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A few months ago, Richard Johnson, the 56-year-old long-time editor of Page Six, walks into the office of his boss, New York Post editor-in-chief Col Allan. The venerable Johnson has recently agreed to stay on at the famous (and infamous) gossip column into 2012, adding to his two-plus decades of collective service at the paper. But just a few months into his latest contract, a new opportunity calls. The Hollywood Reporter has offered Johnson a lucrative package, worth in the ballpark of $1 million for his first year alone. That's in addition to a change of scenery after a lifetime in Manhattan, better weather aside.
Johnson's ready to accept the offer, but first needs to be released from his News Corp. contract; the Reporter's new owner, Jimmy Finkelstein, is not interested in a legal battle. Johnson tells the notoriously brutish Allan that the column is in good shape, and that Emily Smith—Johnson's plucky British deputy since summer 2009—is ready to take over. Allan replies, in his Australian baritone, that he'll think about it.
A couple of weeks go by, no word from Allan. Finally, Johnson confronts his boss over the radio silence, expecting an answer, a bureaucratic hold-up, something. After all, if any one person is associated with the once fear-inspiring power—and everlasting brand recognition—of Page Six, it's Johnson. He has earned understanding.
Allan barely looks up: Go back to your desk, mate, he tells him. And you know what? Johnson does. The most powerful gossip in New York returns to his purgatory.
In the history of contemporary gossip, New York City's reputation for having the sharpest, most steely-nerved power players breaking news nobody else would—or could—touch was unprecedented. Music, film, and sports' biggest boldface names shared column space with Forbes 500 moguls and politicians, all of whom feared and respected the reporters whose sources and collective wealth of otherwise off-limits information knew no limits.
Snicker at gossip pages (while you avidly read them yourselves), if you want. But don't kid yourself that it's all lighter-than-air stuff.
"The thing about gossip is, if you know it, you're in the know, and most people want to sit next to you," says Paula Froelich, the fiery, 10-year veteran of Page Six and deputy to Johnson who left last summer. "For the people who stick their nose up at it, I laugh my ass off. Complete governments have changed because of gossip. Everyone wants to sit next to someone who knows something."
Maybe it's a rationalization for the deep pleasure of zinging self-important and powerful people and grabbing readers, but one of the aims of New York's gossip reporters is simple and sounds even noble: to keep powerful people in check. "It's human nature to lie in one's own self-interest," says Ben Widdicombe, a Daily News gossip alum of six years, who prominently helmed their trademark Gatecrasher column for the majority of his tenure there. "Gossip is a way that powerful people can be publicly held to account."
Traditionally leading that charge in New York City was Page Six, conceived in 1977 as the attack dog for Rupert Murdoch's then-newly acquired New York Post. A group column, Page Six was cast in the mold of London's Daily Express, which ran the pseudonymous, collaborative "William Hickey" column for over six decades. In 1976, at New York's Daily News, Liz Smith had already set up shop in the classic style of a first-person column pioneered by the likes of Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. Cindy Adams would play Smith's foil at the Post beginning in 1979.
Whatever the form, in the post-Watergate world the public clamored more than ever for a peek behind closed doors at not only movie stars, but also politicians, moguls, and New York's most sacred personalities—and facts mattered. Manhattan's gossip press delivered. "There were no rumors," recalls Susan Mulcahy, an early Page Six editor and author of the gossip memoir My Lips Are Sealed. "It all checked out."
With the city's chief two tabloids leading the way, the local gossip landscape thrived, attracting competitors like the high-society-minded New York Observer and New York magazine's Intelligencer column. And eventually, of course, the Internet, chiefly Nick Denton's media slam-book Gawker, launched in 2003 to act as a gossip to the gossips, a meta power player in press circles when it wasn't scooping others' stories. In December of 2004, Johnson talked to the New York Observer about the first wave of New York's gossip blogs, including Gawker, plugging the inherent value in Page Six's product: "People have a limited amount of time in their day, and Page Six is tight and well-edited, so readers get the biggest bang for their buck." The future, at that point, wasn't much of a concern.
But recently, Page Six, the Daily News, and even Gawker, the Observer, and New York, have all experienced tidal shifts, leaving in their wakes a host of departed veteran reporters and their talent for great stories, yielding gaping holes in the spirit of this city's once-renowned gossip industry. (Disclosure: Kamer worked for Gawker from May 2009 to March 2010, when he left to come to the Voice. In late June, Page Six beckoned to him for an interview; he wasn't offered a job. Coscarelli has written one blog post for Gawker, which Kamer published on his last weekend there.)