By Frank Ahrens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 24, 2007
The fastest-growing Internet news site does not belong to a prestigious newspaper or a storied television network reporting the great events of the day. Instead, it is a Web site barely a year old that beat everyone to the details of the sordid death of Anna Nicole Smith.
Over the past several months, TMZ.com's little newsroom of 28 repeatedly has scooped rivals on ongoing stories, such as the escapades of Britney Spears and her ex, K-Fed. Like the Drudge Report and Smoking Gun sites, TMZ made its name landing exclusives: documents from Mel Gibson's arrest, the photo showing the contents of Anna Nicole Smith's refrigerator in her Bahamas bedroom, which included Slim-Fast and methadone.
TMZ has hit a sweet spot at the intersection of technology and culture, flourishing over the past several months thanks to a confluence of sordid events, timing and consumer taste. The site, which is written in a blog format, takes its name from the Thirty-Mile Zone, a circle drawn by labor unions that governs work rules for movie studio employees in the Hollywood area. It's also where TMZ stalks its prey.
Though neither TMZ nor parent company Time Warner would divulge revenue figures, the site became profitable a few months ago and ad revenue continues to increase, according to its general manager. Its success is reflected in its viewer numbers; after launching in December 2005, TMZ had 3.3 million unique visits in February 2006, according to ComScore Media Metrix, which tracks Web use. Last month, that number reached 8.4 million, significantly outpacing the Web sites of all other celebrity-news outlets.
Celebrity news in general is a growth industry, both in print and online. Circulation is rising at People, Us Weekly, In Touch Weekly and Teen People, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which tracks print readership. Blogs such as Gawker and Perez Hilton also prosper by gabbing about stars, and celebrity news has boosted readership and ratings for the mainstream media, as well. On one of the days shortly after Smith's death, for instance, three of the top five most-viewed articles on Washingtonpost.com -- including No. 1 -- were about Smith.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the culture is near its saturation point for celebrity dish and whether TMZ will continue its growth. What would happen to TMZ, for example, if celebrities spent the rest of 2007 acting like, say, normal human beings? And are celebrity news fans a fickle lot? If a flashier, trashier rival came along, might TMZ users defect?
TMZ has a shoe-leather staff that circumvents publicists to make friends with valets, bellhops and other witnesses to celebs' bad behavior. Unlike traditional news outlets, however, TMZ sometimes pays for information. And it lets fans participate and profit, thanks to camera phones, which turn yesterday's mere voyeurs into today's compensated paparazzi.
"There's this ravenous appetite for this type of information," said Alan Citron, general manager of TMZ, based in Glendale, Calif. "It's a really great match with the Internet -- it allows you to present it in real time and in a high-volume way that allows people to feast on it throughout the day."
Last week, The Washington Post reported that TMZ will launch a political Washington section of the site, called TMZDC, featuring the foibles of the District's local famous. The site's parent will also spawn a half-hour television show this fall on Fox.
TMZ has succeeded, at least partly, because its users aspire to be what they see.
"More people than ever believe they can be famous," said Hilary Estey McLoughlin, president of Warner's Telepictures Productions, which will produce the TMZ television show.
TMZ has the advantage of being owned by entertainment giant Time Warner. It is a co-production of AOL and Warner Bros. and one of the few fruits of that merger. AOL promotes TMZ to its monthly audience of 111 million, marketing power that would be hard to duplicate and expensive to buy.
The past year has been a series of star-studded train wrecks. For TMZ, this translates into a wellspring of content, from Mel Gibson's drunken jeremiad on Jews to Britney Spears's chrome-doming. And don't forget the rehab turn of Lindsay Lohan, the Rosie O'Donnell-Donald Trump morality feud, Michael Richards's slur-laced on-stage meltdown, the Australian arrest of muscleman Sylvester Stallone on suspicion of smuggling human growth hormone, and NASA's astro-nut stalking her romantic rival. If TMZ were a weather news Web site, it would have reported a year full of hurricanes and twisters.
Early each morning, working on East Coast time, the TMZ staff begins scouring the Web sites of photo agencies such as Splashnews and veteran paparazzo Phil Ramey, looking for images they want to buy. These augment the photos and video supplied by a TMZ staff of up to five videographers constantly on the prowl. In addition, reporters beat the Hollywood streets and burn up the phones tracking down news, which McLoughlin said typically is verified by three sources.
TMZ's newsgathering may show one way forward for journalism.
"Maybe paying for such news is unsound, according to the newsroom sages," Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and media critic, wrote in an e-mail response to questions. "But going around the entertainment industry by making friends with valets and bellhops is more sound than the methods in place at that time in the press where many of those sages come from," meaning the traditional way of getting celebrity news -- from their publicists.
Sometimes, news comes in over the TMZ transom. For instance, the video of Richards, a former "Seinfeld" star, was captured by an audience member in November. TMZ bought the video for "the low, low four-figures," Citron said.
Video is TMZ's biggest asset and what sets it apart from print magazines such as People and Us Weekly. A few years ago, slower Internet connections would have made for balky viewing. But today's higher-speed connections make it easier to view new videos, so TMZ can offer more must-see content in a way that magazines cannot. TMZ boasts more than 2,000 videos, well more than other celebrity sites.
Five years ago, TMZ probably would have launched as a magazine. These days, why bother? Why deal with the overhead of buying glossy stock, printing a physical product, negotiating with distributors and fighting for shelf space when you don't have to?
"Starting online is a new way to brand ideas and a very cost-efficient way to try things," McLoughlin said.
Citron agrees. "It helps that we started without any baggage," he said. "There was no existing edition in print or on TV that we would have had to work in from the beginning."
Instead, the opposite is true: The TV version of TMZ was picked up by all 35 Fox television stations (including Washington's WTTG) for September. The show will not attempt to ape existing evening celebrity shows such as "Entertainment Tonight" and "Inside Edition" but will follow TMZ's grittier formula, meaning none of the prepackaged sit-down interviews common among the other shows, McLoughlin said.
Now, Washington must brace for TMZ, which hopes there's an eager audience for paparazzi pictures of D.C. operatives.
But will TMZ users care about the Washington underbelly, saggy as it may be?
"There's a market for anyone famous doing anything funny or embarrassing," Citron said.