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Levin: Well, [we get our scoops] by doing journalism. It is just that simple at its root. We do old fashion journalism.
With Tiger Woods, we came in during the Thanksgiving weekend. I don’t know how many other reporters were working, but we were working 18 hour days. And we were working the telephones. We were basically assembling a lot of information that ultimately led to a lot of stories. We did that with Michael Jackson, we did it with Mel Gibson, we did it with Anna Nicole Smith. At its core, we try and develop sources who will trust us, and who will talk to us. I think the business has been based on trust and on just beating the bushes as in old fashioned journalism. I’ve done this for many years. I’ve been a journalist for decades. And that’s the core of it.
TVWeek: Doesn’t there have to be something more than that?
Levin: You know what? There isn’t. There really isn’t. It is just hard work. I’ve been in this town for almost 30 years working as a journalist. And I’ve got a lot of contacts. And I use them. And other people on my staff have developed them too. We work really hard. At five o’clock, everybody doesn’t say, oh I’m going home. And I think, whether you want to believe it or not, it makes all the difference in the world.
TVWeek: So is Harvey Levin 50 percent of this, or are you 70 percent, or are you 20 percent?
Levin: It depends on the story. LA is a city of six degrees of separation, where a grip on a lot gives a TA a tip on a story that leads to something else. So we get tips in all sorts of ways from people that people know.
And it’s very egalitarian. When we have a morning meeting, everybody is in it. TAs are in it, runners are in it, producers are in it, graphic arts people are in it, everybody’s in it because everybody knows people in town. And one of the ways we do things is everybody’s got tentacles into the community. And it pays off and we get stories that way. But everybody is a partner in this. It’s much more than any place that I’ve ever worked. And this is the way I wanted it. This is a very egalitarian operation.
TVWeek: So why don’t we talk a little about the success you’ve had and how you think that has changed things.
Levin: Well, it has changed things. At its core, what TMZ is, is a news operation that can publish when we get it right. When we get it right, we get it up on our website. And that’s the mantra. And when we got the four pages of the police report [on the Mel Gibson case] and had a lot of information we’d accumulated over the course of the day, we published that story, I believe, at 8:32 on a Friday night.
Well, you can’t do that with a TV show. Because that’s not the time period for the show. You can’t do that with a newspaper or a magazine because it’s not part of the publishing cycle. And the premise of TMZ always was, if you can create a vibrant news operation online that can publish without being straight jacketed by these publishing cycles and time periods, then you can basically own the space and you can own stories that these other ventures used to own but can’t really compete with. And that was really the core of TMZ. And it still exists today.
What’s happened is that you start looking at some newspapers that say, okay, we’re going to develop an online business. But then the question is, what goes to the online people, what goes to the newspaper or the magazine? And it’s really hard because they’re ultimately competing interests. So what they’re trying to do is in some ways watering down both by not committing to one. And I think that’s the struggle right now, which is how do these other ventures transition? Are they going to give up the magazine or the newspaper and just go online? Are they going to try to sustain both businesses? It’s been really challenging for them and I understand that because things have really changed.
TVWeek: But Harvey, it seems to me it’s more than that. What I’m also wondering about is the fact that you’re in a very competitive space. Most publications certainly know the interest that the public has in covering celebrities and the kinds of things that you do. But how is it that when TMZ says Michael Jackson has died, it takes everybody else three more hours to verify that. Why is it that you are so far ahead of everybody?
Levin: I’m telling you. [It’s] because we have really good sources. It’s the operation. Michael Jackson was not just me. We have really good people who have a work ethic that I think is different. I’ve worked in a lot of news rooms. And these people have the best work ethic of any place I’ve ever worked. I’ve worked in plenty of traditional newsrooms. I’ve worked for the LA Times.
TVWeek: And this is because you think you’ve hired a lot of young people who are hungry? I mean, what is the secret sauce here?
Levin: We spend a lot of time every day going over how to develop sources, how to get people to trust you. Trust is critical. There is no story so big that we would ever burn a source. And it doesn’t matter how enticing the story is but we are true to our word when we deal with people. And I think this is one of the reasons people come back to us.
It’s not like things get handed to you necessarily on a silver platter. Most of the time they don’t. And it is just hard work. It’s not a fluke at the point when you start looking over the past four years. It’s oh, they got Michael Jackson, or oh yeah, they got Mel Gibson. Oh they got Brittany’s divorce too.
TVWeek: Is what you’re doing duplicatable by other journalistic organizations?
Levin: Absolutely. And not only duplicatable in other forms, it’s duplicatable in the area that we work in. I don’t believe that this is a zero sum game by any means. I don’t think that one person’s success is another person’s failure. I think there is plenty of room for success by lots of people.
And I think, ironically, in this area, in this genre, the more successful different ventures are, the more of an appetite it builds for the product. Very few people just go to one website. If they’re really interested they’ll go to five or six or ten. And that benefits everybody. To me, I think there’s plenty of room for success in this area and in other areas of journalism, too.
TVWeek: Should the New York Times and the LA Times start paying for tips?
Levin: That’s so overblown. We rarely, rarely [do that]. In fact, for example, Tiger Woods, none. None. And I’m not going to get into when we do and when we don’t. We virtually never do because we don’t need to.
What if we got a call from somebody in North Dakota and they say, ‘Look. I’ve done some work and I found that there’s an interesting lawsuit in the court. And I’ll tell you what court it’s in but I’m not going to do this work for nothing and I’m basically a stringer.’ And in a situation like that, we still have to find it. We still have to vet it. I would absolutely do that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, but that hardly ever happens. Because most of the time we find our own stories or we get right in the direction where we can find it.
What I will typically pay for are photos or video, and everybody does. And when people say they don’t they are just being dishonest. They hire stringers. It’s the same thing.
The thing we will not pay for, ever, is an interview. And what’s happened is that people are pa
ying for interviews now, where it becomes how do you know that what somebody tells you is accurate when money is on the line? And they know the more they embellish the story the more money they get. You can’t validate it. And that’s why it’s wrong to ever pay for an interview. People do it all the time and there are plenty of traditional news media that are just dishonest about it. And what they do is they say, ‘Oh well we didn’t pay for the interview, we just paid for the high school pictures.’ And then they put them on TV. And it’s on lies and everybody knows it. That’s the danger.
TVWeek: What would be going over the line for you? Are there boundaries?
Levin: There are tons of boundaries. We have all sorts of boundaries. I cannot tell you how many things we don’t publish. Look at all the people writing about Tiger Woods and all the stories about what happened inside the bedroom. You’re not going to find that on our site. And for us, Tiger Woods started as a car accident. And it went from a car accident to us finding out that there was a suspicion among law enforcement that there might have been a domestic problem in the house. And that’s how it all kind of spilled over into this story. And that’s how we ended up in this story. It didn’t start out with Tiger Woods was having an alleged affair. It started out with a car accident that didn’t add up and we started making phone calls.
In terms of our limits, my god, we deal with this all day long. Where pictures come in, video comes in, stories come in, where we just say no. We say no all the time. We have a policy with our cameramen where they sign contracts that say they will not violate people’s privacy, they won’t incite people, they won’t chase people. We put everybody on a flat salary so that there’s not an incentive to come up with something. They get the same amount whether they get five videos or one video. They get the same thing. This is the core part of our business.
TVWeek: When you started this at the website, did you have a vision in your mind that you wanted this to be a TV show as well?
Levin: Not really. No.
TVWeek: Was it Jim Paratore’s idea? [When Levin launched the TMZ website in 2005 he partnered with longtime TV veteran Paratore.]
Levin: I think Jim always wanted this to eventually be a TV show. I was really into this website and my focus was making the website successful.
TVWeek: So, is it fair to ask, then, is the TV show almost a distraction for you?
Levin: No, even the TV show is a joy. I have an amazing staff on the TV show. The producers are brilliant, the editors are brilliant. They are the best in the business. And the TV show, I’ve got to say, the TV show is not hard to do. It’s the easiest show I’ve ever done because it just works. And what I think what’s happened is it has allowed us to blend the staff, and in some way to grow the staff in a way we couldn’t have done just with the website.
TVWeek: So this has really helped you resource wise having the TV show?
Levin: Absolutely. The TV show has been nothing but a benefit to the website. There is no downside and only upside with the TV show.
As the interview was winding down, Levin touched once more on what’s made TMZ a success.
Levin: It gets back to the fact that people can’t believe [that] if you really look at what we do, it’s just old fashioned journalism. I’m telling you that almost all the stories we get are us working contacts, developing [them].
Do you think I knew people in [Tiger Woods’ community] Windermere? Do you think we knew people in the Bahamas during Anna Nicole Smith? We didn’t have anybody in the Bahamas. And we dominated the Anna Nicole story.
We don’t have [huge] resources. And if we want to buy a video, and if we are competing with one of the other TV shows? We pack up and leave. We can’t compete with them. The point I’m making, is we didn’t have anybody in Orlando. We didn’t have anybody in the Bahamas. But we sat there and we worked the phones. We developed sources, we used people we had. And we duplicate that and it’s not that there is any magic to it. And it’s hard work, and it’s just figuring it out. I don’t know if I should even tell you this.
There was this huge, huge, huge case involving this huge star. An athlete. And we didn’t know anybody in this small town where this all went down. And what we ended up doing in that case is we went to the white pages and we started calling lawyers in town and others in town. I’ll tell you what it was. The Kobe Bryant case. We didn’t know anybody in Eagle. So we went to the white pages and we started calling all these people and we got more than our share of people who hung up, who didn’t want to talk, but over time, we connected with some people and we developed some fabulous sources in that case and we did a great job on the Kobe Bryant case. If you go back and look, we were breaking story after story after story. We’re dwarfed by the so called traditional media.#