There are a lot of things that jump out of Nicholas Schmidle’s extensive New Yorker piece on Harvey Levin and TMZ, but one of the biggest is the decisions they’ve made on what to run and what not to run and the money they’ve paid for certain videos. The Ray Rice videos earn a particular focus, with the first one being picked up for $15,000 (or possibly less; the site called that figure “overblown”) and the elevator video that sparked Rice being cut being bought for “almost ninety thousand dollars.” That seems like a good investment, as that video helped boost the site’s profile immensely, and helped establish them as an important sports source.
However, what’s also notable is what the site’s declined to run, ranging from the infamous Brett Favre texts (which Deadspin eventually posted) to Michael Phelps smoking a bong (published by the News of the World in the end) to Justin Bieber’s racist video (eventually published by the Sun and Radar Online). Schmidle’s piece illustrates TMZ’s extensive network of reporters and sources, and shows the power and resources they have. It also demonstrates some of their weaknesses, though, and how they’re not the only game in town these days.
A big part of TMZ’s rise and their largest scoops has been their willingness to pay, and pay substantially, for good information and multimedia clips. They have a solid understanding of the value of video in particular, and the Rice case (and the elevator video in particular) illustrates that; $90,000 is a lot of money, but that video completely changed the discussion about Rice, and it gave TMZ a substantial boost in the media landscape. It’s hard to say that wasn’t worth it for them. It may have been worth it for the wider public, too; while some may question paying sources, there’s significant news value and perhaps even public benefit to having that video out there, and it wasn’t getting out there without a lot of money changing hands.
TMZ represents the further commodification of information, and rather than being purely good or purely bad, that’s more of a logical progression. In fact, information has always been commodified to some extent; newspapers (and news outlets in other mediums) make money from reporting the news, attracting readers and viewers, and being paid by advertisers to get ads in front of those viewers. The traditionally reported-on are starting to realize that they can tell their own stories and get paid for it, too, as we’ve seen through athlete biographies and The Players’ Tribune.
It’s worth noting that TMZ represents commodification in another direction, too. Their focus is very much on what it’s been proven that people want to read, which, for them, tends to be the celebrity news and gossip. Consider this passage from Schmidle’s piece about how parents AOL and Telepictures initially tried to move TMZ’s coverage in a more serious direction, but found that didn’t work:
Jim Paratore, the president of Telepictures, wanted to find Levin another project. Paratore had been contemplating a new Web site that could feature unused footage amassed by “Extra,” also a Telepictures production. Paratore discussed the idea with Jim Bankoff, an executive at America Online. (Time Warner, the corporate parent of Warner Bros., had recently merged with AOL.) Bankoff, who is now the chairman of Vox Media, liked the concept: Telepictures would supply the content, and AOL would handle the technical and commercial side. Telepictures offered Levin the opportunity to run the site.
But Levin was not interested in managing a site that functioned as “another thing to puff up Hollywood,” Bankoff recalled. Instead, Levin proposed adapting the combative spirit of “Celebrity Justice” to the pace of the Web. “ ‘Urgency’—Harvey used that word all the time,” Jeff Rowe, another former AOL executive, told me. “He wanted a site that created a sense of urgency.”…
From the start, Levin’s “crusader mentality” at TMZ caused some consternation, Lewis D’Vorkin, a former senior vice-president of AOL, told me. “Harvey believed that every celebrity was fake, and that it was his job to expose that.”
Alan Citron, TMZ’s first general manager, recalls fielding concerns from both AOL and Telepictures over “the tabloid direction of the stories.” He told me that executives urged him to “move the coverage into the middle.” He hired a reporter from Variety to write more traditional features about the industry—the comings and goings of agents—and experimented with real-estate coverage. But when Citron reviewed the traffic data one thing became “undeniably clear”: “The tabloid material was what people wanted. The rest was like organ rejection—it just didn’t work.”
For all their often-scandalous subjects, TMZ has used a lot of old-school journalistic tactics in building their organization, with a particular focus on creating and maintaining strong networks of sources and extensively covering the courts. They do a lot of things right on the reporting side, and although they’ve had some big missteps that raise questions about just how thoroughly they can be trusted, they’ve also had some big hits and broken some key stories. Even the idea of paying sources isn’t necessarily beyond the pale, as plenty of that happened in the earlier days of newspapers in particular. Moreover, readers shouldn’t assume that everything’s aboveboard even when sources aren’t paid. Most sources have agendas, or reasons for telling journalists certain things, and those motives are often self-serving. TMZ (and other outlets that pay sources) just make the transaction a little more explicit.
That doesn’t mean paying for information’s always the right move, or that TMZ’s actions are always aboveboard. Payment alone shouldn’t be a reason to disregard a story, though, especially for a video clip with as much obvious news value as the Rice one. In fact, many more traditional journalistic outlets have been willing to pay for photos or video in the past even while sticking to the “we don’t pay sources” party line, so that particular case isn’t really that unusual.
What’s more surprising from Schmidle’s piece is the stories that TMZ has declined to run. The Bieber and Favre stories in particular seemed like solid TMZ material, and there didn’t seem to be a ton of logic behind passing on them behind Levin’s own personal decision. Here’s what Levin said in 2010:
In the 2010 lecture at the University of Chicago Law School, Levin hinted at his calculations in such moments. “I don’t live by hard-and-fast rules in this job,” he said. “I can’t give you a rigid principle on where the line of privacy is.” He claimed that he struggled with this dilemma “all the time.”
The challenge is that TMZ passing on something doesn’t mean it won’t get out there, though. Every story they passed up in Schmidle’s piece was eventually broken by someone else. That may motivate them to become even more ruthless and even less concerned with privacy. The spectre of competition has other challenges, too; TMZ is known for their speed, and that speed becomes even more important when facing competition, but it can have potentially terrible consequences for accuracy, as seen in how they bungled the 2015 news of former NFL and CFL player Adrian Robinson’s death. TMZ has become an important part of the sports world, and they’ll undoubtedly be so for some time going forward, but they’re also a source that should still be looked at with some questions at this point. The challenges they’re facing from competition and the extra pressure to be fast rather than right won’t help with that.