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How TMZ is changing the business of celebrity gossip

Of all the gossip sites, TMZ goes beyond many of the tabloids by offering documentary-based celebrity news, where claims are backed up by evidence like court documents and raw cellphone footage. The New Yorker's Nicholas Schmidle sits down with Jeffrey Brown to discuss what he learned about TMZ in investigating his recent feature, "The Digital Dirt."

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now a look at how the popular media and gossip site TMZ works, and how it's changing that business.

    The site is often the leading destination of celebrity news and even notable national scandal. TMZ obtained the video of football running back Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancee unconscious in a casino elevator.

    Before that, it released recordings of racist remarks made by Donald Sterling, who was, at the time, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers.

    "The New Yorker" magazine published an investigation of TMZ.

    And Jeffrey Brown spoke with the writer, Nicholas Schmidle, earlier this week.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Nicholas Schmidle, welcome to you.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE, The New Yorker:

    Thanks.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    First, how do you describe what TMZ is and does?

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Sure.

    So, TMZ is a celebrity news site. It is kind of — it's in the same vein as The National Enquirer. But what they are doing is much more sort of documentary-based celebrity news reporting, and in a way…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Documentary, meaning what?

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Meaning posting Videos, posting pictures, posting court documents, doing stories about celebrity news and celebrity gossip that are sort of unimpeachable.

    In the past, a celebrity news report might have come out, and a celebrity might have been able to say, no, that's not true and dismissed it and had publicists sort of stand in the way.

    TMZ goes to you with the video and says, this is what we're running in a few hours. Do you have a comment?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, what you're also showing, I mean, on one hand, as you say, nothing new in this kind of gossip and celebrity journalism, but they have changed the game, upped the game, a lot of it, as you have shown, through some old-fashioned reporting.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Right.

    So, there is. There is a shoe-leather reporting aspect to it. They have more — they have dedicated more resources to court reporting. They have three full-time court reporters at the Los Angeles courthouse. The Los Angeles Times has one.

    They are working — I mean, their reporters work very, very hard. The difference is, is that there is not a lot of enterprise reporting going on. They're not identifying a story they want to going after and pursuing it. Most of what they're getting is coming in through tips. It's very clear at the top of the TMZ Web site how to get stories in. There is a tip line. There's an e-mail and…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, and hundreds come in any given day.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Exactly.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Now, of course, the other big difference is that they pay, right?

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    They do.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Sometimes large amounts, sometimes smaller amounts, but that's always a possibility for their stories.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Absolutely.

    There is a lot of money changing hands. Over the — $40, $50 over the course of the day as photographers are paying sources in the airport, or paying sources at hotels, restaurants, and then bigger payments for the more — you know, for the more desired videos.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Harvey Levin, the founder of TMZ, didn't talk to you, right, for your…

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Correct.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But when he has talked about this, he sounds unapologetic about the…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Fully. He says — the video is the video, is what he says. And if we paid money for the video, so be it.

    Paying for information is a condemned practice in journalism, because the notion is that you are influencing the source — you're influencing why sources are giving you certain information if they know they're being paid for it.

    So he's saying that we don't actually pay for information. We pay for product. We pay for — you know, we're licensing product, and that's what we're paying for.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You know, if they were just doing celebrity journalism, I don't think you would write about them. I don't think we would be talking about them.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Absolutely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    We're talking about them because they have done some consequential stories, right, that have had some impact, whether it's Ray Rice, in the case of the NFL story about a bank getting a bailout that has — that then spent a lot of money on a party.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Right.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Somehow, they have crossed over into having some kind of impact.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Right. Donald Sterling, the former Los Angeles Clippers owner, who…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    And that was — this — the idea for the story was conceived in the aftermath of the second Ray Rice video that TMZ posted in which it showed him knocking out his then fiancee.

    TMZ was punching — no pun intended, but sort of punching above its weight and publishing some — posting some very consequential stories, and…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    So that the NFL in that case had to pay attention.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    And doing it and finding video in ways that other media organizations weren't.

    And so — and that, I think, was the reason that we took this project on. What is TMZ? How do they do what they do? And, you know, I was just fascinated trying to sort of figure out how the operation works.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And how much do you think this has changed the way that celebrity journalism works?

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    I think that it's changed the way that celebrities respond to the journalism that's being done about them.

    I mean, I think that — I think that there is a sense of — the sense of immunity that you, if you are a celebrity, you can sort of ensconce yourself in publicists and managers and be able to kind of navigate your way around, and lawyers, and navigate your way through crises.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And that's one thing Harvey Levin was acting against, right?

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Absolutely.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The kind of bubble of control, he didn't like that.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Absolutely.

    And so it's impossible to do that. If TMZ has court documents or if they have video footage or audio recordings of you speaking to your mistress and making sort of racist comments about spectators at your basketball games, it's just — you can't avoid it. You can't sidestep it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And the larger question is how much, if at all, has it impacted more traditional journalism? In other words, how much has their success and the tactics that they use had a larger influence?

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Yes. No, that's a great question.

    I think that — look, people go to TMZ because they want to see. They don't want to hear about three sources in a hotel who say, we saw Ray Rice step into the elevator. We don't know what happened next, but we saw him drag his wife out. They don't want to read that.

    They want to watch the video. And so I think that — you know, you're right. It's a good point that what readers want to see is the sort of — they want to see documents. They want to see sort of the raw footage. And I think that there probably is a drift towards that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Let me ask you, finally, did you come away wary or mortified or impressed? What was your own feeling, having looked into it?

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Yes.

    I mean, I came away thinking a note of admiration for the way that they have wired Los Angeles. Now, if there was no money changing hands and they had people at Delta and at these limo companies and all these various places giving information, and their beat…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Because they do, right? Yes. Yes.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    And TMZ's — if TMZ's beat was to cover celebrity news, and they had all this information coming in, I would — there is no way that you couldn't not tip your hat.

    The fact that there is money changing hands does sort of bring about a cloud of controversy about how they're doing it. But you have to hand it to them. They — what they do, they do very well.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, the article is "The Digital Dirt."

    Nicholas Schmidle, thanks so much.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    Thanks for having me on.

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