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So What Do You Do, 'Page Six' Editor Richard Johnson?

Forget "we hear" -- the Post's 'Page Six' stalwart tells all on his longevity as a gossip columnist and the two topics he considers off-limits

By Diane Clehane - May 13, 2009
When Manhattan's movers and shakers reach for their morning papers, chances are one of the first things they read is 'Page Six' in the New York Post. The notorious, irreverent and always-entertaining gossip column, which chronicles the lives, loves and foibles of celebrities of every stripe, got its start in 1977 and counts its fair share of illustrious alumni -- Anna Quindlen and Claudia Cohen among them. But it's Richard Johnson who has survived -- and thrived -- the longest at the helm.

Under the native New Yorker's stewardship, 'Page Six' has become an international phenomenon that has spawned countless imitators in print and online. It helped launch careers like that of Paris Hilton, whom Johnson gleefully christened a 'celebutante.' "We've been criticized for writing too much about her, which is maybe fair," he says dryly. "She's a lot less interesting than she used to be, so we stopped writing about her so much. She's getting old."

No matter: There's no end to the number of A-listers whose publicists work overtime to avoid confirming those pesky stories about break-ups and breakdowns (only to find themselves chastised when they've been busted by Johnson and his staff) and C-listers who will do anything to see their name in boldface type in the column (and do if their antics warrant it). Johnson takes them all on with a seemingly unflappable temperament and a healthy sense of humor.

But there's little doubt Johnson takes his job seriously: His fearless reporting of failed box office performances, ill-fated hookups, love children and nasty behavior has earned him more than a few enemies. He went a few rounds with Alec Baldwin after he ran an item the actor didn't like about his mother's breast cancer charity (they've since made up), had a drink thrown in his face by an ex-girlfriend of Al Pacino's and another hurled at him by Mel Gibson's agent Ed Limato (when Johnson speculated in the column that Limato's Oscar night fete would be less than star-studded because of the perception that his client's film that year, The Passion of the Christ, was considered anti-Semitic by some). Thanks to his "unexcitable nature" and a seemingly Teflon-like ability to shrug off everything from threats of bodily harm to multi-million dollar lawsuits, Johnson shows no signs of giving up the gossip game. He might not understand Twitter, but he knows how to serve up great dish.

Name: Richard Johnson
Position: 'Page Six' editor, New York Post
Resume: Got his start in journalism as an unpaid intern for a New York City neighborhood weekly, The Chelsea Clinton News; Joined the New York Post in 1978 as a general assignment reporter; became editor of 'Page Six' in 1985. Left briefly in 1989 to try his hand at television. In the early '90s, had a short stint at The New York Observer and a two-year gig as a gossip columnist for the New York Daily News before returning to the Post in 1993, where he's been ever since.
Birthdate: January 16, 1954
Hometown: New York City
Education: Empire State College, BA in communications
Marital status: Married ("for the third time") to Sessa von Richthofen. Three children: Damon, 30, Jack, 17, and Alessandra Renee, 2.
Favorite TV show: "Right now, it's 24."
First section of the Sunday Times: "I go for the news. I feel like I should keep up-to-date on current events, given what my job is."
Guilty pleasure: "The sports pages."
Last book read: "I just read a Carl Hiaasen book called Skinny Dip. It's a crime caper. I liked it."

You've been editing 'Page Six' for more than 20 years. What's the secret to your longevity?
I'm not sure. (Laughs). I don't suffer from stress and burn out. I never thought I'd be here this long, that's for sure.

It's quite an achievement since quite a few people in the business -- former Post freelancer Jared Paul Stern comes to mind -- go off the rails after working in gossip for an extended period of time. How do you keep everything on an even keel?
I think I'm blessed with a sort of unexcitable nature. I had been doing rewrite for the Post before I got into the gossip thing -- those were the days when we had eight editions. I'd show up and work on stories the whole day, where you had deadlines in 20 minutes and you'd have to bang out a front-page story. Nobody before me lasted more than two or three years.

Have you ever come close to leaving?
Actually, I did leave at one time. After [Rupert] Murdoch was forced to sell the paper and Peter Kalikow was the owner, there was a period where I wasn't allowed to rehire people to replace people who left. It was down to me and one other guy. And I couldn't get a raise for three years in a row. Things were very grim. It was about 1989, and I was offered a job in television working with Robin Leach. It was a show called Preview -- The Best of the New. But we quickly started calling it Preview -- The Worst of the Old (Laughs). It got cancelled about three weeks after the launch. Then I started doing a column for The New York Observer and they were calling it Page Five or something. (Laughs). The Post sent a cease-and-desist. Then about six weeks into that, I was hired by the Daily News to replace Liz Smith when she left and went to Newsday. I worked for two years at the Daily News and actually had my picture in the paper every day.

"Mort Zuckerman's attitude towards gossip is very short-sighted. I think that's the one area where newspapers can still do something."

So what brought you back into the fold?
To tell you the absolute truth, Mort Zuckerman didn't like me, or didn't like my work, and he let my contract expire. Luckily enough, Rupert Murdoch was able to re-buy the Post, and they rehired me. Of course the first thing I said to Ken Chandler when we met over lunch was, "I'd be happy to come back and work for the New York Post, but the one thing I don't want to do is edit 'Page Six' because I've already done that." He gave me this whole song and dance about how it was the most important part of the paper and that I did such a great job when I was the editor. It took about two minutes and I said, 'Okay, okay.' (Laughs)

Growing up, were you an avid consumer of media? Did you want to be a newspaper man?
I remember in third grade, the teacher asked everybody to write a little thing about what you wanted to be when you grew up. I said I wanted to be the editor-in-chief of Life magazine. My father worked for McGraw-Hill; he was the editor-in-chief of Chemical Week.

What did your dad think of your career?
To tell you the truth, he was more of a Herald Tribune guy. He always said the Daily News was the best-edited newspaper. This is historically. (Laughs) I think Mort Zuckerman's attitude towards gossip is very short-sighted. I think that's the one area where newspapers can still do something.

It seems as if a major newspaper folds every day. What do you say to people who say newspapers are on the way out?
Sadly, I think it's true. The younger people just never developed the habit. They have other habits: using computers and using cell phones. A lot of people grow up now never touching a newspaper. They're read the content, but they're getting it from these parasitical news aggregation sites. A lot of times, they don't even know where it's coming from. They're just getting it, and they're not even sure what the original source is.

How has the Internet changed the way you do your job?
It's made it more competitive because in the old days, I just had a couple of other gossip columns I had to compete against. Now there's countless bloggers and Web sites. The question is, how well-read are they? How many of my readers are aware of this story if it's been on the Internet? You have to make the calculation with every story if it's worth it now that somebody else has already done it, or if we can push it forward. I don't want to fill my column with stuff that's already on the Internet.

What sites do you check out regularly?
I don't spend a lot of time on them because I'm too busy with my own work, but I do look at Drudge, Gawker and sometimes Jossip [now on hiatus].

Gossip went mainstream several years ago. What do you think the tipping point was?
I'm not sure. The general idea is that it has gotten bigger. There's a whole genre of magazine[s] which is basically celebrity reporting. Actually, People magazine really isn't that gossipy. I always say it's amazing how little gossip gets into a gossip column because by its nature, once you've done all your reporting it's not really gossip anymore. (Laughs) Our lawyers won't let us put gossip in.

What is off-limits for you?
When children are involved, it's a problem. You don't want to necessarily reveal where they go to school and stuff like that. Also health issues -- when somebody gets cancer. I broke the story when Steve Ross was running Warner Communications [and got cancer]. I was tipped off he'd been at Sloan-Kettering [cancer center]. I justified it on the grounds that he was chairman of a huge publicly-held corporation and that shareholders deserved to know.

Trying to figure out who's who in your blind items is a popular guessing game among certain circles. What's the criteria with those?
It's a story we believe to be true, but we can't prove it. It's a way to get it into the paper -- otherwise you'd have to drop it completely. It's stories that if you used the names, you'd probably be sued.

"[Rupert Murdoch] drops by once in a while. It startles me. He comes by and asks, 'What's new?' and of course, my mind goes blank."

You can claim credit for popularizing some interesting phrases like 'canoodling.' The names you've given to people over the years are great. My all-time favorite is Monica Lewinsky's moniker, The Portly Pepperpot.
With 'canoodling,' it was an old term that we revived like 'bloviate.' Actually, it was a sports columnist here, Hondo, who came up with 'The Portly Pepperpot and her crusty love dress.' (Laughs) I never got 'crusty love dress' in the paper.

What do you think the biggest contributions of 'Page Six' have been to gossip to date?
We sort of invented 'Sightings,' which I see a lot of other people copying. It was basically a way to get more information into the column. A lot of times there was no reason to do a whole item on it -- it was just a sighting. I think the mix that we do is a little different than most columns. In the old days, New York magazine had a column, Intelligencer, which sort of had the same idea to write about movers and shakers, politicians and sports stars -- not just solely focusing on showbiz. I think it's lazy if you are just going to settle for writing about Britney Spears.

What kind of influence does [Post editor-in-chief] Col Allan have on 'Page Six'? Do you talk to him a lot?
Oh sure, I go into an editorial meeting in the morning and then in the afternoon. If there's a story on the list that he thinks isn't a good idea, he'll let me know, and sometimes there are stories on the news list that he thinks would be a better 'Page Six' story. He referees sometimes if two different editors have the same story on the list -- he decides where it will go.

I would think your universe doesn't intersect too much with Cindy Adams.
No, but I intersect quite a bit with the TV section and with the business section, and sometimes with the news section.

What about Murdoch? Do you talk to him? Does he ever say, 'Write about that guy…?'
He drops by once in a while. It startles me. (Laughs) He comes by and asks, 'What's new?' and of course, my mind goes blank. I can never think of anything clever to report.

The last democratic White House gave you plenty of fodder for the column. What are your expectations this time around? Michelle Obama's wardrobe isn't exactly 'Page Six' material.
I just wrote about [Washington Post fashion editor] Robin Givhan, who writes about her clothes. I think it will be hard for Obama to be more fun than Bill Clinton was.

Are the [Obama] daughters off-limits?
I think they're too young to be of much interest. I thought when Al Gore was vice president that we were going to have a field day with his daughters -- they were all fairly attractive and entering that age where they could misbehave, but they were disappointingly well-behaved. (Laughs)

I seem to recall the Post being approached about a reality show some time ago. Would you do one?
I think there was some talk some time ago. There was a show the Daily News did. They had come to the Post first, and Col Allan had decided there was very little to gain and a lot to lose. Having watched the show, the Daily News didn't come off too well on-air.

It's amazing how that genre seems to do so much for so many people, especially in New York City, like Project Runway.
I was actually in an episode in the first season of Project Runway. I don't know why they didn't invite me back. (Laughs) I thought it was a lot of fun.

So you've got no interest in doing a reality show?
It's one of those things where I don't think there would be enough time for me to do it. People have talked about doing a reality show on 'Page Six.' Do you have any idea how boring it is to film somebody sitting in front of a computer screen typing? You don't want people to hear our phone calls or see our emails because we'd lose all of our sources. I guess the only thing they could do is follow us around at night, but they can do that with the Real Housewives -- they don't need us to get into parties.

"I think [Twitter] is sort of dangerous because it's going to do away with the middle man -- me."

Tell me about what are average day is like for you.
I get in about 10 [a.m.], 10:15 and get everything filed by 6 [p.m.]. I'm generally out of here by 7.

Do you go out every night?
I go out twice a week.

Take me through the process of reporting and vetting an item.
Every story is different: If it's a sighting from someone I know and trust, I don't need to make any calls on it. If it's a story that's going to say something somebody might not like, you certainly have to do the reporting, call people and give them a chance to comment. Sometimes that can be tough. When you call somebody's office and you get, 'They're not in the office today, and they're not going to be back until Tuesday,' I always say, 'Everybody has got a cell phone now.' They say, 'They're out of town,' and I say, 'I'm sure there's a phone wherever they are.'

I love 'Liar's Corner,' when you take publicists to task when you catch them in a lie.
It's so annoying because if you do a story and you hadn't called them, they'd complain like crazy -- 'How dare you run that without calling!' Then we called and you lied to us, so they can't have it both ways.

What do you think of all these celebrities on Twitter?
I'm so behind the times, I'm not really sure I understand the concept.

Ashton Kutcher is the self-proclaimed king of Twitter -- he even posted a photo of Demi Moore bending down ironing his pants at Bruce Willis' wedding.
Oh, I saw that.

He -- and a lot of other celebrities -- are 'tweeting' about the minutiae of their lives. Although Demi allegedly helped talked some woman out of killing herself on Twitter.
I think it's sort of dangerous because it's going to do away with the middle man -- me. (Laughs)

And then there's the whole idea of celebrity Web sites.
I didn't know that Jane Fonda blogs. I called up her publicist about Ted Turner when he went to see her [Broadway] show and he went backstage. The publicist said, 'Just go to her Web site and read about it.' Still, I think they need us [to] interpret the blogs and edit them and take out the best parts. (Laughs)

Who are the boldfaced names that you never tire of reporting on?
There are a couple: Jerry Della Femina is someone who has something intelligent to say on almost any subject. He's like a go-to guy if you ever need any comment. Vincent Gallo is a guy who has appeared on 'Page Six' many times because he's crazy and fun.

Who needs to go away?
We used to write about her a lot -- I can't remember her name now -- the girl that had bad plastic surgery and was in American Pie.

Tara Reid?
Yeah. But she went away already. And I think the backlash has begun on Rachel Maddow. And Keith Olbermann is so over the top. He's paranoid. He's only named me the worst person in the world three or four times. He thought he was being very clever by calling me 'Dick Johnson.' Everybody on the staff has been named on that segment.

You've had some famous feuds with guys like Alec Baldwin, Ed Limato and Mickey Rourke. Anything ever really worry you, or is it your nature to just blow it off?
I think it's in my nature not to realize the danger that I'm in. (Laughs) A.J. Benza opened his book with a scene where he's out with Mickey Rourke and Mickey is very upset about something in 'Page Six', and he's trying to find out my home address.

Did you see him during this past Oscar season?
We made up a few years ago and actually sat together at a Vanity Fair party for the Tribeca Film Festival. I made up with Mickey, and I made up with Alec Baldwin.

How about Ed Limato?
I'm looking forward to dancing on his grave. (Laughs)

What's still relevant now that you learned back in your earliest days as a print journalist?
I don't think things have changed that much. A good story is a good story. The elements are largely the same as they've always been, which are sex, money and violence.

What do you do to detox from all this?
I have a sailboat, a 19-foot Flying Scot; I play basketball on Thursday nights, and I mow my lawn out in Hampton Bays which is the un-Hamptons.

Have you ever considered writing a book? Everyone that has ever worked for you has or is.
Yes. I've often thought the only way I could find the time to do it was if [I was] on a desert island or arrested in jail, but I'm thinking I'm going to have to figure out a way to do it on weekends.

What do you consider your greatest success to date?
I guess the fact that I'm still here.

What about your biggest disappointment?
I can't really think of any. There are stories that get away and you're very disappointed at the time, but in retrospect it's like when people say, 'What's the best story you ever did?' and it's the one I did today. By nature, this stuff doesn't have a long shelf life.

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
Ruthless ambition (Laughs). I think I've always tried to get the best people to work with, and I think we've had an incredible cast of characters on staff here -- some of whom were a lot better than others.

Are there plans to expand 'Page Six'?
Not that I'm aware of, but you never know.

I liked the Page Six Magazine. The stories were good and dishy.
That was a real shame because it was getting better and better. I think everybody agreed that the editorial content was great. The sad part was they just couldn't sell advertising. It was partly the timing. The economy was just going under as they were trying to sell all the Christmas ads.

Do you think there are more huge changes coming in media, or are we near the bottom of the shakeout?
I think they're going to find a way to charge people for content. The Associated Press made an announcement that they're moving in that direction. The music industry was able to do it with downloads and people pay 99 cents. Maybe we'll have to charge them 39 cents. (Laughs)

Do you have a motto?
'Why not?'

Diane Clehane is a contributing editor to FishbowlNY and TVNewser. She writes the 'Lunch' column.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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