Hamilton Nolan: ‘I feel like I’m obliged to speak the unvarnished (and sometimes mean) truth’

I recently saw a Globe and Mail interview with David Carr in which he mentioned Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan and how “he will just step up and fill somebody with ack ack.” (Bill Keller the target?) The New York Times media columnist added: “I think to myself: Hmm, whether it was true or not, it was executed with a great deal of vigor, in a way I probably do not do any more.”

Carr made his observations just as I was sending questions to Nolan for this Q-and-A. I called the Timesman and asked him to elaborate on what he told the Toronto paper.

Hamilton Nolan

He had mostly praise for Nolan.

“He has a style that’s built on anti-style, and I find it very compelling to read,” said Carr. “I very much admire what he does until he does it to someone I like, and then I don’t like it much.

“I think Bill Keller is a great editor, and Hamilton does not agree. And he says it over and over.”

Nolan’s a boxer, Carr noted, “and he’s got those heavy hands. I don’t think he’s a boxer that dances around. I think he comes right at you.”

I then asked Nolan, 33, what he thought of Carr’s comments in the Globe and Mail.

“I guess my thought would just be that, I’ve never considered myself the smartest person in the media or the best writer, but I do pride myself on working somewhere where we tell people the truth,” said Nolan, who joined Gawker from PR Week in 2008.

“The thing I like most about Gawker is that we are able to dispense with all of the politesse bullshit that surrounds so much establishment journalism and just speak the truth (as we see it, at least). We’re not required to hem and haw and couch what we want to say in euphemisms. If something is bullshit, we can say “this is bullshit.

“I think that this is ultimately Gawker’s most important role in the media. Amid all the funny things and time-wasting things and ridiculous things we publish, we tell the truth, in far more direct way than readers can find in most other places. And I sincerely believe this is noble, even if we sometimes surround it in a bunch of cat videos. One of the old proposed but not adopted slogans for the site was, “Honesty is our only virtue.” I like that.

More from the email Q-and-A:

You’re the longest-tenured Gawker writer? How did that happen? Who’s next on the list?
Not the longest Gawker Media employee, but I believe longest tenured writer ever for Gawker, as far as I know. I was hired same time as Richard Lawson and Ryan Tate, who have both moved on now. Not sure who is second longest, although people like AJ Daulerio and Jessica Coen have a long time at the company, but split between different sites.

I’m pretty happy here. It’s a good job in that it offers you both freedom as a writer, and a big audience. At most places you only get one or the other. Also, I can work from home sometimes. And there’s free coffee. And I never have to wear slacks and shit. It’s a nice lifestyle.

Nick Denton

Tell us something about Nick Denton that’s never been reported.
When I first started, Nick was the editor of Gawker and we all used to work out of his apartment every Monday. We did that for months. Every Monday. Earlier this year I was talking to him and I brought it up and he said, “You used to work out of my apartment? I don’t remember that.”

So the best strategy around here is just to remain invisible.

You grew up in St. Augustine, Fla., then went to Howard University for 3 years. Why there? What was that like?
I went to Howard because I was really into hip hop, and Howard is basically hip hop university. Liked it very much. It’s a unique opportunity for a white person in America to be a minority for a while. Three years at Howard, took a year off, eventually finished school back in St. Augustine at Flagler College.

When did you decide to become a journalist?
I never really consciously decided, it just turned out that writing was really my only marketable skill. I wrote for a comedy magazine that Chris Rock started at Howard while I was there. At Flagler I started writing for Folio Weekly, the alt-weekly in Jacksonville, where the editor, Anne Schindler, basically gave me my break into journalism (thanks Anne!). After I graduated I was a staff writer for Folio for… less than a year I think, then moved to NYC just because I always wanted to. When I got here I got the job at PR Week, via a job ad on Mediabistro.

PRW was a trade magazine and not my dream job obviously, but it was educational. Learned to write fast, clean, newsy, for specific word counts, on deadline. Learned a whole lot about the PR industry, which often acts as the unseen half of the media industry. Although I find the PR industry distasteful in a lot of ways, the real scandal is the extent to which they are intertwined with (and have a powerful effect on) journalism, which is something that is ultimately the responsibility of the media itself, not the PR industry. Flacks are doing their jobs, for better or worse./CONTINUES

I assume this is your 2001 letter to the Florida Times-Union. Were you a letters-to-the-editor writer as a kid?
Haha. yes. My family is very politically minded on both sides, so I guess I grew up always being encouraged to share my opinions.

How did you go from PR Week to Gawker?
I had written a profile for PRW of Maggie Shnayerson, who was the Village Voice’s PR person. She went on to work at Gawker. When Choire [Sicha] and Emily [Gould] et al. left Gawker in 07, they advertised looking for people, and I sent in my stuff, and then Maggie told Nick Denton to take a look at me. So I went in and talked to him and gave him all my long clips, and he said “I don’t want to read that.” And he told me to go home and make a blog and do sample posts on it. Which I did for a few days, until it met his mysterious standards, and he hired me. I was very happy to be at Gawker, which has a sensibility that suits me much better than a trade magazine, where you can’t tell anybody to fuck off.

I realized very early on that you can be friends with everyone or you can say what you actually think about everyone, but you can’t do both. If you want the privilege of saying exactly what you think about media people, you have to accept that you might not be that popular with media people. But I feel like I’m OBLIGED to speak the unvarnished (and sometimes mean) truth as best I can, because our role here is to say that stuff for all the people out there who aren’t in a position to say it, but wish they could.

Any posts that you’ve regretted — ones that were off-mark or went too far?
Hmm. I’m sure that if I were to go back through all my posts I’d find some I wished I could do over. Generally they would probably be instances of me being too harsh on people who aren’t really equipped to handle it or deserving of a high level of scrutiny, like college kids or very young/ low-level media people. I try to remember to keep a measured tone and a gracious heart, but I often fail. That said, I do not regret saying harsh things that were, in my estimation, true, about people who deserve the scrutiny.

Have you heard from Chet Haze? [He’s a rapper, a Northwestern U. student, Tom Hanks’ son, and a frequent Nolan target.]

Chet Haze (real name: Chester Hanks)

-Haha– I emailed a little with Chet to try to get him to hang out with us when he was in NYC, but he’s pretty reticent, for good reasons. Still an open invitation. I have had some angry conversations with Ronn [sic] Torossian. And too many angry emails from people to count. But nobody has punched me in the face yet. I think a lot of media people decided a long time ago that a strategy of non-engagement was the way to go when it comes to Gawker. The truth is we are very receptive to letters to the editor and things like that.

Around the time AJ Daulerio became editor, your end-of-the-day media round-ups ended and you started doing more rants and reporting. His idea? Mutual decision?
Yeah, the media round ups basically took a lot of time for very little reward in terms of readership. I personally like the media beat, but it’s a niche beat, and people in the media often wildly overestimate the general public’s appetite for that sort of inside baseball news. I’m glad to have the freedom to write more widely now. I like journalism stories that are amusing or are very systemic/ macroeconomic, but media news on the level of “blah blah is the new editor at Conde Nast’s blah blah” is pretty boring even to me, honestly.

[I noticed a few days ago that Milwaukee Magazine media and labor reporter Erik Gunn tweeted Nolan’s “Strikes Work” piece. Gunn tells me: “I thought his contrarian take on strikes was provocative, and as an old labor reporter was glad to see someone not just falling in with the conventional wisdom on the subject.”]

Tell me about your interest in boxing and writing about the sport.
I’d always liked watching boxing but I started boxing around four years ago, and then I started writing about it. I wrote my first boxing stuff for The Awl, and then (and still) a lot of pieces for Deadspin, and started covering some fights for HBO maybe a year or so ago. (The Awl and Deadspin pieces are actually more interesting to read I think, because they’re longer and not done on deadline and a little more free form. The HBO stuff tends to be a bit more newsy.)

You’re a vegetarian? Don’t drink?
I’ve been sober ten years. I became a vegetarian in 2000 when I was a philosophy major at Howard and I read too much Peter Singer on animal rights and felt like I had to stop eating meat out of guilt. I advise anyone who really likes meat not to read Peter Singer.

Care to discuss your pay?
To Nick Denton’s credit, the pay here is very competitive, despite the fact that some people still consider “underpaid bloggers slaving away for pennies in their mom’s basement” jokes to be the pinnacle of argument-enders.

Which should not be interpreted by the bosses to mean that I don’t deserve a HEFTY RAISE.

Was there one friend’s story — or something you read — that prompted you to say: we should be publishing stories from unemployed people?
I’ve done similar types of posts in the past with employees of specific companies like Target and Wal-Mart, and they worked out well. And at a certain point, after almost three years of writing about this recession, it occurred to me that there are a lot of unemployed people out there with their own stories and that this type of thing might work for them as well. The idea is just to give a platform to people who might not otherwise have a chance to be heard.

There’s been a lot of great journalism done in the past year about inequality and unemployment in America and all of that is inspiring, in the sense that it makes me realize that I can use this site for something better than just hearing the sound of my own voice all the time.

“We’ve been flooded with responses,” you wrote in Vol. 1. How many have come in since the feature was launched in July? Any one of them stand out among the others to you as a real heartbreaker?
I think I’ve gotten around 300 or more so far. We only run a half dozen a week so there’s quite a few still in the can. I’m trying to get through them more or less in the order received, and running the most interesting/ compelling/ honest/ well written ones.

There have been many heartbreakers but I believe that the one we just ran from the man living in the shed has elicited more reader emails than any other.

I see you just posted Volume 9. Any idea how many more are coming?
No idea but I’m happy to keep it going as a weekly feature as long as we keep getting interesting stories and as long as the bosses don’t get tired of it. The feedback is always very good and I think it’s a positive thing.

What’s the ideal next step for you? What do you see yourself doing when you’re 50?
I started in journalism writing longer, magazine-type stories, and I’d probably like to move towards that more– although AJ [Daulerio] as editor has really been encouraging me to do that here, and has sent me out on several bigger stories, so I can’t say that it’s something I would necessarily have to switch jobs for. I have a couple book ideas but I always figured I would just do that after I got fired here. We’ll see. I have no idea what I’ll be doing when I’m 50. I hope to be financially solvent and not have a creaky old back.

This interview has been condensed and edited. Disclosure: I’ve linked to Nolan’s work going back to his PR Weekly days and he’s linked to me for years, but I knew little about him until I did research for this piece.