Is TMZ the Future of News?


If TMZ focused on any other category but celebrity gossip, I imagine its leader Harvey Levin would be an even bigger emblem of digital brand building than Arianna Huffington. This is one of the most amazing trajectories I have seen in the perennial (usually elusive) pursuit of digital germination of cross-media success. TMZ has a massively popular Web site, some superb mobile apps, a Sirius radio show, a nightly TV program and daily live video chats hosted by Levin and his cohort Charles. It started only six years ago and arguably is the best instance of a brand built on digital that migrated across platforms and developed a unique style that could only have come out of the last ten years of online culture and social media evolution. 

Slammed for obsessive coverage and paying sources, TMZ may be shameless in its pursuit of all things sleazy, but it is a remarkable example of a fully conversational, real-time, video-powered news operation that works seamlessly across platforms. Watching a few episodes of the TMZ Live chat feed it is clear that the dynamic here is unique and former silos of TV, Web, audio, etc. are dissolved very effectively.

On an episode late last month the entire office took up the question of whether some recently released nude images, purportedly of actress Blake Lively, were genuine. The ridiculous lengths to which everyone went to suss out whether this was Lively's body were bizarre but probably no less obsessive than cable news' poking at trivial stories of the moment. At one point Levin commands one of the TMZ cameramen to go around the office and poll the staff on camera as to whether they think the photos are genuine. At another point a staffer sitting behind Harvey and Charles starts bickering with what they are saying on camera. Then another staffer starts talking to them from off-camera and Levin pulls him on saying, no one is anonymous here.

The real-time nature of online reporting is captured on camera as well, often by actually scrolling the TMZ Web site on camera. As news and photos of celebrity sightings come in they are being ingested and posted online, and then shown and commented upon by the on screen duo. In the episode I just reviewed, the former California Governator is having lunch with his son (apparently enraged by his father's recent scandals) and people in the newsroom are yelling to Levin that the photos are just in and to go to the Web site for them. And so we have the two hosts of TMZ Live reading their own news just posted to their own site on-air.

In the evenings all of this newsroom social interaction is made into a half hour of generally interesting TV. The banter over the news becomes a way of presenting the news as staffers "pitch" their articles to editor Levin and debate both their meaning and newsworthiness.  

Putting the content aside, there is something truly energizing about this format. If digital media helped make all media more transparent, then TMZ represents a kind of next step in which news is a social process, a conversation, ongoing and open. The "reporters" become avatars for the audience. Staff personalities and prejudices are worn on the speakers' sleeves rather than concealed. These staffers even openly criticize TMZ cameramen for the questions they ask celebrities in the taped sequences. The lines once separating media platforms are trivial, arguments about media bias moot.

Is this what all news will look more like in coming years, something closer to a televised conversation than reportage as we have known it?
2 comments about "Is TMZ the Future of News?".
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  1. Bob Kiger from Videography Lab, July 1, 2011 at 1:42 p.m.

    If TMZ is the "future of news" than you-are-doomed. We do not feel that this absurd idea will gain traction through the global transition in-progress although it has appeal to some base-interests.

  2. Chris Stinson from Non-Given, July 5, 2011 at 9:58 a.m.

    One look at MSNBC, FOXNEWS or HNL would show that it is the way many newsshows are produced today. They are all about "being the news" first and foremost.

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