The scoop on the scoop

Online outlets are making over realm of celebrity gossip

August 01, 2006|By ABIGAIL TUCKER AND DAN THANH DANG | ABIGAIL TUCKER AND DAN THANH DANG,SUN REPORTERS

Already this year, a cameraman for TMZ.com was allegedly throttled by a disgruntled Woody Harrelson, and Paris Hilton gave the celebrity gossip Web site a weepy - and exclusive - interview about how its content hurt her feelings.

Now another luminary may have a bone to pick with the Web site: On Friday, Mel Gibson's arrest on suspicion of drunken driving and his subsequent anti-Semitic tirade were reported there. The story has since mushroomed online and in print, and there is speculation that the Walt Disney Co. will drop distribution of Gibson's new movie, Apocalypto, because of it.

But stars - and the print publications that cover them - are going to have to get used to TMZ.com and its cousins, which are making over the realm of celebrity gossip. These online outlets, some of them with major corporate funding, maintain deep contacts in the entertainment industry, stake out nightclubs and post news at breakneck speed. The reaction in the gossip trades to the Gibson story recalls the disbelief of political reporters in the late 1990s when Matt Drudge's Web site broke ground on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. The online revolution is reconfiguring all brands of journalism.

In recent months, Web sites such as TheSmokingGun.com and PerezHilton.com have scooped the glossy magazines like Us Weekly and In Style on stories ranging from 'N Sync singer Lance Bass' secret life as a gay man to Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's romantic sojourns to Africa.

"We don't have time periods like television stations," says Harvey Levin, TMZ.com's managing editor, who broke the Gibson story. "We don't have publishing cycles. When we get a story right, we get a story up, and that's why we're able to win a lot."

The Gibson saga began early Friday, when the actor-director was arrested after allegedly speeding in his 2006 Lexus in Malibu, Calif., and registering a blood alcohol level above the legal limit. That evening, TMZ.com had the scoop, thanks to a tip to a staffer, a spokeswoman said.

Follow-up stories, including allegations of anti-Jewish comments that Gibson made to the arresting officer and previous drunken driving incidents, quickly followed on the site.

"They have access to something that the print world does not, which is immediacy," says Ray Richmond, an entertainment and media columnist for The Hollywood Reporter. "That TMZ.com, which no one ever heard of six months ago, can become this player on this huge story, means that a new frontier has been reached."

Actually, TMZ.com has been around for a little longer than six months.

"Since November," Levin says.

The site bills itself as a "24/7 on-demand entertainment news network" and incorporates a combination of video clips, photographs, investigative stories and blogs. The name stands for Thirty Mile Zone, a nickname for California's entertainment locus.

TMZ.com is owned by AOL and Warner Bros. and has a staff of about 25; unlike many pop culture sites that rehash existing news stories, it prides itself on original reporting and flags scoops with an "exclusive" logo. It was the first group to obtain a copy of the birth certificate of Suri Cruise, the daughter of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. It revealed Beyonce's confrontation with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals at a posh New York City restaurant and first showed footage of Paris Hilton's friend cursing out the heiress's rival, Lindsay Lohan.

A half-century ago, celebrity gossip columnists such as Walter Winchell and Hedda Hopper were among an anointed few with the insight, access - and occasionally, the payoffs - to include or exclude choice bits from the scandal sheets. But now almost anyone can be a celebrity journalist: Gawker.com solicits readers to post celebrity sightings.

When Levin - a former CBS and NBC television reporter who produced the show Celebrity Justice - was approached to develop the fledgling TMZ.com, he initially refused.

"I'm a TV guy," he says. "Bull-headed. But I started thinking, `Wait a minute, we could marry video and text and photos. This could be great.'"

Others immediately sensed the online gossip field was for them. Perez Hilton says that reporting for his namesake site plays to his precise combination of skills, which include experience as a tabloid reporter and publicist. He broke the news when Pitt and Jolie, not then a couple, took a trip to Africa together. He also coined the now-ubiquitous Brangelina. And long before the newly out-of-the-closet Bass graced a recent cover of People, Hilton had the inside track.

"I've been talking about it since last summer," says the 28-year-old, who began his site two years ago.

Like TMZ.com, Hilton's site thrives on homegrown reporting, and milks contacts and friends in the entertainment industry. But he's a solo operator who still works from a West Hollywood cafe, where he gets Internet access.

"I call myself a gossip gangsta," Hilton says. "My stories get picked up in the mainstream. I break stories on a daily basis."

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