The Good News in the Page Six Scandal? Newspapers Still Matter

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Lost in the maze of Jared-gate -- the New York Post Page Six scandal, in which a gossip-column contributor is alleged to have attempted to extort cash from a billionaire in return for improved coverage -- is a startlingly counterintuitive insight: Newspapers still matter.
The chattering masses simply can't get enough of scandals on and about Page Six.
The chattering masses simply can't get enough of scandals on and about Page Six.

Wait a minute, stop the presses! This is the era of YouTube, not Gannett. The world adores Craiglists's Craig Newmark (486,000 Google citations as of April 18), not MediaNews Group's William Dean Singleton (27,700 cites). A great newspaper chain, Knight-Ridder, is being broken up, with nary a major acquirer in sight for the Philadelphia Inquirer. And no wonder: Advertisers, seeking new ways to communicate their mature products to elusive audiences, are fleeing dailies with alacrity, contributing to earnings shortfalls at venerable publishing houses.

During the first quarter of this year, The New York Times Co. reported profits down 69% from the same period in 2005 (when it took a gain on the sale of its headquarters building). The Tribune Company reported a 28% plunge. Gannett earnings dropped 11%. How can anyone say that newspapers still matter?

Yet Jared-gate proves they do, and for the most traditional of reasons: Newspapers remain the wood-pulp binding that trusses extremely local communities.

First, let's recap the background, Q-hed style. (That's a newsie's term for an off-lead analytical story.) Some three weeks ago, one Ron Burkle, an otherwise obscure Californian who'd risen from grocery bagger to billionaire, had released to the New York Daily News and The New York Times edited transcripts of videotaped meetings he'd convened with Jared Paul Stern, a longtime contributor to the New York Post's Page Six, the pre-eminent gossip column in this metropolis. Burkle had found himself the subject of numerous unfavorable items on the page, pieces he claimed (in an unanswered letter to Post proprietor Rupert Murdoch, among other places) were false.

Stern, a foppish Canadian who'd spent the better part of a decade channeling Walter Winchell and insinuating himself into New York's nightlife, sent Burkle an e-mail indicating he could help soften the billionaire's coverage. When they got together in Burkle's rented loft, the hidden camera recorded Stern's offer: He could arrange better coverage, for a price of around $220,000. In releasing the transcripts, Burkle's camp suggested this was extortion; Stern claimed he was merely seeking an investment in his side business, a clothing line.

Ever since, that story and its convolutions have consumed a significant portion of New York's semi-monde -- the middle world that lives, breathes and profits from chatter. Restaurants, fashion houses, magazines and advertising sales forces are among the habitues of this semi-monde, and, as pointed out by The Times' David Carr, a former gossip columnist himself, gossip is the fuel that powers these enterprises. I learned that firsthand when, as The Times' advertising columnist, I was told by an editor that the column's importance rested on one objective: not on breaking news, but on generating a morning's worth of switchboard activity among the city's media-spielers. But don't confuse localism with geography, for while such chatter-driven businesses may seem heavily concentrated in New York, they have major outposts in Los Angeles, Miami and Washington -- and all are influenced by ink that runs on presses in the Bronx, where the Post's printing plant is located.

Let us concede that consequence and financial success are not the same thing. The Post, after all, loses gobs of money. But let us grant that, even in this era of blogocrats, newspapers can still chain us and whip us into a frenzy.

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Randall Rothenberg, an author and longtime journalist, is director of intellectual capital at consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton.
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