Elaine (Lainey) Lui, proprietor of gossip site LaineyGossip.com, reported that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie a.k.a. Brangelina planned to have their baby, Shiloh Nouvel, in Africa a full three months before any of the gossip mags published this tidbit. If you care about celeb gossip, as do the up to 500,000 unique visitors her site gets each month, this was big news.
This one-woman operation's monthly figures don't yet come close to the huge paid circulation numbers that help mags such as Us Weekly and People generate hundreds of millions in advertising revenue each year. Still, you can't help but notice these kinds of scoops, plus the ad revenue their purveyors are starting to attract and see how gossip sites are biting at the heels of the big players.
Vancouver-based Lui, 32, is one of hundreds of people who have set up shop online providing the lowdown on what celebs are really up to. (Her site's tag line is “calling all smuthounds.”) She is also one of the few Canadians, along with Montrealer Seth Abramovitch, associate editor of Los Angeles-based Defamer.com, who have achieved some success in this field. What started as a daily e-mail of hot headlines to satiate her friends' gossip hankerings has, in just three years, led to a spot for Lui as a correspondent on eTalk, CTV's national entertainment show. This year, celebrity gossip became her primary source of income.
Nicole Bogas, a gossip-blog advertising specialist with Blogads, based in Carrboro, N.C., says that celebrity sites are part of an overall upswing. “Blog advertising revenue coming through our network has tripled each year for the past two years,” she says. Merrill Lynch forecasts that, outside of the U.S., online advertising will hit US$14.5 billion in 2007, and blog advertising will definitely make up a piece of that pie.
Most blogs generate revenue through the Blogads advertising network, which represents such popular gossip blogs as Egotastic.com and Dlisted.com. Research firm PQ Media, based in Stamford, Conn., estimates that blog, podcast and RSS advertising as a group will pull in nearly US$50 million in 2006. (To get a sense of scale, PerezHilton.com, the top blogger in the Blogads network, charges advertisers US$5,000 for a one-week premium spot on his site.) Lui chose to go the advertising-rep route, signing with Toronto-based UpTrend Media Inc., in January 2006. This gives her more control over the content of the ads on her site, which have included such major brands as Unilever's Sunsilk hair-care line and Apple computers. According to Lui, revenue from ad sales for LaineyGossip.com is expected to exceed year-end goals.
Why are gossip blogs taking off, when the newsstands and airwaves are awash in celebrity news? Lui thinks it is partly due to the Hollywood publicity machine, which creates a “real-life” soap opera out of actors' lives. “They decide: we're going to make Jennifer Aniston into the girl next door and we're going to make so-and-so into the bad girl,” explains Lui. But unlike more traditional media, bloggers use a combination of personality, humour and analysis to cut through the Hollywood fairy tale. Oh and they're free.
Longtime LaineyGossip.com reader Taya van Waterschoot, 30, describes Lui's site as “like a conversation you would have with a good friend. Some of the other ones are just kind of quick and dirty,” she says. “It's almost as though she's gossiping about the gossip with you, which is rare, and I love it.” (Lui's site is updated every few days with posts that run, on average, 2,500 words.) While van Waterschoot continues to buy print versions of some celeb weeklies, she spends much less time with them: “First, the sites are free. Second, they are updated constantly. By the time the articles and pictures are in the magazines, I have already seen them.”
Another distinctive feature is the bloggers' snarky and humorous tone. A recent Defamer.com post about actor Brandon Routh's engagement, for instance, is headlined “Some guy who played Superman engaged to girl you've never heard of.” What marks the good blogs from the bad is a unique, no-bullshit take. The Toronto-based creator of Fadedyouthblog.com, who writes under the pseudonym Arasto, explains the appeal of gossip sites this way: “Us Weekly will say, 'Check out Ashlee Simpson's new look.' I'm like, that's not Ashlee's new look, that's her nose job! It's hard to go back to Us Weekly once you hear the whip-snap at the end of a blogger's sentence.”
Defamer's Abramovitch moved to Los Angeles in 2001 as an aspiring television writer. While working various low-level TV jobs, he started a blog called Feh, which is how Mark Lisanti, editor of Defamer, found him; Abramovitch was hired on a full-time basis last October. Abramovitch defines Defamer, which is a little more than two years old, as an industry-focused satire site that allows its readers to feel a bit like Hollywood insiders.
While Defamer bills itself as the gossip rag L.A. deserves, Abramovitch is quick to differentiate it from other gossip sites out there, in particular PerezHilton.com, the grand pooh-bah of celebrity bloggers. “What sets us apart is our writing,” Abramovitch explains. “It's just a smarter take.” Reading the backstory may allow people to feel OK with being obsessed with celebrity, he continues. “We all have this frivolous fascination. If we can simultaneously make fun of it, then we can keep talking about it.” The end result? Bloggers make money off ad sales; readers are entertained; and “celebrities” who need the attention get press. How else would we know about Paris Hilton?
But is it all positive quid pro quo? Stan Rosenfield, a publicist who represents such clients as George Clooney, Charlie Sheen and Robert De Niro, has several beefs with blogs. Together with client Clooney, he battled the Manhattan-focused site Gawker.com, owned by Gawker Media. Rosenfield took issue with the upgraded version of the site's Gawker Stalker feature; launched last March, it uses Google Maps to illustrate real-time reader sightings of celebrities. He was concerned the Gawker Stalker could lead to security concerns for these stars. (The site continues to post its Gawker Stalker maps.)
Rosenfield also worries, if a blog posts incorrect information, it's hard to get a correction. “If a paper prints something that is wrong…I say, 'You printed this, and this is not accurate.' [With blogs], you can't find half of them,” he explains.
More alarming for the bloggers themselves is that, unlike traditional media, these sites may not be afforded the same freedom-of-the-press protection enjoyed by newspapers and magazines. Controversial subject matter and worldwide reach the size of a publication is usually a factor in determining damages mean larger sites should keep their legal representatives handy particularly where big money is involved. For example, People reportedly paid a substantial amount rumoured to be in excess of US$4 million for the exclusive North American rights to the pictures of Brangelina's baby, Shiloh. But when those same pictures ended up on a number of blogs last June (contravening People's deal), Time Inc. sent its attorneys after every site that posted them prior to publication date.
Rosenfield's position is that, in general, the bloggers “exercise less restraint,” but are now part of the landscape. Like any nascent form of media, the blog rules still have to be worked out. In time, as it is with magazines and newspapers, the dance between publicist and blogger will become well choreographed. In fact, it has already started. Leslie Sloane Zelnik, mouthpiece of frequent celeb blog targets Britney Spears and Jennifer Lopez, now comments directly to Perez Hilton.
Gossip is not going away. Blogosphere watcher Technorati.com tracks 55 million sites; of the Top 100 most popular over the past six months, five have a gossip focus. Advertisers include wireless company T-Mobile and cable network Showtime. And when entertainment site TMZ.com, owned by Time Warner, broke the news that Mel Gibson had made anti-Semitic comments during an arrest for suspicion of driving under the influence of alcohol, the revelation boosted that site's profile into the stratosphere and brought the story to a much wider audience.
There is no denying the appeal of the ride instantaneously delivered exclusives, and no-holds-barred copy. That, combined with the very real money some of these sites pull in off ad revenue in a softening market for print, means blogs are here to stay. As Rosenfield admits: “It makes for kind of fun reading. If I wasn't in the business, perhaps I would read them more regularly with a different point of view.”