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The Nation

Gossip Scandal Altering Tabloid

The N.Y. Post scales back on Page Six freelancers after one allegedly tried to get cash for coverage.

April 22, 2006|Ellen Barry | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — The New York Post, which has maintained a Sphinx-like silence about the scandal over its Page Six gossip column, is restructuring the feature to reduce its reliance on freelancers.

It was a freelancer, Jared Paul Stern, who was videotaped allegedly offering California billionaire Ron Burkle a guarantee of favorable coverage in exchange for payments that would amount to $220,000 over the course of a year. Stern was suspended April 6 after federal investigators told Post editors they were investigating.

The tabloid since has decided to increase the number of full-time employees writing for Page Six from three to four. That means Page Six editor Richard Johnson will no longer call on a pool of part-time contributors to fill his daily page -- actually a page and a half -- with choice nuggets.

One of those contributors, Fernando Gil, informed associates by e-mail Friday that the restructuring would leave "myself and several other part-timers out of the picture."

Post spokesman Howard Rubenstein would not comment on the change, which was reported Friday by the New York Daily News, saying Post executives "don't care to go into their management techniques."

The change, although hardly dramatic, provides a narrow view into a newspaper that has responded to the crisis with deafening silence. When the Daily News went to press April 7 with a flashy cover headline, "Page Sick," the Post ran a cover about the verdict in a mafia trial. The Post ran a single story about the Page Six case that day and since has referred to it only once, indirectly.

The silence, one employee said, has hurt the paper.

"For people inside, for me, it's completely baffling. It's like putting their head in the sand," said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity because managers have asked employees not to speak to reporters.

These days, newspapers typically rush to analyze ethical crises within their own staffs, as the New York Times did in the case of Jayson Blair, said Mike Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

"I guess [the Post] has calculated that it's better to be quiet and not make any noise about it and it'll go away," Hoyt said. "It suggests they don't think they owe their readers any evidence of self-examination."

The staffing change does suggest an impulse to clean house. Page Six, which debuted in 1977, diverged from the norm of the time, in which a column was closely associated with a single, well-known personality. The Page Six model relied on a stable of usually young reporters who submitted their work to a single editor who forged a voice for the column.

The change will give Johnson more oversight over the reporters who contribute to the column and lessen his reliance on part-timers. Stern, an 11-year veteran of Page Six, worked a regular two-day week, like Lisa Marsh, a fashion writer. Gil -- who spends half the year in Argentina -- said his arrangement with the Post was "completely informal." Sometimes he would go months without getting an assignment.

On Friday, Burkle's name resurfaced on Page Six for the first time since the scandal broke. The item described a Lionel Richie concert Wednesday during which the "babe-loving billionaire carefully avoided sitting next to any fashion models." The item went on to muse that "Democrats might be more wary of Burkle, having read in yesterday's Times of his friendship with jailed private eye Anthony Pellicano."

Stern -- who said he had not heard from his bosses at the Post since he left his desk two weeks ago -- said he was encouraged by the cheeky reference.

"They're showing, and well they should, that they're not going to be intimidated by this kind of nonsense," he said. "Burkle's plan was to keep them from writing about him, but the plan has obviously backfired."

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