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TMZ.com Earns Newfound Respect After Scoop on Michael Jackson's Death

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"When we were starting out, we told people we were the anti-TMZ," says Sharon Waxman, a former Washington Post and New York Times reporter who five months ago founded an entertainment industry news site, TheWrap.com. "We're not rumor- or scandal-mongers. We check our facts. They've come to connote scandal-mongering."

But other journalists take a measured view, particularly in light of TMZ's Jackson triumph. "This is not a couple of guys sitting in a coffee shop making things up," says Kevin Roderick, a Los Angeles Times reporter for 25 years who founded the LA Observed Web site in 2003. "It's a journalistic organization with some stylistic excesses. But they're concerned about their reputation for accuracy."

Levin, 58, a lawyer and former TV reporter for two stations in Los Angeles, bristles when TMZ's reporting is questioned. "We have sources everywhere," he says. "We've developed relationships with people over the years, people who trust us and want to talk with us. We say to them, 'Try us one time.' If we screwed people over, we'd be out of business.

"I'll be honest with you, if you have a bad story, we can say to you, 'We'll give you the best of a bad story.' "

As for the Debbie Rowe maternity post, he says: "This is 100 percent true!"

But Levin won't reveal a few things about his own operation and journalistic methods.

Ask him how many people work in TMZ's newsroom and he won't say ("We don't want to give away our business model"), though he acknowledges that the staff is young and can be glimpsed, almost in toto, during the "story meeting" segments of the TV show.

Levin also won't name his reporting stars (short postings are credited to "TMZ Staff"). He'll go on with praise about a recent hire who has turned out some of the Jackson coverage but won't say who he's talking about ("We don't want anyone to steal her away"). Nor will Levin reveal where TMZ's offices are (vague answer: somewhere on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood).

He will address, in general terms, one unusual journalistic practice that TMZ employs: paying sources for "news tips." Mainstream news organizations refuse to pay for information, fearing that it will elicit tainted information and compromise the integrity of the news. But TMZ has no such objections; it seeds sources with cash, sometimes as little as $50, according to Levin, to deliver useful nuggets (TMZ also pays for paparazzi photos and videos, although that practice is followed in the celebrity media).

"We might pay for the tip," Levin says, "but we go out and get the story ourselves. We check it, source it and report it."

People -- an average of 4 million unique visitors to the Web site a month -- seem to agree. The news is that, now, news people are starting to take TMZ seriously.

When the Jackson story broke last week, "news organizations were holding back looking for a source other than TMZ," said Jim Farley, vice president for news at WTOP, the all-news radio station in Washington. "Finally, the L.A. Times had it. But next time we might go with TMZ. They now have a good track record."


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