NYC's Golden Gossip Era Fades

Gotham gossip loses grip, fights off rabble. Rattled tattletales tell all.

Asked by the Voice to chat about the business, Page Six's Richard Johnson asked: Is this going to be a "Death of Page Six" piece? Told that it wouldn't be, he laughed: "I'll get back to you on it." A few days later, via a publicist, Johnson declined to comment for this story.

Whether or not there is concern anywhere about any kind of "end" to Page Six's power, Johnson himself has few, if any, detractors as a skilled gossip. New York magazine's long-time party reporter Jada Yuan still thinks the Page is the standard-bearer: "They have better gossip, better sources. They're meaner," though she adds, "I liked it best when Paula [Froelich] was working there. She would tell me about these conversations with these celebrities where they'd be like, 'Why are you writing this shit about me?' And she'd say, 'Well, did you do this shit?' 'Yeah.' 'Well, stop doing stupid shit, and we'll stop writing about you.' "

Froelich recalls her time at Page Six as "the hardest job I've ever had," and says that those who can do it and teach it are in limited supply. "The thing about gossip is that it's all about who you hire," she says. "Gossip is not easy. A lot of people tend to think it's easy. It's insanely hard reporting—you have to have a large Rolodex across the board held in your mind at all times. You have to understand how to comport yourself."

Big-shot gossip: Burt Lancaster a J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success
United Artists
Big-shot gossip: Burt Lancaster a J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success
Ben Widdicombe: "It's human nature to lie in one's own self-interest. Gossip is a way that powerful people can be publicly held to account."
Ben Widdicombe: "It's human nature to lie in one's own self-interest. Gossip is a way that powerful people can be publicly held to account."

Yet even Froelich—who calls Richard Johnson "one of the best professors I've had in my life" and cites the curiosity Johnson inspires in his troops as something disappearing from reporting in general—found the gossip business to be getting stale. "The time to quit," she says, "is when you're not learning anything anymore, they've taught you all you can, you're bored, and you don't want your boss's job—that's when to quit." Chris Wilson, who worked with Froelich at Page Six, concurs: "I was ready to propel out the window after six years." Referencing Johnson's two-plus decades on the job, he notes, "He's calm and collected, but there's a limit."

The proliferation of gossip outlets from seemingly anywhere appears to be unanimously frustrating. "When your field is too crowded, the quality starts to go down or the competitiveness drives people out," Froelich says.

Lloyd Grove agrees: "Not everything is credited, and people steal constantly. It just all gets kind of chewed up, spat out. The Internet has no physical location. You don't even know the provenance of things anymore."

And what happens when New York's gossip set turns to the Internet for salvation? Page Six tried launching a Web property, PageSix.com, in December 2007. It didn't go too well, shuttering three months later, in March 2008. Froelich recalls: "PageSix.com? There were a couple of people they hired who were really good-looking and wanted to go out all of the time, but didn't do anything. Or didn't know how to ask even a simple question. Journalism is about asking questions, and not just pre-noted questions that an editor or producer might have already written for you." It goes back to the idea of wanting to know more, the kind of moxie that PageSix.com's Web strategy seemingly didn't push. A requirement for a substantive gossip begins with a reporter "who actually has curiosity," says Froelich.

The obvious heir-apparent to New York City's gossip legacy was Gawker, a site whose tagline once read, "Reporting live, from the center of the universe." Gawker's first iterations focused solely on New York's otherwise unscrutinized media movers, and the hysterical minutiae behind them. An early narrative documented by founding editor Elizabeth Spiers involved a ban on garlic in Condé Nast's cafeteria and subsequent debate on whether or not chairman S.I. Newhouse's seemingly obsessive fear of garlic indicated his status as a vampire. Needless to say, Gawker has widened its reach since then.

Gawker soldiered on through the media recession—2008 was a particularly rough year—documenting every step of the various layoffs, buyouts, and bankruptcies of New York's biggest boldfaced names and companies, from Condé Nast to Hearst to the Times and beyond, keeping true to form that nobody was sacred. Last year, pictures of Katie Couric at a wedding party doing a "coochie drop," under the headline "Katie Couric's Forbidden Dance of Gin," appeared alongside items about Annie Leibovitz's financial troubles, military contractors in Afghanistan simulating gay sex, and even pictures of Richard Johnson playing with his wife and child in Madison Square Park. The vengeful streak of old-school New York gossip villainy and competitiveness—now also seemingly absent from Gawker—was there, too. When Allen Salkin—a Times writer who once penned a Styles piece asking if Gawker had "jumped the snark"—was laid off at the Times last year, Gawker Media owner Nick Denton responded on his Twitter: "Since Allen Salkin wrote Gawker's obit in January 2008, site's audience has grown fourfold. And he just lost his job at NYT. No tears for him."

Denton's probably not wrong: Gawker Media—specifically, the flagship site—has continued to grow in traffic and in reach, readily available figures show. In July 2008, the site broke the two-million-monthly-readers mark—in June 2010, a little under seven million. Part of this strategy was Gawker's pronounced move away from New York–centric gossip. It's also why the media press and fellow gossip brethren scratched their heads when Denton replaced Gabriel Snyder—an editor who oversaw Gawker's growth into a national news outlet—with Remy Stern, the founder of CityFile, a website Denton acquired as a condition of Stern's hiring.

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