TMZ founder Harvey Levin’s unsolicited advice to mainstream media: Adapt or die

October 24, 2011

America’s foremost gossipmonger has a little unsolicited advice for the nation’s mainstream media: Your business model is broken. Your future is in jeopardy. Adapt or die.

TV news is hurting, TMZ.com founder Harvey Levin told the National Press Club on Monday, because it’s afraid to mess with an increasingly moribund formula. Newspapers and magazines should get out of the print business, he added, if they want to survive. And if the upheaval of the Internet over the past decade hasn’t been enough, just wait: The next five years will be even more tumultuous for the hidebound and hoary.

It takes a pinch of chutzpah for Levin to go all media visionary on the Washington press corps, especially considering that Levin’s brainchild, TMZ, became an Internet star based on a brew of Kardashian videos, naughty bits (one of its Monday headlines: “Dancing with the Stars’ — Genital Exposed on Live TV”), and the latest Britney and LiLo legal news.

On the other hand, brashness has been golden for Levin, who is one of the most successful news entrepreneurs of the Internet generation. Levin, 61, seems to know a thing or two about what the celebrity-obsessed public wants. Since its launch in 2005, TMZ.com has become the foremost entertainment-news Web site in the world, with some 20 million unique visitors a month. Its small (roughly 100-person) newsroom has evolved into a scoop machine that has broken countless stories, such as Michael Jackson’s death in 2009 and Mel Gibson’s drunken anti-Semitic tirade in 2006. The New York Times ranked the site as the 10th most-cited source by other news organizations, far outdistancing such august practitioners as the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times and ABC News.

There’s also a syndicated TMZ TV show, a TMZ radio program and even a TMZ Hollywood Bus Tour (the name, by the way, stands for “Thirty Mile Zone,” a 1960s-era term for the principal TV and movie production area around Los Angeles, where TMZ is based).

Levin — pint-sized, tanned and California cool in a blazer, open-necked shirt, jeans and slip-on sneakers — said in a luncheon speech Monday that the old news media haven’t quite gotten their hands around changing “delivery systems” and evolving consumer tastes. And, he says, they have remained loyal to old formulas at their own peril.

Local and national newscasts, he says, have presented information the same way for decades, with anchors handing off to reporters and reporters handing it right back to anchors. “It can be done better and quicker,” he suggested, mentioning as a model TMZ TV’s casual, conversational and often amusing presentation in its bullpen-style newsroom.

As for you, dear print reader, Levin says, it’s off to the scrap heap. “What is the magic of holding a piece of paper in the air when you read?” he asked. “You [in the news media] think you have to preserve this? Why?”

Well, it could be because local TV news is still the most watched and trusted news source around, and because roughly 45 million people a day still buy a printed newspaper, and because Americans bought 325 million magazines last year, and . . .

That’s the past, says Levin, himself a former reporter for L.A. TV stations. “Young people aren’t interested in the traditional media,” he said. “It doesn’t speak to them.”

While that’s hardly a blinding insight, Levin says the future of news is on the Web, where journalism and information are more timely, more involving, more multimedia. Traditional journalists should throw off their tired old media, embrace the Web, and not worry so much that the speed and round-the-clock demands of the Internet will compromise traditional values, like accuracy, he said.

TMZ.com’s reporting methods have raised eyebrows among traditional journalists, particularly its policy of sprinkling cash around for news tips (although Levin says the site doesn’t pay for stories, per se).

And not all of TMZ’s reporting is take-it-to-the-bank trustworthy, either. While Levin boasted of its coverage of the Tiger Woods sex scandal, he neglected to mention that some of its “scoops” didn’t hold up. Example: Dozens of news outlets cited TMZ’s bombshell that Woods suffered facial lacerations as a result of a beating by his then-wife, Elin Nordegren. But few followed up a month later when an Orlando TV station reported that Florida patrolmen who met with Woods three days after he crashed his SUV said they saw no evidence of domestic violence.

In the next half-decade, Levin says, “everything changes,” as TV and the Internet merge into one. “This is a revolution,” he says. And it’s also “an opportunity.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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