Occasionally, the comments posted in response to an online article are more revealing of media that anything in the story itself. Take the case of Paul Farhi’s Washington Post piece, TMZ founder Harvey Levin’s unsolicited advice to mainstream media: Adapt or die.
Mr. Levin addressed the National Press Club with a dire warning for the institution it represents:
Your business model is broken. Your future is in jeopardy. Adapt or die.
It is clinging to this broken business model that’s the problem, Levin said, because media is afraid to mess with it.
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.
But rather than investigate what Mr. Levin told them, Farhi chose to insert the content of TMZ into his article, which was done with just a hint of snark. Calling him a “gossipmonger” and dismissing him according to his appearance (“pint-sized, tanned and California cool in a blazer, open-necked shirt, jeans and slip-on sneakers”), Farhi shifts the article from what Mr. Levin said to the content of his product, TMZ. The article questions tactics like paying for information and raises the matter that Levin’s TMZ has gotten some things wrong, all designed to invalidate anything offered in the way of advice. After all, cough-cough, we can’t trust, cough-cough, anybody who would do, cough-cough, something like THAT!
This opened the door for comments supportive of Farhi’s distaste. “God help us…sensationalist trype…appeal to the lowest common denominator…Internet version of yellow journalism…character assassination…his “newsroom” of stoner kids…new media for a dumb nation…TMZ is the real life idiocracy…tabloid pornography…you can’t take his news seriously,” and so forth. Some readers noted that the Post should be paying attention, but for the most part, everything that Levin brought in his message was overwhelmed by criticism of the content of his enterprise and how it’s presented. This is the big — and, frankly, pathetic — mistake that most journalists make in analyzing the success of TMZ. This is because, by training, tradition and instincts, journalists believe it is the news content or its subjective “quality” that matters, so the content is what gets the attention. TMZ, however, is so much more than content, and that’s what Levin was trying to say.
TMZ was created of, by and for the Web. It’s TV show grew out of that base and functions in a secondary role. The stories are presented in blog format, with the latest on top. It has never wavered from this, not for a moment. The stories are all unbundled and can be distributed elsewhere. The language is conversational and assumes a live audience. Its franchises and gimmickry all serve a content point (e.g. “What do they look like today?”); it isn’t there simply to be there or to justify hokey marketing. It lives within the continuous stream that is news in the 21st Century. It satisfies a niche that, like it or not, is important in people’s lives. You can’t join the watercooler discussion about the Jackson trial unless you know about it, and that discussion changes throughout the day. Just as ESPN dominates the world of sports (“If it happened today, you’ll see it on ESPN”), so TMZ dominates its niche in the entertaining world of make believe. We can all take a lesson from that.
Levin’s business model is still advertising, but he’s able to emphasize dayparts. He also delivers a very sellable audience for advertisers, while the Big-J types are content with the +55 crowd. What the journalists miss is that its not all about the content of TMZ.com; it’s at least as much about its definition of the story, how that’s presented and distributed, talking with people instead of at them, its ownership of a popular information niche, and the pure passion evident in everything the company does.
Harvey Levin does have an important message for media, and it isn’t simply “gossip sells.” We need to get off our high horses and listen.