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TMZ Updated a Classic Tabloid Tactic for the Internet Age

The celebrity news website that mainstream outlets hate to cite (but do) has paid for photos and videos for years, same as the print tabloids before it. But when you ask whether it pays for tips, the answer becomes more opaque.

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Bennifer. Britney. Brangelina. The celebrity gossip of the 2000s is well-documented, but what was it that kept us reaching for copies of Us Weekly and People? On Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America, Clare Malone dives into the era’s celebrity obsession—from the magazine newsrooms, to the paparazzi boom, to the rise of reality television—to tell the stories behind the gossip, and what the tabloid sensation says about American culture. In Episode 4, we’re diving into the origins of TMZ, and how it redefined celebrity coverage for the internet age.

How did “TMZ” come to be the three letters you type into your internet browser the moment you hear about a celebrity death?

As former TMZ employee Gillian Sheldon remembered it, one of the early editors was an old Hollywood buff and he brought up the concept of the Thirty Mile Zone. Union workers would not pay travel expenses for jobs located beyond a 30-mile radius centered at Beverly and La Cienega.

That 30-mile zone was a cool reference with a convenient abbreviation, “TMZ.” And it got at the idea that the site would be covering all manner of action in the greater Hollywood zone.

Though mainstream news outlets had begrudgingly accepted TMZ, they still had a right to be skeptical of the site. While it began to invade the news-breaking space of traditional media, it retained … tabloid trappings.

“No, we don’t pay for tips,” Dax Holt, who worked at TMZ from 2005 to 2016, said. “You pay for photos or videos or assets, but no, you don’t ever pay for tips because that will sink an industry real fast—and trust me, I know, because that was my gig. I was the person handing out money to people. You never pay for tips because then people will come up with crazy stories and invent stuff just to make money.”

Let’s break down what Dax is saying there, since a lot of ink has been spilled over TMZ’s sourcing.

Paying for photos is something that traditional print celebrity magazines always did. Or videos, in the case of celebrity television shows. TMZ pays for both—including the very famous Beyoncé-Solange-and-Jay-Z in an elevator video.

The New Yorker reported in 2016 that TMZ had paid about $5,000 for that tape.

We talked about that dynamic on Episode 2, how even if a magazine wasn’t directly paying off people for tips on where celebrities might be, they were paying people who themselves might have been paying people to get the information. Namely, photographers and paparazzi agencies. A magazine was one step removed from the ethically dubious thing. But it was still benefiting from the information.

Another thing to remember is that TMZ wasn’t just getting photos from paparazzi. The site was getting them from regular people, too. And a lot of times, those people had jobs in government or medicine where it’s pretty unethical to leak personal information.

Mainstream journalists definitely receive documents that aren’t intended for the public’s eyes. But they’ll typically only publish those documents or information if they’re deemed to have relevance to the greater public good.

But for tabloids and TMZ? It just has to be juicy and about a famous person.

Take the case of the photo of Rihanna’s face after Chris Brown punched her and slammed her head into a car dashboard. TMZ published that photo, which was an official LAPD file photo. An investigation into two cops continued for three years, but they were never charged. The department couldn’t find payments in either officer’s bank account.

I should note here that cash payments exist—and in 2014, BuzzFeed reported an incidence of TMZ staffers being asked to take out cash from ATMs to pay for a video of comedian Michael Richards saying the N-word in a stand-up set.

But Dax referencing paying for “assets” is a little different from photos and purposefully opaque, I think. What could assets actually mean?

Documents seems a likely answer. TMZ is notoriously well-sourced in the legal world and has a lot of courthouse sources. There has been speculation for years that there were bribes happening in the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse.

In 2010 the court’s spokesman was fired on the grounds that he was leaking to TMZ. In 2008 he had hired a TMZ reporter to be his deputy and she later went back to working for the site.

A worker at the famous Betty Ford Clinic told Radar Online in 2010 that she’d been paid at least $10,000 by TMZ for an interview and photos of injuries that she reportedly sustained when clinic patient Lindsay Lohan attacked her. The worker, who was fired, later told The New York Times that she had been paid via her lawyer, Keith Davidson, who had TMZ connections. Davidson told the Times he couldn’t talk about the case.

Keith Davidson was later Stormy Daniels’s lawyer. She sued him in 2018 for being a “puppet” of Donald Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, who was trying to get Daniels to do a Sean Hannity interview denying that she had ever had sex with Donald Trump.

At the time, a spokesman for Davidson called it an “outrageously frivolous lawsuit.”

It’s a tangled, salacious web.

But there are also serious ethical questions to consider here. Particularly in the case of, say, domestic violence. Mainstream outlets like newspapers tend to try to protect the identities of survivors of sexual or domestic violence, unless otherwise directed by the survivor. TMZ definitely threw a lot of that to the side in its gusto to report on celebrities like Rihanna or later, the NFL star Ray Rice, who punched his fiancée in an elevator, a moment captured on video and later published on TMZ.

The mainstream, non-tabloid media’s obsession with TMZ and its sourcing and ethics has been long-standing. What’s interesting, to me, is that the way TMZ operates is not at all new in the ecosystem of the tabloids. What did change is that mainstream news outlets found themselves beholden to TMZ. They had to credit them for breaking stories first, or had to use the documents or videos or photos TMZ had obtained. They didn’t feel great about that, understandably.