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From AJR,   June/July 2008

High-Caliber Ammunition   

The Smoking Gun makes its mark online with its relentless pursuit of documents.

By Kevin Rector
     


On March 17, the Los Angeles Times tore back open the East Coast vs. West Coast hip-hop saga of the 1990s with a blockbuster story connecting hip-hop mogul Sean "Diddy" Combs to the 1994 shooting of deceased hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996.

Little more than a week later, the three-man investigative team of The Smoking Gun told the Times that its story was bogus that the FBI documents it relied on were phony. The Times and the story's Pulitzer-winning author, Chuck Philips, apologized shortly thereafter for being duped, and the story was retracted.

Call the feat reminiscent of David beating Goliath. Call it a lesson in 21st-century journalism. Just don't call it a surprise. It's just another notch on The Smoking Gun's belt.

The site's tiny team, which is devoted to "paving the paper trail" on stories that "can't be found elsewhere on the Web," has broken big news before. It nabbed and posted the documents behind the sexual harassment suit against Bill O'Reilly in 2004, showed author James Frey's Oprah-touted "nonfiction" rehab account, "A Million Little Pieces," to be an amalgamation of exaggerations and lies in 2006 (see "Full Court Press," February/March 2006) and has routinely been first to get the goods on public-figure faux pas. (Think photo gallery of Eliot Spitzer's fave call girl.)

Says Editor Bill Bastone, 46: "We have a very good understanding, across the country, of how to find things."

The fact that they do find things scoops, fresh facts and don't just aggregate tidbits from other outlets makes the Gun one of few widely successful independent online journalism sources routinely creating original news content. Despite a plethora of opinion online, small-team newsbreakers just aren't that common.

"I think they're a bit of an entrepreneurial model for modern journalists," says Robert Niles, editor of the Online Journalism Review.

If the New York City-based Gun is a journalism model, it's an easy one to understand. In fact, the site has gained a heap of attention in recent years for the simplicity of its formula of slapping up newsworthy documents, splashing a bit of explanation on top and, well, letting the gun smoke. In an amateurish design similar to that of The Drudge Report, the Gun's rinky-dink Web site features mug shots, lists of musical performers' backstage demands and other "cool, confidential, quirky" firsthand documents which the three guys find using old-school reporting wherewithal, filing Freedom of Information Act requests and mining government and law enforcement sources. The site attracts close to 4 million unique visitors a month.

The team has also been dismissed as just another celebrity-obsessed blog, a charge Bastone scoffs at: "From the day we started the site until today we've been reporters," he says. "I don't like when people lump us in with gossip sites because when you hear 'gossip sites,' there's always the whisper that perhaps the accuracy might not be all there."

While the team sometimes goes more in-depth as it did with the Frey and Shakur pieces it usually lets its documents do most of the talking. It's what the team Bastone, Managing Editor Andrew Goldberg and reporter Joseph Jesselli is known for. "I don't want to do what everyone else does," Bastone says. "I want to get out of the way so the reader gets the chance to look at the document." That approach isn't exactly commonplace in newsrooms, but it appears to be picking up momentum. In recent years, papers have shown a greater inclination to post story-supporting documents on their Web sites. Bastone says it's a trend he supports, but he worries that examples of documents backfiring on papers might tarnish the practice. It was, after all, the fact that the L.A. Times posted the FBI "documents" on which it based its Shakur story that allowed The Smoking Gun to discover they were phony.

Bastone brags, though, that The Smoking Gun has never had to retract a story or apologize for a document and says its success should prove to the rest of the news industry that documents are valuable additions to stories. Documents have never been looked at as liabilities by journalists but rather as the stiffest type of proof. The same concept should be used when deciding how best to tell a story online, Bastone says. "It makes for a more powerful experience for the average reader," he says.

While The Smoking Gun calls its content "confidential, classified, top secret," a lot of it is none of the above. A good percentage of it is from public records. Still, Bastone says, it's valuable to readers. "A good deal of it would be considered public, but does the average person have any idea how to get it? Does the average person know how to write a Freedom of Information request to get information out of federal or state agencies? I'd say no," he says.

The site was started by Bastone and Daniel Green in 1997, when Bastone worked for and Green freelanced for the Village Voice. It was published out of Bastone's Manhattan apartment and designed by his wife, Barbara Glauber. Its content was often the stuff the two reporters gathered during reporting jaunts but didn't need for their day jobs. Bastone was an organized-crime reporter for the Voice and knew how to get mugs and court files easily. The site got attention immediately; people liked the idea. In 1999, Bastone went on paternity leave from the Voice, and then bowed out of the paper for good to begin pitching the site to potential buyers. In 2000, it was purchased by CourtTV, now TruTV, which is part of Time Warner. The site has been steadily profitable, a corporate spokeswoman says.

The sale turned The Smoking Gun into Bastone's full-time job and opened the doors for him to hire help. He recruited two friends from the Voice: Joseph Jesselli, an IT man, to be a reporter and Webmaster; and Andrew Goldberg, a former photographer, to be a reporter. Jesselli, 51, had the HTML know-how to draft the site's pages the "old-fashioned way," without complicated software but with simple page templates a method still used for the site and the reason it "operates so efficiently," he says. Goldberg, 36, who is now The Smoking Gun's managing editor, says he was finishing graduate school when Bastone came calling and jumped at the opportunity to try out his reporting chops. (Green left the editorial side of the Gun about three years ago to serve as a senior development director for the site and TruTV, which has also used the Smoking Gun brand for television specials like "The Smoking Gun Presents: World's Dumbest Criminals.") In their newsroom, Jesselli says, the three spend much of their time scouring news, thinking of fresh stories or ways to contribute to existing ones and utilizing what could be called collaborative humor: "Occasionally a silly little quip fired across the room results in an idea being sparked," he says.

Once they have an idea, they start working every avenue they know and all the sources they're in contact with to dig up the dirt. Eleven years in, Bastone says, the small team has become a well-oiled machine.

"We do it better now than we ever have in the past," he says. "We've probably done stories that have emanated from every single state in the country, and we have a very good familiarity of what's available where and how to get it. We have a lot of institutional knowledge that comes in handy when we're chasing stories."

At a time when newsrooms are shrinking across the country, The Smoking Gun's size-to-success ratio and simple formula are encouraging they show that sometimes, all you need is a little know-how.

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