BetterKnowAnSFBlog: Valleywag Dogs Silicon Valley

owenthomas_valleywag_benjaminticesmith.jpg
Photo of Valleywag's Owen Thomas courtesy of Benjamin Tice Smith

Story by Ty Callister

Valleywag, the self-proclaimed “gossip rag” of Silicon Valley, has covered such tabloid-esque news as Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s love affair with former Google PR rep Marcy Simon. And they don’t just hassle the big shots — if you work in Silicon Valley you might have been in Valleywag’s 2006 geek beauty contest called “Snacky or Flacky”.

So does this put Valleywag on par with trashy tabloid news?

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Valleywag editor Owen Thomas said in an interview via AOL Instant Messenger.

Although his response was not accompanied by a winking emoticon, I guessed he was probably at least half-joking, and I replied to it with a simple “haha.” But then Thomas got serious. (Or, at least as serious you can be on IM.)

“Look, it's easy to get into abstract conversations about what gossip is, and so-called ‘tabloid journalism,’” he said. “My friend Paul Boutin, who writes for Slate and the Wall Street Journal, says he hates the term ‘journalist,’ because it implies one keeps a journal. I like the term ‘reporting.’ So what we do at Valleywag is report.”

And, according to Thomas, if that reporting occasionally involves something that smacks of Entertainment Tonight, it will be relevant to the broader business picture of Silicon Valley. For example, in an article covering the CEO of Google’s love life and divorce from his wife, Thomas writes that, “A divorce would put part of Schmidt's multibillion-dollar Google stake on the market, potentially depressing the share price.”

Valleywag’s reputation for water cooler talk has attracted many readers from within Silicon Valley itself. But would any of them admit it?

“Publicly? Hardly,” Thomas said. “Privately? If you press them, they'll admit to reading it.”

So Valleywag seems to be a guilty pleasure of people within Silicon Valley, helping to contribute to its more than 800,000 visits this month (source: Sitemeter). In fact, Valleywag receives many of its exclusive tips from Silicon Valley workers themselves.

“We're quite lucky to have tipsters who are very plugged in,” Thomas said.

While beauty contests and snarky commentary may be part of Valleywag’s reputation, the blog’s description of itself as a “gossip rag” may be misleading. Thomas defines gossip as, “simply what people are talking about.” And what Valleywag talks about is often not just talk, but serious business issues that effect the Bay Area and the tech world in general. For example, Valleywag has been covering the unfolding drama of AOL’s layoff of 2,000 employees. Thomas said that AOL employees have told him that they are learning the details of the layoffs “more clearly from Valleywag than from their own management.”

And Thomas is no stranger to the shifting tides of business, having been a writer and editor at Business 2.0 for seven years. Nick Denton, founder of blog titan Gawker Media, personally approached Thomas about taking over Valleywag, and Thomas has found it to be the perfect job, working from his home in Lower Telegraph Hill.

“I really can't imagine working anywhere else,” he said. “I think what drew me to it, and draws readers to it now, is our fearless reporting and our sense of fun. It's easy for people here, working long hours on ever-shifting missions to remake the world, to get a bit over serious and lose perspective. And I'd hope our writing and reporting might restore a bit of that.”


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