NYC's Golden Gossip Era Fades

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

CityFile was nothing if not a New York–centric blog, one that pulled only a small fraction of Gawker's monthly traffic. Denton claimed excitement over acquiring CityFile's most prominent feature, however: a database of profiles cataloging New York's most powerful and visible characters, and their scandal-marred histories. Of the new, nationally focused Gawker, Denton told the Observer in February: "We were left without a channel for the old Gawker. There are—even now—some people who want high-media gossip and news about Manhattan power-brokers." Yet at the same time, Denton said, "There just aren't that many of those readers. They're important and influential—but not that numerous." Maybe Denton will bring back that cachet he once valued, but six months into Stern's tenure, it doesn't seem likely.

"A lot of the New York characters don't play to a national audience," says Stern. "There aren't people in San Francisco or Kansas City that care about Ron Perlman's personal life. For better or for worse, they'd rather read about Snooki than some hedge fund mogul."

Can Denton be blamed for desiring eyeballs?

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."

Lloyd Grove recalls Gawker's debut on the gossip scene: "They were raucously tasteless. Taste has sort of descended on them a little bit. Even more to the point, advertisers are probably more willing to be associated with the product now." Froelich agrees, saying, "If you don't get page views, even if it's interesting and five of the right people read it—and you want those five people because that's who you covet—if 50,000 peons read it, that looks better."

Where is New York's gossip industry heading? Anywhere the Internet wants to take it, apparently. "Gossip is now everywhere," says Michael Musto. "Everyone on earth is a gossip columnist, and everyone has a blog. I used to be competing with five or six people, and now I'm competing with five billion people. Gossip used to be New York–L.A. Now it's located in cyberspace." George Rush sees the New York tabloids as having gone through "a kind of identity crisis," saying that "their dominance has been assaulted by the Internet, specifically TMZ, but all the blogosphere, which can instantly throw up the most thinly sourced gossip and see it picked up widely." It's easy to argue, as many others do, that Harvey Levin's L.A.-based TMZ is a dominant force in contemporary gossip—and in news, as well.

Over the past two years, TMZ has been first to many huge stories, including the death of Michael Jackson. These stories end up getting repurposed by other gossip outlets, which are losing the "breaking news" edge on their competition, especially locally.

"TMZ is the Ghostbusters of American gossip—it's who you're gonna call," says Ben Widdicombe (who has done work for TMZ). "Old-school New York gossip is basically bleeding to death at the same rate as the newspaper industry. That's why something like TMZ in L.A. is so exciting. It's a new model, and it's working. There's no reason why New York couldn't innovate something like that, but so far the East Coast mindset has not been in that place. Too often, getting your gossip in New York is like reading a bad blog on a dead tree."

As Musto puts it, "TMZ has pretty much changed everything. Nothing is secret about celebrity life, right down to their last ambulance, and they break these really amazing, dark, depressing stories all day." It has even inspired imitators, like Radar Online, which made a name covering the "Octomom" story more comprehensively than any other outlet and by releasing the Mel Gibson tapes of the Academy Award–winning actor-director ranting about "wetbacks" and "niggers" and threatening to burn the mother of his child's house down (but not before she "blows" him). And imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery. Musto has a simpler explanation for the rise in popularity of this stripe of gossip: "People in L.A.—well, the sun doesn't make you that literate."

To call the New York City gossip industry dead, though, would be inaccurate. People in New York still read it. Gawker's page views are higher than ever, despite seemingly seasonal staff turnover. But another New York City–based gossip site—less recognized than its overexposed contemporaries—is actually beating Gawker and most other competitors for hard-nose reporting and even, at points, in the traffic race. Fred Mwangaguhunga cites MediaTakeOut.com's numbers and stories as irrefutable evidence of success: "I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that in 2009, Media Take Out broke more provable, reported stories than Page Six. That's just fact." Yet common recognition in New York City's press circles of Media Take Out as a breaking news source has yet to show up. "In the black community," says Mwangaguhunga, "Media Take Out is a more 'go-to' source than Gawker. In the media world, it's different." There, he notes, "people might end up working at the Post, or working at Gawker. They say, 'I'm never going to have a job at Media Take Out.' "

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