Breaking the Mel Gibson arrest story was the latest coup for Harvey Levin and his staff of 25 at the fledgling entertainment website
On Monday, Levin spoke to more than 40 news outlets, from CNN to The New York Times, about how TMZ got the Gibson exclusive. But this is not the first story the site has broken.
The day it was launched last November, it posted video of the minor car accident Paris Hilton and then-boyfriend Stavros Niarchos III were in outside a Hollywood nightclub. TMZ was also the first to obtain Suri Cruise's birth certificate and court documents in Michael Jackson's custody case, Levin said.
"We're not into doing these kind of wax figures on the red carpet (stories)," Levin told The Associated Press on Monday. "We're not beholden to publicists. We've kind of created our own path here."
The site, a partnership between America Online and Telepictures Productions, was designed to report "entertainment news in real time in an unvarnished way," said Levin, 55, an attorney who has worked as a journalist for 30 years.
Besides breaking stories, TMZ features video clips of spontaneous celebrity encounters, star gossip, music and film blogs and links to dozens of other entertainment websites.
"I think it's having an impact because we're not doing things the same way as everybody else," Levin said. "We're a real, functioning newsroom that publishes on demand. We don't have time periods like TV shows and we don't have publishing cycles like newspapers and magazines have."
Still, the site is scrupulous about its facts, Levin said. "Every single word is fact-checked and also lawyered," he said.
That makes it journalism, said Bryce Nelson, a journalism professor at the University of Southern California. "Anything that's accurate and newsworthy is journalism," he said. "If Web sites break things that conventional media is interested in, they're having an effect on journalism."
Conventional news outlets often feel pressure to match or follow stories first reported on Web sites, Nelson said. After learning of Gibson's arrest Friday, Levin said his staff started getting tips about Gibson's inflammatory language and a possible Sheriff's Department cover-up. Even though Levin was "100 per cent" sure of the story, he said he still had "a knot in (his) stomach" when he sent it into cyberspace.
Jim Bankoff, executive vice president of America Online, said he expected TMZ to be popular because of the insatiable thirst for celebrity news and the absence of a broadband video channel devoted to it.
Still, the 9-month-old site has "exceeded my high expectations," Bankoff told the AP.
Jim Paratore, president of Telepictures Productions, said that breaking the Gibson story gives visitors an idea of the potential of TMZ, which stands for Thirty Mile Zone - a film industry term referring to the immediate area around Los Angeles where filming can occur without added out-of-town labor costs.
"The Mel Gibson story establishes us as a legitimate, credible journalism institution," he said. "We're covering the world of entertainment and celebrities but it's more than just gossip. We also cover the news in a very credible way."