPD officer and stock broker, known as “a mischievous tipster, an inveterate gossip, and an information broker of the highest order.” This time, though, Connolly’s big mouth may have caught up with him as two Scientology defectors, “the two highest ranking…officials to ever leave the church,” say Connolly has spent twenty years as a paid informant for the notorious church.

At 3,619 words (not including the editor’s note) and sans racy photography, the story is indeed a little long and dense for what Gawker generally runs as an “exclusive.” It’s essentially a “media story,” as Cook told us, and it’s “about a guy that not a lot of people have heard of.” Still, Cook said, it wasn’t much of a discussion with Gawker editor-in-chief Remy Stern, who was supportive of Cook having it published elsewhere.

“At the end of the day, he thought it was taking too long,” said Cook, who said there was nothing “nefarious” about Stern’s decision not to run the story.

And yet, it was finished, whether on the clock or not, and went to a publication that is arguably a rival, at least in theory, especially since the takeover of Spiers as editor at the Observer. Spiers, when she started Gawker with Nick Denton all those years ago, aimed to create “the New York Observer, crossed with Jim Romenesko’s MediaNews.” Her new mandate at the Observer is to make “a website with a newspaper, rather than a newspaper with a website.” Upon her hiring, we wondered if Spiers was the logical person to bring “Old Gawker New York smarts to a struggling New York paper.” This Scientology story seems to be a clear step in that direction, and with Gawker as collateral damage.

If the media angle of Cook’s story seems out of line with Gawker in 2011, remember that one of the first stories on the site to garner national attention was video of Tom Cruise speaking about Scientology. A story on the secretive church, as the New Yorker showed recently, is always buzzworthy.

And considering Gawker’s new redesign, which has resulted in huge traffic loses, and hopes to highlight bigger reported pieces over aggregated content, Cook’s article would seem perfect. The redesign, Cook said, is meant to “squeeze out middling stories” and “redirect our energies to ones that can be front page splash stories.” A Scientology story on a day with no Craigslist Congressman would appear to be a victory, though maybe not the largest Gawker story of the new year. But instead, the article gets to be a web exclusive for a rebounding publication, based on Stern’s decision to skip Cook’s work.

(At the moment, Gawker’s lead story is “The Republicans’ War on Congressional Recycling,” which is heavy on outbound links and comes with a stock image. We’ve reached out to both Stern and Denton about the story, but have yet to hear back.)

Cook turned to the Observer, which employs not only Gawker’s founder, but Cook’s ex-Radar magazine coworker Aaron Gell as online editor. Current Gawker editor Stern also worked at an incarnation of Radar, as did John Connolly, the subject of the Scientology article in question. That’s the small world of New York media for you. (In fact, Cook is married to the Village Voice‘s film editor Allison Benedikt.)

But more interesting than who drinks with who and when is that editor’s note on top. “, where the author is employed as a staff writer, declined to publish this story.” Such a disclosure is not exactly standard for staff writers who freelance elsewhere. Instead, it was attached with intent: not only would the NYC internet be chirping with questions, bringing the Observer more attention than just an already interesting story, but Gawker and everyone else competing in that space now knows that Spiers and co., should Team Denton and Stern miss a beat, are alert enough to fill right in, especially online. And a real rivalry could be fun for everyone.