Sep 11, 2009

J-Schoolers Meet the New Boss: TMZ's Harvey Levin [J-school Embed]

The Columbia Journalism School had an extra-special visitor yesterday: someone who can actually offer jobs to j-school graduates. Hunter Walker, our blogger turned j-school student, reports on what his classmates think of their new boss.

They say journalism school gives you connections. In the recession-wracked media world of 2009 that apparently means having a sitdown with one of the most powerful forces in the celebrity industrial complex-Harvey Levin founder and captain of

Yesterday, Levin stopped by the Columbia School of Journalism to take resumes and crow about the success of his popular celebrity gossip site. With his open-collared polo shirt and impressively orange tan, Levin looked like he arrived on 116th Street straight from a lunch meeting at the Ivy.

Early in his remarks, Levin issued the blunt proclamation that "newspapers are seeing their last hurrah as are, I think, magazines." He told the j-schoolers that we "are learning about a media that… has stagnated for decades and it's basically the same media that it was thirty years ago." Levin is hardly troubled by the demise of print media. He said the traditional news powerhouses didn't take TMZ seriously when the site originally launched in 2005. Since then, Levin says they have been forced to recognize him as a legitimate competitor. He gleefully recounted his various Michael Jackson death "scoops" as an example of this phenomenon.

There's no denying that Levin runs an impressive newsroom at TMZ. You basically can't check into a hospital anywhere in Southern California without him finding out about it. As Levin put it, "Anna Nicole Smith, we just dominated the coverage of that... we pretty much own the space in our little world just because this is a very vibrant news operation. We treat Britney Spears the way Fox News treats Obama."

According to Levin, Britney's various meltdowns have been a huge part of TMZ's growth in recent years. He said that, in terms of traffic, "over time nobody touches Britney Spears." This formula has been hugely succesful for TMZ. Paidcontent estimates the site's revenues for last year as being "in the $15 million range."

It's admirable that Levin has found a way to make a profitable newsroom, but it's beyond depressing that one of the few viable futures for professional journalism involves obsessive coverage of drugged-out starlets and endless Octomom updates.

After he spoke, Levin was mobbed by perky j-school students eager to give him their resumes. The stereotype of j-school students is that we all enroll with visions of writing ponderous Pulitzer-bait features and breaking Watergate-sized scoops, but in today's job market, it seems like a lot of us would be content writing about reality TV stars. Welcome to the future of journalism.

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