Go to a nondescript office building on the East Side of Manhattan, down the hall to a door already in the clutches of a fake dismembered hand, and you will find the newsroom of The Smoking Gun.
The take-no-prisoners website at Thesmokinggun.com is in the midst of spilling affidavits in a Texas polygamy case and recently pushed The Los Angeles Times to retract a major article about the murder of Tupac Shakur by pointing out that it was based on fake documents.
Going strong: A screenshot of The Smoking Gun website. The digital economy has decimated the business model of journalism, but the same technology has made each remaining journalist more powerful.
American rapper Shakur was shot four times in a drive-by shooting in Las Vegas on 7 September 1996, and died six days later of respiratory failure and cardiac arrest.
The site also debunked writer James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces, revealed TV show host and political commentator Bill O’Reilly’s specific fascination with loofahs, and is about to publish a major investigative article about a “well-known platinum-selling artist,” replete with mug shots and police reports.
Open that door and you will find a bigger-than-life poster of the former National Football League quarterback Michael Vick. And three guys sitting at computers.
Much has been said about how the emerging digital economy has decimated the business model of journalism. But the same digital technology has made each remaining journalist several times more powerful.
As working reporters, we are able to get information— through the public and government Web database and proprietary digital sources—that our ancestors in the business would not have dared dream of. I know because I’m one of the ancestors.
The Smoking Gun, a part of Turner Broadcasting System Inc., a Time Warner company, is the happy by-product of that revolution. To the delight of an average four million visitors a month, its staff ferrets out contract riders, embarrassing civil filings, and police reports that read as if the crime fiction writer James Ellroy wrote them.
Last month, it had 58 million page views (thanks again, Spitzer). Democratric Party politician Eliot Spitzer resigned as the governor of New York state in the US after The New York Times reported that he was a client of a prostitution ring under investigation by the federal government.
I briefly thought of asking them to look up my own history—criminal and otherwise— but that seemed too easy.
It’s disconcerting to see a news brand as robust and well-known as The Smoking Gun run by a staff of three people: the editor, William Bastone, a veteran mafia reporter, who used to work at The Village Voice; Andrew Goldberg, managing editor; and Joseph Jesselli, reporter and webmaster, who also worked at the Voice.
Bastone said most people writing on the Web are most interested in its characteristics as a megaphone, as opposed to the toolbox it contains for practising journalism.
“Name me a website that does original reporting. There aren’t many,” he said. Bastone is a low-key man who does not seem like the kind of guy who would be breaking big stories about mafia figures, but he remains surprised that very little digital shoe leather is being expended, given the opportunities. “It is beyond night and day from just 15 years ago in terms of reporting,” he said, shaking his head. “When I think about how many hours—hundreds of days, really—I spent in records offices looking for stuff I can just get on my desktop, it drives me crazy.”
While Bastone and his fellow pirates do some long-running stories, much of what they do involves obtaining the “get”— the lawsuit, the arrest photo, the private memo—and slapping it up on the Web.
That approach can never replace the kind of reporting that resulted in Pulitzer Prizes last week for The Washington Post’s investigation of mistreatment of veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center or The New York Times’ series on toxic products from China.
But The Smoking Gun has demonstrated that if you obey the metabolism of the Web, not the journalist, you can land with significant impact in a hurry. “I think one of the keys is that we are three people,” said Bastone, who founded the site with Daniel Green, another Voice alumnus who has since moved on to truTV at Turner, and Barbara Glauber, Bastone’s wife and the designer of the site.
The kind of guy who can get fired up about a tattered, vintage mugshot of English musician David Bowie, Bastone did not bring a lot of Web savvy to the enterprise when he started it back in 1997 while he was still working at the Voice.
“I didn’t even have an email address,” he said. “I sent out the news about the site on a fax machine. I wonder what the guys at Wired thought when my press release came by fax.”
Yet, The Smoking Gun has managed to prevail on a road that is littered with carcasses. It is the tiniest news staff in the Time Warner empire, but truTV, formerly Court TV, uses The Smoking Gun name to brand a television show: The Smoking Gun Presents: World’s Dumbest, the leading show on the network. Several specials stamped with the logo ran on Adult Swim, part of the Cartoon Network.
It ain’t Frontline, but the viewers show up.
“Their secret sauce is the ability to source documents that no one else can get,” said Steve Koonin, president of Turner Entertainment Networks, which inherited the site when it bought Court TV. “It’s not a big business, but it’s profitable, and one of the things we are diligent about is the care and feeding of brands. Young people respond to this brand on TV and on the Web.”
Despite the corporate synergy, the site does no favours. Last year, when Chris Albrecht, then head of Time Warner’s HBO, was picked up in Las Vegas and accused of assaulting his girlfriend, he got a ride through the spanking machine, replete with a scary mugshot and a brutally detailed police report.
Working at The Smoking Gun seems a fairly solitary existence, with the staff of three grinding away on computers, but there are breaks in the action. Last Thursday, Thomas Riccio, the ex-con who recorded the O.J. Simpson memorabilia bust, stopped by to chat.
The site laid him out in 2007—“Meet Thomas Riccio: Arsonist, prison escapee, stolen goods dealer”—but there were no hard feelings. He used the mugshot they had unearthed for the cover of the book he is pushing.
Bastone, who sold out to what was then Court TV for an undisclosed sum in 2000, said the idea for the site was his fascination with rummaging around courthouses and city property records and a notion that it might attract an online audience. Nowadays, that obsession finds expression on his desktop. “Sitting here, we can monitor cases and filings as if we were sitting in the courtroom,” he said.
So far, The Smoking Gun crew is still doing the most looking. “We figure that people who come to the site sort of get it; we consider them to be sophisticated and in on the joke,” said Goldberg. “But I would never have thought this far down the road that we would be all alone.”
©2008/The New York Times