The deal brings some of the most iconic media brands on the internet under the control of Great Hill, a Boston-based growth firm that generally targets companies worth $500 million or less. Gizmodo Media is a descendant of the original Gawker Media, and it now controls most of the old Gawker network, including its flagship Gizmodo tech site, the Deadspin sports blog, Jezebel's coverage of women's issues, and other brands like Jalopnik, Lifehacker and The Root. Then there's The Onion, a pioneering source of satire that also owns the ClickHole humor site and The AV Club, a longtime purveyor of pop culture coverage.
Univision purchased the former Gawker assets in 2016, shortly after Gawker shut down in the wake of a $140 million verdict against the media company in a high-profile lawsuit brought by former professional wrestler Hulk Hogan and funded by Silicon Valley icon Peter Thiel. Hogan settled the suit months later for $31 million. Last July, meanwhile, Bustle Digital Group acquired the Gawker name and the media gossip site's remaining non-Gizmodo assets out of bankruptcy for a reported $1.35 million, with plans to relaunch the brand.
Univision first bought into The Onion in a separate 2016 deal, reportedly purchasing a 40% stake valued at less than $200 million. Great Hill plans to combine Gizmodo Media and The Onion into a new business called G/O Media.
Partnering with the firm on its acquisition is Jim Spanfeller, a co-investor who will also be the new leader of G/O Media. Spanfeller is a digital media veteran, but his background doesn't otherwise appear to be an obvious fit with the snarky, cynical, take-no-prisoners approach that has historically defined sites like Deadspin, Jezebel and The Onion. A former publisher of Inc. Magazine and CEO of Forbes.com, he most recently founded and held the title of CEO at Spanfeller Media, an operator of food and lifestyle websites called The Daily Meal and The Active Times that are powered in part by native advertising.
Great Hill is an experienced investor in the media space, but at first glance, the Gizmodo and Onion brands stand out among the firm's past portfolio. Other Great Hill investments in the sector include Legacy.com, which offers "obituary-related products and services" to newspapers and funeral homes, as well as All Web Leads, a provider of insurance marketing services. Perhaps the most analogous investment to Gizmodo and The Onion is Great Hill's 2010 purchase of Ziff Davis, a digital media brand focused on driving sales to outside vendors, which it later sold in 2012; Ziff Davis is today the owner of a network of sites that includes Mashable, IGN and PCMag.com.
With the histories of Spanfeller and Great Hill in mind, it's possible that what interests them most about Gizmodo and The Onion isn't the years of critical acclaim or the staffs full of talented writers. Maybe it's Kinja, the ecommerce arm of Gizmodo Media, which operates a website populated mainly with sponsored posts advertising sales and other deals on a wide array of products from Amazon and other corners of the internet. Cross-posts from Kinja represent some of the primary advertising on the rest of the Gizmodo sites.
In many of their media dealings, Spanfeller and Great Hill seem more concerned with immediately monetizing their readership than with developing a long-term relationship based on quality writing and unique editorial viewpoints. If that's their aim with Gizmodo and The Onion, it could work out well for their LPs, but it would be an unfortunate turn of events for readers.
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Related read: Sports writing now worth $200M at The Athletic