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Octo-Mom's story breaks, RadarOnline is born

CHANNEL ISLAND / SCOTT COLLINS

The N.Y. -based website, backed in part by the National Enquirer folks, has a made a name for itself with blanket coverage of the Whittier woman's brood.

March 02, 2009|SCOTT COLLINS

Journalists like to talk about "owning" a story. But the people at RadarOnline.com have practically stamped their corporate logo on the forehead of Nadya Suleman, the "Octo-Mom" from Whittier whose shockingly prolific reproductive habits have made her a media sensation.

They really, really love to talk about Octo-Mom over at RadarOnline. In fact, since the news of her octuplets first broke in late January, the website has published 56 items about her, an average rate of nearly two per day. Five stories landed on Friday alone, including an exclusive video interview with Suleman, who revealed that she gained 130 pounds during her pregnancy: "I've never in my life been so big and swollen," she said.

Suleman's mother, Angela, who appeared alongside her daughter in Friday's video scoop, was, according to a family attorney, paid $40,000 to appear in a much-discussed RadarOnline video earlier this month in which she assailed her daughter's child-bearing as "unconscionable." So you might say that RadarOnline, which is based in New York, is bringing its own version of fiscal stimulus to a select group of California residents.

Most Americans had likely never heard of RadarOnline before now. But the site almost instantly made a name for itself with the Octo-Mom story, generating huge pickup on NBC's "Today," CNN and elsewhere (traditional print publications, including this newspaper, have also delivered scoops that the TV networks have ended up following). RadarOnline thus seems to be trying to duplicate the success of TMZ, the celebrity gossip source that broke news of Mel Gibson's anti-Semitic tirade a few years back and then extended its brand into a syndicated TV series that stars Harvey Levin and some pretty blond kid who looks like the lead in the old WB version of "Tarzan."

The tabloid POV

What most viewers likely don't know is that folks behind RadarOnline aren't strangers to the celebrity field. The site is owned in part by American Media Inc., the company that also controls supermarket tabloids the National Enquirer, Star magazine and other publications. According to published reports as well as a person familiar with the matter, billionaire Ron Burkle and budding media mogul Yusef Jackson, son of Jesse Jackson, also own stakes.

High debts recently forced AMI, led by Chief Executive David Pecker, into a painful restructuring. The problems are at least in part due to its supermarket tabloids, whose print fortunes have been declining for years. The company also paid a huge price for largely ignoring the Web as TMZ, Perez Hilton and other gossip sites built enormous audiences there.

So RadarOnline is a key part of its catch-up strategy. AMI acquired the site after Radar, a magazine meant to offer a sophisticated take on the world of media and celebrity, failed to catch on after several tries.

Would "Today" and other mainstream media outlets be relying so heavily on all those Octo-Mom scoops if they were branded as National Enquirer content rather than RadarOnline? Ponder that question and you begin to see why buying the Radar name proved valuable for AMI. If the point of the purchase was to start with a fresh online slate and avoid the tabloid taint, it's a diabolical plan that's succeeded brilliantly.

For all that, RadarOnline still faces an uphill climb, Octo-Mom or no. The online celebrity-news market is already near the saturation point. In addition to TMZ, there are Perez Hilton and Gawker, as well as Web versions of old reliables such as People.com and EOnline.com.

On the other hand, celebrity is, along with politics, one of the few topics that can drive huge traffic to news sites. Perez Hilton's blog ranks in the top 400 of all websites with a whopping 184 million page views per month, according to measurement service Quantcast. Dish Rag, the celebrity site at latimes.com, is often the paper's most-visited blog. The appetite for other types of show-business news -- the executive shuffles covered by Deadline Hollywood Daily and its new archrival the Wrap as well as TV-episode recaps on sites such as TelevisionWithoutPity.com -- pales by comparison.

Gawker Media recently folded Defamer, a running commentary on stories in the Hollywood trades and elsewhere, into its flagship Gawker site. Nick Denton, the company's founder, said that Defamer's traffic was simply too small to be sustainable as a stand-alone entity. "Size matters," he wrote me in an instant-message exchange.

Whether any other type of news can be supported online remains to be seen. But it is proven that celebrity sells well on the Web. Online, celebrities are themselves a form of mass entertainment, like video poker or porn. That's why newcomers keep jostling at the celeb-gossip trough.

Maer Roshan, a longtime New York-based magazine editor who tried to get Radar off the ground for years, isn't thrilled with what has become of his former brand, now that it's run by tabloid bosses.

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