Online Tabloid Sets Its Sights Inside Beltway

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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 14, 2007

When it comes to delicious gossip, Washington is a far cry from Hollywood. But the hottest purveyor of juicy tidbits in Tinseltown is betting that there is an untapped market for the backstage shenanigans of the Beltway elite.

TMZ.com, the 16-month-old venture that has grown into an online behemoth by chronicling the antics of Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton and other boldface names, is setting up shop in the nation's capital.

Harvey Levin, the former television reporter who started the operation, plans to launch the spinoff site in about a month. People familiar with the effort say that Levin plans to focus on the foibles of members of Congress, administration officials and media personalities.

TMZ spokeswoman Gillian Sheldon declined to discuss the details, saying only that "big celebrities are everywhere -- even outside of Hollywood." Levin has been meeting with people here in an effort to find a D.C. bureau chief and build a network of freelancers who will contribute material for the new site, to be known as TMZDC.

With its wealth of photos and videos of misbehaving stars, TMZ, a joint venture between AOL and the Telepictures unit of Warner Bros., is a runaway success that drew 8.4 million visitors last month, nearly twice as many as People.com. This has enabled Levin, a former correspondent for "Celebrity Justice" and "The People's Court," to attract advertising from television and such companies as Verizon and Netflix.

The scoop that put the site on the gossip map was obtaining the handwritten police report detailing Mel Gibson's drunken anti-Semitic rant in Malibu when he was stopped for speeding last summer. TMZ also made worldwide news with amateur video of Michael Richards spewing racial epithets during a comedy club tirade in November. A syndicated television version of the site is planned for the fall.

But Washington gossip? Isn't that turf already pretty well plowed by newspaper and magazine columns (The Reliable Source, Inside the Beltway, Washington Whispers, Heard on the Hill, Under the Dome) and blogs like Wonkette?

TMZ executives believe there is a sizable void in coverage of the nonpublic behavior of political and media types, and not just salacious stuff, either. They don't plan to shy away from who is sleeping with whom, but believe that readers will click on items about which congressman is addicted to Big Macs, which is a bad tipper, and which television correspondent misbehaved on a plane.

The idea behind TMZDC, say people involved in the launch, is to humanize the capital's denizens, even if committee chairmen are not exactly household names and the State of the Union address is not quite as glitzy as the Oscars.

Plus, TMZ (which stands for Thirty Mile Zone -- around Hollywood, naturally) pays for pictures and video, which could lure plenty of potential sources. Thus we could see a Washington version of those "Stars -- They're Just Like Us" shots in Us Weekly and Star that show the likes of Brad Pitt and Cameron Diaz shopping and schlepping.

But who would qualify for the D.C. equivalent of TMZ's "Star Catcher" videos? Nancy Pelosi at the dry cleaners? Karl Rove juggling his cellphone and latte at Starbucks? Ruth Bader Ginsburg at the Safeway?

Within its realm of entertainment, TMZ breaks plenty of news. In recent days the Web site has reported that two of Leonardo DiCaprio's bodyguards were arrested in Israel, and that Sylvester Stallone was charged in Australia with importing steroids.

After Anna Nicole Smith's death, TMZ obtained what was described as a photo of the former Playboy Playmate's refrigerator, stocked with methadone (one of the drugs used in her son's fatal overdose) and Slim-Fast (Smith was a paid spokeswoman for rival TrimSpa). The site also obtained voice-mail messages to Smith from former Bahamian immigration minister Shane Gibson (the one photographed in bed with her).

Won't Washington seem a bit tame for a site that keeps churning out headlines like "Madonna Taking Mothering Lessons From Britney"? TMZ's greatest challenge may lie ahead.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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