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.)
To quantify and map the reach of New York's gossip and how it's changed, you need only look at declining print circulation, shrinking revenues, and shifting Web traffic. The trajectory seems clear. But that's only part of the story, because gossip seems to be more ubiquitous than ever. At the same time, gossipmongering has clearly been democratized and decentralized by the Internet. That's a problem for this city's once golden reputation for the great names of great dirt. "I don't think anyone in New York City has gossip cornered at the moment," Widdicombe says.
What, exactly, happened to Gotham's gossip glory? Here's what we know. Or better yet: This is what we hear.
Popular culture documented the power and allure of New York City gossip early: J.J. Hunsecker, Burt Lancaster's odious Broadway gossip from 1957's Sweet Smell of Success, was willing to smear his own family to exert power. Hunsecker wound up No. 35 on the American Film Institute's top 50 movie villains, but screenwriter Ernest Lehman didn't pluck him out of thin air. The character was based on America's popular but also widely reviled original gossip, Walter Winchell. His column, which made its debut in the New York Evening Graphic in the mid-1920s, prompted The New Yorker to note his influence on modern journalism as "a spirochete." Since then, everyone from Madonna to Margaret Thatcher, to the various Kennedys, Clintons, Yankees, and Giulianis of this city, and far beyond have appeared, names bold, in Page Six, the Daily News, Gawker, the Observer, and New York.
Mulcahy recalls a time when gossip items were hitting at the highest levels, checking the rich and powerful for their frivolity, absurdity, or hypocrisy. Upon President Reagan's inauguration in 1981, Page Six ran an item about Nancy Reagan's insistence that two female senators not wear bright colors to the ceremony. The First Lady, in her "Reagan red" coat and hat, wanted to stand out in a sea of black and navy blue. The First Lady had "a fit," though the certainty of the report prevented any serious blowback. "She didn't call us directly of course," says Mulcahy, "but I heard from others."
Similarly, Mulcahy recalls a 1985 Page Six item on Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega's penchant for spending thousands of dollars on fancy eyewear. "The Man Behind the Designer Glasses," went a Time magazine headline the following year.
Where are the screaming fits these days from celebs skewered by the city's gossipmongers?
"In the old days, they probably would have come at me with a hatchet. I kind of miss when people were more angry," says the Voice's Michael Musto, a 25-year veteran disher. "I used to walk into a room, and half the room would run away."
But Page Six wasn't just dangerous for the famous. "It isn't overstating the case to say that Page Six was sort of menacing and terrifying. Showing up in there, until fairly recently, was like a truck hitting you," said Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl and a former editor at the Observer and Gawker. In 2008, Vanessa Grigoriadis, a reporter for New York magazine, wrote a profile of Gawker, daring to question the necessity of Page Six and calling them "emasculated." The column responded all but threatening to rape her. The males on staff of Page Six would "take her somplace private and disprove her theory," but, "lucky" for Grigoriadis, they, at that time, did not "like a woman with a mustache." It might be worth noting that Grigoriadis, in a previous article on Page Six, called Johnson "movie-star handsome."
Not to tempt fate, but many gossips agree that the viciousness—or at least the impact—of such violent prose is now muted. Gawker staff writer Maureen O'Connor says, "I can write the meanest shit in the world about Lindsay Lohan, and I'll never even get an e-mail."
One consensus is that the definition of "celebrity" has shifted, and even creations of the gossip pages no longer make the grade. "I'm sorry to say that Page Six helped make Donald Trump a big celebrity," says Mulcahy. New York Daily Intel blogger Chris Rovzar, a former Daily News gossip stringer himself, adds, "Yes, [Trump] married beautiful women and had sensational divorces. But he ran a company."
George Rush, formerly of long-time husband-and-wife gossip duo Rush & Molloy at the New York Daily News and one-time Page Sixer, saw the change firsthand during his 15 years at the Daily News: "It was supposed to be about the rich, famous, and powerful," he says, leaning back over a beer one recent afternoon in Tribeca. "You weren't supposed to waste the time of your readers by writing about soap-opera stars, people who weren't worth the ink. That was one of the pleasures for the readers: people whose money couldn't protect them from disaster."
So who is it about now? Better yet: Who isn't it about? "There's just so much that gets instantly transmitted about so many 'celebrities' "—Rush pauses to make air quotes—"we've never even regarded as celebrities," he says. "You want them to go away. If Snooki passes out drunk, so what? She doesn't have far to fall."
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."
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."
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.
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?
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.' "
New York's most prominent broadsheets are flirting with gossip. For a few weeks in April 2006, The New York Times played in the mud with the city's tabloids, publishing stories regularly on the Jared Paul Stern fiasco. This was the Times "uncovering the seamy side of the gossip industry," wrote media critic Rachel Sklar at the Huffington Post. And yet almost to the day, the Times ended its own version of a society column, "Boldface Names," which ran in the Metro section. Some, like Sklar, wondered if the Times no longer wished to "sully its hands," though the column never even came close to being a Page Six. Which is too bad for the Times. "There's a really important need that is slam-dunk territory for [the Times]," says Choire Sicha. "It's very rough and tumble, and it's about real estate and it's about finance and City Hall politics, and it's a great place to be in."
Even more recently, the Wall Street Journal launched its Metro-style supplement, Greater New York, in April of this year, complete with another take on the gossip column. "Publicists are much more excited about the fact that there are three people out there printing [gossip]," explains the Journal's head gossip, Marshall Heyman, formerly of W magazine. "People still want to believe that it's going to be in the paper. That sort of legitimizes it somehow." But the Journal, too, worries about getting dirty, whether it's overdosing on celebrity coverage or the private lives of power players. "Their positioning, the nitty-gritty piece of New York City, is really the right aim," says Sicha, though this early on, it might feel "too diffuse." Heyman stresses the column's youth, too: "I think we'll reassess in a few months and see what's working and what's not."
The Daily News, meanwhile, is taking a new stab at gossip prominence, rebuilding its Gatecrasher brand by hiring ex–Page Six, Observer, and Vanity Fair writer Frank DiGiacomo to bring back items that resonate with a wide audience, while taking on Gotham's royalty in the process. He joins Carson Griffith (a holdover from Gatecrasher's last iteration) and the newly hired Molly Fischer, formerly of the Observer. All three receive high praise from contemporaries. Froelich calls DiGiacomo "a classic example of a really good, old-school reporter," while George Rush is quick to note that "Frank has gone a long way to necessitate the traditional values I was talking about: mixing together politics and pop culture." Like Page Six, Gatecrasher also declined to comment for this story.
And many gossipmongers, too, still cite Page Six as an established brand worth trusting. Grove says he reads Page Six "every damn day," and Jada Yuan calls it "still the best out there." Musto calls it "still my go-to place for gossip" and adds, "I think they're doing really amazingly, considering the challenges." But Sicha notes, "I read the Observer in large part because I worked there and I care about it." When you worked in daily tabloid gossip, "of course you're going to read it forever."
Yet if Richard Johnson were to leave Page Six sooner rather than later, that could be one challenge too many. "I don't know," sighs Chris Wilson. "I can't even imagine who could fill those loafers." Froelich is more hopeful, not just for Page Six, but for powerful gossip in general: "I'm a full optimist," she says. "I don't feel like it's over. I feel like we're in a downward end of the cycle, and it will go back up. It will take someone who goes out and gets a goddamn investment to start his own fucking site. And do his own fucking reporting."
Even George Rush—after having been off the job for only a few months and playing "camp counselor" to his young son—wonders about getting back in the game at some point. "You could," he says, "if you were offering something better, if you got some people with money together. There are certainly enough people around to follow. The best stories are always about genuinely powerful people doing embarrassing sexual things, where they are jeopardizing some wealth or influence. In New York City, the cachet of good, juicy information nobody else has the moxie to print will never lose currency, even in an oversaturated market."