Matt Cherette is 25 and lives in Grand Haven, Michigan, about fifteen minutes from his parents’ house. He traveled to New York in the second week of February and while he was here, he signed the paperwork for a job at Gawker.TV. He would be their night coordinator. This was an opportunity to actually get paid for the sort of diligent content repurposing that he’s been doing for free, for years, on the LiveJournal-hosted gossip community Oh No They Didn’t.
While he was in New York, he came to a party thrown by his new boss, Richard Blakeley, at Destination Bar, on Avenue A. The Tennessee-Vanderbilt game was on the TV at the bar, but no one was watching. Matt showed up at the high point of the party’s somewhat limited activity.
“He’s my date tonight,” said Rachel Sklar, the editor-at-large for Mediaite.com. The two first met over Tumblr and Twitter and now they had a get-together planned at Mediaite’s offices for later in that week. She had convinced Matt to come to the city, even sending him links to flights. “Matt is great. Matt is a juggernaut,” she said.
She said that Matt is best known for his freelance coverage of the “late night wars” on Gawker.TV, meaning the period when Conan O’Brien and Jay Leno and their various representatives were struggling over “The Tonight Show” on NBC. “I was doing the same thing at the same time, the same late night shows,” she said, “and no matter how you slice it, it’s a ton of work. It has to be done first and done well. He just nailed it.”
Matt nightly placed clips from these shows, with commentary, on the clip aggregation site. (Gawker.TV, a subdomain of Gawker, began in November 2009.) He accumulated more than 2.5 million pageviews for his posts in the month of January.
Matt’s voice is flat and acerbic, tinged with a Midwestern accent. “You haven’t known me long enough to like me,” he said to Sklar.
“This is the first time we’ve met IRL,” she said.
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Matt is trying to figure out a way to get to New York permanently. “As soon as possible, really,” he said. “It’s hard because I don’t have a full time job in New York, and until I get one, I’m at the point where it’s, like, do I try to secure something and move? Or do I go, and figure it out?” He’s set for himself the deadline of April 1, though he’s not sure what he’ll have lined up by then. “I want to do enough planning so I’m not a chicken with my head cut off,” he said.
Matt got started in the world of internet gossip as the poster and commenter mattchew03 on Oh No They Didn’t, a site that gets, Matt figures, around a million pageviews a day, and which is known for its vocal, active and usually witty commenter base. He came to ONTD in 2005, through Dlisted, a site whose proprietor, “Michael K,” is now a friend. (Matt seems to make friends easily, whether online, like FourFour’s Rich Juzwiak, or in person, like screenwriter Dustin Lance Black; Matt met him in Michigan when Black was scouting locations for his next film.) In summer 2007, he became an ONTD contributor.
“I liked Us Weekly when I was in high school,” he said, “sometimes if I was in an airport.” His favorite celebrities include “Gaga, of course,” Ina Garten, Tom Hanks, Larry King, Julia Roberts and Don Rickles. His day job doesn’t force him to use this enthusiasm. He is a research analyst at his father’s real estate development company. Recently, he was responsible for overseeing the opening and initial growth of a coffeeshop at a nearby university, including menu design and marketing. He’s close to his parents and he eats lunch at their house most days and dogsits for them. “My dad doesn’t really know anything about ONTD,” Matt said. “He knows more because he’ll read Gawker, and stuff like that. You know how old people are. Well, they’re not old old.”
“If I have time-I don’t know how much I should say,” he says, when asked how he manages to have an active internet presence while working in an office daily. “I do have time, even if it’s a minute here or five minutes there. I’m on my Twitter a lot, and Tumblr a lot.” Approving items submitted to the ONTD queue doesn’t take too much time, and he hasn’t been contributing as much to the site recently in the face of his responsibilities for Gawker. A recent delay in his scheduled “Best of 2009” post prompted tension between him and another moderator.
ONTD runs as a LiveJournal “community”; a select group of members submit posts, either cited from other news sources or (rarely) original. One example of an original post was the scandal that ONTD dubbed “Spearminated ’07.” Matt, manually changing the URLs on the OK! site to look at future covers, found that the next cover would be Jamie Lynn Spears admitting her pregnancy. He said that after they published, Perez Hilton then reprinted his scoop without attribution, and the two still have a glancing-and seemingly tense-email relationship. “I guess I see where he’s coming from because he wants to act like everything on his site is something he found,” said Matt, “but that’s not the case on any site. That’s why there’s sourcing and attribution.”
“I will admit most of the stories on ONTD are from other places. Like, 99%,” said Liz Carter, an ONTD moderator who goes by ecctv. “It started as a catch-all for celebrity news so people wouldn’t have to go to this website, then this website-they can just put ONTD on their friends page on LiveJournal and get updated as things happen. ONTD moderators and maintainers don’t get paid, so it isn’t really a job where we might get access to things like someone from a big domain-name entertainment site might get.” Carter is a student and elementary school volunteer in Kansas, and recently, on a trip to New York, she met another ONTD moderator, who is an employee of the Fifth Avenue Apple Store and Jill Zarin’s personal assistant. This fellow had been asked recently to appear on reality TV as well, but chose not to.
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“It’s always been sort of happenstance. When I want something, I just go and do it. Usually, I do it well,” Matt said. His first real exposure online under his real name, not as mattchew03, came as the proprietor of a fake “Dina Lohan” Twitter, which he still sporadically updates. “I thought it was a good time,” he said, of his fictional construction of the celebrity mother. “I paid attention to what I was doing. I won’t update from my phone because she only updates from her computer. I would start with a lowercase letter and then put on caps for then letters-then she’d realize caps was on and turn it off,” he said.
Gawker wrote an item about this. Matt was embarrassed. So he posted a message on his LiveJournal: “Due to some recent events, I’ve decided to change viewing access of many of my entries from â€˜Public’ to â€˜Friends Only.’ I assume everyone knows what that means.”
His LiveJournal was not overly personal. Neither is his current Tumblr. “I was never the type to be like, I had a horrible day, this is who I hung out with, I hate my parents because this,” he said. “It wasn’t about my privacy as much as other people’s privacy. I had pictures of my family. Personal can be a broad spectrum.”
And now he works there. “Gawker.TV is the happy version of Gawker.com,” Richard Blakeley said. He liked that Matt intuitively understood the commenter-empowering vibe that they hoped to structure the site around. “I like that he basically understands the sense of community. The commenters love him.”
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Matt ended a two-year relationship in August. “It made me a lot less productive,” he said. He had met his ex-boyfriend over LiveJournal. Matt’s ex had relocated from Miami to Michigan in early 2008; their relationship was a trial visit that never ended, until it did. “It was really toxic,” Matt said.
Now Matt works at his day job from around 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. At night he sits down in front of the TV. When he was young and lived at home, his bedtime was 11:50 p.m. “Letterman used to do his Top Ten at the end of his monologue. He switched the Top Ten List to after my bedtime, and so after that happened, I switched and did Leno instead,” Matt said. “Leno does like a twelve-minute monologue; Letterman takes his first commercial earlier. So I got more TV by watching Leno.”
Still, this fondness for Leno does not make his work uncritical of Leno. “Is he a good target? Of course!” Matt said. “Am I going to ignore that? No!” In his work on Gawker.TV, he reappropriated, magpie-like, clips from the shows and then connected the dots into a coherent serial narrative.
In his apartment, but not hung up, is a signed poster of Jay Leno that Matt’s father bought for him at a charity auction, back when Matt was a freshman at George Washington, before he transferred to Michigan. There are also some framed prints purchased at Bed Bath & Beyond, but the largest wall decoration is a photograph, taken from the sky, of Manhattan.
Daniel D’Addario is a senior at Columbia. He is co-editor of the college gossip site IvyGate.