The brainchild of lawyer-turned-journalist Harvey Levin, TMZ.com (the digital flagship of the TMZ brand), is the 89th most popular website in the United States according to Alexa, a website analytics company. By comparison, celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, who is arguably TMZ’s chief competitor, ranks 570th.
In addition to the website, which launched in 2005, the brand also encompasses TMZ on TV,” a half-hour daily program that complements the website as well as social media outreach via Facebook and Twitter. TMZ Live is the brand’s online Q&A series. Frequently hosted by Levin, it features in-studio celebrity guests, answers TMZ viewers' questions, and explains, in layman’s terms, procedural and substantive aspects of celebrity “justice” (making use of Levin’s law degree and experience as a broadcast legal analyst).
Unlike Hilton, whose claim to fame comes from his penchant for biting commentary and distasteful drawings on the famous, the TMZ brand developed its own style of reporting that is a combination of accuracy, objectivity and wit.
TMZ’s tongue-in-cheek observations, for example, call a spade a spade—but not in an overly aggressive manner. When reporting that Jon and Kate Gosselin were ordered to complete a three-hour parenting class, TMZ quipped, “hopefully, Ed Hardy makes backpacks,” poking fun at Jon Gosselin’s favorite brand.
TMZ is not a media brand to shy away from provocative news stories, and yet, it does not publish all of the material brought to its door. Journalistic integrity is part of the brand.
Three months prior to photos surfacing of Olympian Michael Phelps ingesting illegal drugs, TMZ already had the incriminating evidence. But feeling that Phelps, who was at a private party, was being set-up, Levin declined to pursue the story because it “felt wrong.” Likewise, TMZ didn’t publish a story about Michael Jackson which included disturbing photos, because Levin didn’t believe the source had a legal right to the documents in question.
The most challenging hurdle for any newsgathering brand to overcome is developing and maintaining knowledgeable and reliable sources. Levin and his staff, however, have successfully jumped over this barrier.
Beating out even CNN, it was the first news organization to break the biggest story of 2009—the death of icon Michael Jackson. But since events do not always happen in Los Angeles, the true testament to TMZ’s evolution is in its ability to develop a story regardless of where it occurs. Anna Nicole Smith’s death, Sandra Bullock’s divorce papers, and Gary Coleman’s death are all stories that broke outside of Los Angeles – in Florida, Texas, and Utah, respectively.
While Levin protects his network of tipsters, on a recent edition of TMZ Live he did concede that the brand has “a lot of connections" in Los Angeles and that its sources are “wide and varied.” Levin maintains that while TMZ pays for photos, which is standard in the industry, and for story tips, TMZ does not pay for actual stories, which is why, the brand claims, that its information is trustworthy.
Another obstacle the brand faced from the outset is the dreaded, and inevitable, slow news day. The brand resolved that issue by creating filler content, such as Memba Them? (featuring "where are they now?" before and after photos of TV and film stars after their heyday). A recent photo included Kelly McGillis, of Top Gun fame, who 24 years later and graying, barely resembles the once-sultry, blond love interest of Tom Cruise.
The biggest challenge facing the brand is the continued attack on its reputation. Despite attempts to discredit the brand’s legitimacy because of its gossipy nature, TMZ is owned by Time Warner, the respected publisher of trusted publications such as Time, Sports Illustrated, Fortune and People.
TMZ is also coming under attack in courtrooms, and being used by celebrities with legal troubles. Attorneys for both Lindsay Lohan and Jesse James recently cited examples of TMZ creating a prejudicial effect against their clients, which they argued would prevent an impartial jury from being seated.
TMZ’s name pays homage to the “thirty-mile zone,” an inside Hollywood reference to the area surrounding film studios used to determine rule and pay rates applicable to entertainment industry unions.
Of course, 30 miles is, by no means, where TMZ stops. And in an era where the National Enquirer break news about politicians including John Edwards and Al Gore, the so-called tabloid media brands including TMZ are starting to get more respect.