nick denton ignitionSelf-described “gossip merchant” Nick Denton isn’t as pessimistic about the future of old-school journalism as you might think.

Denton is famous for pioneering the model of paying reporters for pageviews at his Gawker Media network of sites, essentially encouraging writers to be sensationalistic. That practice has become more widespread, as publications start to wonder about the value of articles that people don’t want to read. (We’ve incorporated elements of the system at VentureBeat, although I’ll probably get yelled at if I share the details.)

Today at Business Insider’s Ignition conference, Denton admitted he has struggled with the ramifications of prioritizing popularity over everything else. (Earlier this year, he said, “I’ve created this monster.“) He said one of his favorite writers at gadget blog Gizmodo is Joel Johnson, but Johnson consistently underperformed the site’s other writers. Denton changed his measurements, looking at new visitors rather than pageviews, but even that didn’t help. Yet in the last month Johnson has become the most popular writer at Gizmodo, thanks to big scoops like the leaked scans from the Transportation Security Administration. Denton offered that as evidence that real reporting is starting to pay off again.

“I pretend not to care not to care about journalism, but I sort of do,” he said. “It’s no longer enough just to throw out the rehashes.”

So there will continue to be an audience for quality journalism in technology and entertainment and other high-profile industries, Denton said. He acknowledged there’s a bigger challenge in making the business side work in other areas, such as foreign affairs or local investigative journalism.

Still, even though Gawker became successful by branding itself as the place you go for “naughty” and “wicked” content, Denton argued that there’s room for more serious models. The catch is that the free, ad-driven system that dominates the Internet may not work for those publications. They’ll probably have to investigate subscriptions or other paid content models.

As for how things are working out for Gawker, it’s focusing on big stories with the upcoming design. The company is making more than $20 million a year in revenue, Denton said. He added that he doesn’t think there’s much point in looking too far ahead, but when asked if Gawker could eventually make $100 million a year, he said yes.

[photo by Owen Thomas]