The Web Site Celebrities Fear
LOS ANGELES, June 24 — While the networks tussled over which would land the first interview with Paris Hilton after her release from jail, the upstart Web site TMZ.com was breaking most of the news.
On June 3, TMZ.com was the only media outlet to capture on video Ms. Hilton’s surrender at the Los Angeles central jail for men, while other outlets waited outside the Lynwood women’s jail for her to arrive there. When Ms. Hilton was released early by the Los Angeles County Sheriff, Lee Baca, and when Judge Michael T. Sauer ordered the sheriff to take her back to court, TMZ.com was first to report that Sheriff Baca had initially refused to follow the judge’s order.
TMZ.com has so dominated the coverage on Ms. Hilton that Larry King, who is scheduled to interview her on CNN Wednesday night, will turn over tonight’s one-hour show to TMZ.com’s anchor and managing editor, Harvey Levin, the man who may represent the future of celebrity journalism.
In the past, media coverage of celebrities often hinged on the promotional agenda of studios, publicists and other handlers. Under the direction of Mr. Levin, a former lawyer and investigative reporter, and Jim Paratore, an executive consultant to the site, TMZ.com has quickly gained an audience by posting news articles garnered from documents, unofficial videotapes, exclusive paparazzi shots and other sources like law enforcement officials and courthouse clerks. (The name stands for “thirty mile zone,” referring to the area around Los Angeles populated by celebrities)
“We work as hard at breaking a Britney Spears story as NBC would work on breaking a President Bush piece,” Mr. Levin said.
As a result, TMZ.com has become the celebrity handler’s worst nightmare. The site has had a series of damaging celebrity scoops, including the police report detailing Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic tirade, Michael Richards’s racist rant in a comedy club, an audiotape of the angry phone message Alec Baldwin left for his daughter and a photograph of Anna Nicole Smith’s refrigerator filled with methadone and Slim-Fast.
But TMZ.com’s reach extends well beyond the approximately nine million people who visit the Web site each month. The site has become a reliable source for the mainstream media, which has become less self-conscious about reporting every detail of celebrity missteps, according to Hilary Estey McLoughlin, the president of Telepictures Productions, a division of Warner Brothers, which co-owns the TMZ site with AOL. Both Warner Brothers and AOL are divisions of Time Warner.
“There are times, like with the Paris Hilton story, where we’ve set the agenda for what local news and national news are covering,” Ms. Estey McLoughlin said. “Paris Hilton leads every newscast.”
Last week, for example, TMZ.com posted excerpts of O.J. Simpson’s unpublished book, “If I Did It.” Although it wasn’t the first Web site to have excerpts, TMZ’s involvement helped make the book again a national story.
Mr. Levin likens the influence of TMZ to a wire service. “We’ve become like The Associated Press in the world we cover,” he said.
That influence has also made him a feared figure in Hollywood. One publicist who declined to speak on the record because of fear of retaliation against his clients likened Mr. Levin’s power to that of the 1940s and 1950s gossip columnists like Walter Winchell.
“If you have something you know they will like, you tip them to it,” the publicist said. “It’s kind of the old way you dealt with the old-time gossip columnists. You have to occasionally feed them an item. You have to be in the game with them. If you’re a publicist and the only time you call up is to complain about an item, they’ll laugh at you.”
Even Hollywood criminal lawyers concede that dealing with TMZ has now become part of their legal strategy. Shawn Chapman Holley, who represents Nicole Richie, acknowledges that TMZ’s ability to get information has affected strategic decisions in Ms. Richie’s drunken-driving case.
“When we approach the bench, what we know and when TMZ will know it is a factor discussed with the judge,” said Ms. Holley. “Miss Richie’s case would be set for a particular day and to throw off TMZ.com, I would go in a day before. Unfortunately, TMZ.com figured out my strategy and were there when I arrived. So now I’m trying to figure out some other strategy.”
In some respects, TMZ, which first appeared in December 2005, represented a throwback to earlier journalism, when many reporters relied on documents rather than arranged interviews to break news.
“We had a seminal moment in the first month with the Paris Hilton car crash with her boyfriend,” recalled Mr. Paratore. “She was pulled over by police, and we caught the whole thing on camera, and it got picked up a lot. We could see people were really attracted to content like that.”
Initially, Mr. Levin was wary of creating a celebrity Web site. He had spent more than a decade as an investigative reporter for KCBS-TV in Los Angeles. He had also created and executive-produced the canceled series “Celebrity Justice” and covered many high-profile trials, including the O. J. Simpson case.
But eventually, he found that the 24-hour news cycle appealed to his competitive metabolism. “I started seeing that if you don’t have time periods and publishing cycles, you can publish on demand and beat everybody,” said Mr. Levin.
TMZ.com has been ranked the No. 1 Hollywood news site for nine months against well-known brands like Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com, People.com and E! Online. Time Warner does not break out revenue figures for TMZ.com, but the site is profitable, according to people familiar with the numbers who did not want to be identified because they are not authorized to speak about the site’s finances. Beginning in July, TMZ’s 25 staff members will work out of offices in West Hollywood and one reporter will continue to work from New York.
The Web site’s success has drawn criticism not only from the stars it covers, but also from competitors who claim the Web site pays for articles. Mr. Levin argues that the site has never paid for a story, although it does pay for videotapes and photographs.
“We have a budget for that,” said Mr. Paratore. “But the budget is nowhere near the numbers being thrown around for the Paris Hilton interview.”
Along with turning celebrity stories into dramas that unfold in real time, TMZ has also contributed to the different tone of much entertainment coverage.
“Five years ago there was so much reverence in the discussion,” said Janice Min, editor-in-chief of Us Weekly. “I’ve seen a shift in the tone. It’s now equal parts reverence and contempt, and TMZ has been able to capitalize on that contemptuous feeling. TMZ pokes fun at celebrity — sometimes gentle, sometimes quite harsh — and to millions of people, that’s more engaging than reading a canned interview.”
Ms. Min said that she often checks the site and competes with it to break news. “But it’s great to have them out there,” she said. “It’s like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet where you never get full.”
Inevitably, however, TMZ comes to rely on a symbiosis with the people it covers.
“We supply them with news all the time because it goes around the world in 12 seconds,” said Stan Rosenfield, George Clooney’s publicist. “There’s a pragmatism that takes hold, because people read it.”
Howard Bragman, a publicist who owns the firm Fifteen Minutes, which represents Ricki Lake, Leeza Gibbons and Isaiah Washington, has also found some benefits to dealing with TMZ.
“Compared to many of the other outlets, they’re 1,000 percent better. If you have a good relationship with them, they’ll change an occasional word or swap an occasional picture, but that’s just for friends of the family,” he said. “And since it goes around the world in seconds, you can leak something to them without fingerprints and it looks like somebody else did it. I’ve certainly done that.”
Given that TMZ is a part of Time Warner, it would seem that the site’s interest in exposing celebrities’ bad behavior might conflict with the overall interest of the parent company that employs some of those same stars.
Mr. Paratore counters that the site’s relationship to Time Warner and questions that might arise from that relationship were dealt with before TMZ’s introduction.
“Everybody understands what it means to be in this business,” he said. “There have always been stories in Time magazine, People and Entertainment Weekly that have not always been flattering to other divisions within the company, and everybody understands that you can’t control it and they don’t try.”
Indeed, in some ways, TMZ is one of the few remnants of the AOL-Time Warner merger that has resulted in some cross-platform success. There are rumors that TMZ is going to open a bureau in Washington, but Mr. Levin dismisses those reports. He is too busy working on the new TMZ syndicated daily television show set to begin on Sept. 10.