By Pete Kotz
By Michael Musto
By Michael Musto
By Capt. James Van Thach told to Jonathan Wei
By Kera Bolonik
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When penning a gossip column, he notes, "Who you don't write about defines you as much as anything."
That led, in part, to his decision to take a buyout offered by the Daily News earlier this year, he says. "You felt like if you weren't keeping up with the 15 varieties of Real Housewives, you weren't doing your job, supposedly," he says. "I did not have a heart for investigating such trivia."
Rush is hardly the only gossip stalwart to quit the New York game, in part out of boredom. Elsewhere at the Daily News, Ben Widdicombe left Gatecrasher—which he had started in 2003 as a weekend column—in 2008, before leaving for work at Star, The New York Times' style magazine T, and, later, Harvey Levin's Time Warner–owned, L.A.-centric gossip war room, TMZ.
Things were changing at the daily tabloids. "When I left Gatecrasher in 2008, it was all about Paris-Britney-Lindsay, and the columnists were essentially waiting for one of them to die," he notes. "Preferably in as lurid and media-friendly a way possible."
These days, Paris, Britney, and Lindsay have managed to cling on to their earthly existences, while New York's gossip rosters have barely been able to hold on to ever-rotating staffs. Former Daily News "Lowdown" gossip Lloyd Grove, lured to New York from the Washington Post in 2003 for "a lot of green," left the Daily News after only three years. He is now an editor-at-large for flashy online news aggregator The Daily Beast. Grove echoes a common sentiment about his time in the tabloid wars last decade: "The competition between the News and the Post was kind of like two bald guys fighting over a comb."
"Note to [Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman]," he adds, "you can't build a following for a gossip column if you keep changing it all the time." Grove's not wrong; the Daily News' gossip turnover is legion.
The Post has had its own high turnover, in a higher-profile manner, too. One watershed moment for its gossip legacy came in the spring of 2006, when the paper axed a bevy of freelancers for taking gifts indiscriminately in what was referred to by Gawker as "Payola Six," a series of incidents so widely reported that it even inspired a Steve Martin–penned "Talk of the Town" in the New Yorker, where Martin, assuming the role of a Sixer, giggled that Page Six appeared on Page 12 of the Post because "we are getting a regular envelope under the door from the Committee to Promote the Number Twelve."
Ian Spiegelman, who in 2004 compared Page Six to a "mafia family," was let go from the column after a threatening e-mail he wrote to an (admittedly sleazy) publicist named Doug Dechert went public. ("That was a good one," Rush laughs.) And then there was the infamous moment in 2006 when Page Six contributor Jared Paul Stern lost his job and almost faced criminal charges over an alleged extortion attempt of billionaire Ron Burkle. "That scandal was not a lot of fun to weather," says Chris Wilson, who left Page Six in 2006. "It really cast a pall over the whole thing." Burkle gave the scoop, of course, to the Post's rivals at the Daily News.
Froelich recalls this, saying it "was a very bad period of Page Six." Things were so bad, at one point, that Jessica Coen at Gawker ran an item listing 12 Manhattan media names who had declined offers to work for Page Six, not including herself and "a tumbleweed." Other than Froelich, Page Six hasn't been able to find a suitable heir for the sheet's legacy, the outlook of which got worse last April, when Froelich left after 10 years of working under Johnson. She was followed by Bill Hoffman in August, Corynne Steindler in September, and, two months ago, Neel Shah. But how is this a problem? Isn't media turnover routine, especcially in "Internet years"? Shouldn't fresh blood be great for a gossip column?
"I'm all about hiring young people," Froelich says, "but . . . journalism isn't about a higher degree. It's about apprenticing. Maturity. Growing. Having an editor to help you understand that [an item] is not correct."
At the same time that Page Six saw its pains go public, print was hurtling downhill faster and faster. Budgets were cut. Blogs invaded the gossips' once-sacred territory and were scooping them routinely.
Desperately fighting back against the blogs by rushing to print doesn't always work. During just one week this August, the (reputedly) reliable Page Six screwed up three times: a mistaken sighting of Conan O'Brien (who corrected Page Six on his Twitter to 1.5 million followers), a mistaken sighting of Hero-of-the-Moment JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater (remember him?), and an item confusing the African-American president of BET–Bob Johnson—with John Johnson, the dead African-American founder of Johnson Publishing. "That's something no one in urban media would ever do," says Fred Mwangaguhunga, the founder of Media Take Out, which specializes in black gossip. "Sometimes they would say that Jay-Z was at a club, but it was really P. Diddy. But as an African-American, you took what you could get."
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