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The competition between New York City's two tabloid newspapers is an intense one, and it's perhaps most intensely fought in the paper's dueling gossip sections. The New York Post lineup is a sort of murderers' row, featuring the stalwart Liz Smith and Cindy Adams and the incredibly powerful "Page Six." Across town at the Daily News—a tabloid, yes, but with some serious journalist ambitions—the tabloid team is the husband-and-wife-penned "Rush & Molloy" column and, since last fall, Lloyd Grove's "Lowdown." Grove made his gossip name as the well-respected, very snarky writer behind The Washington Post's "Reliable Source" gossip column. Daily News owner Mort Zuckerman, trying to spice up his paper's profile, lured Grove away from the Beltway last year with a salary that would be impossible for The Washington Post to match: It was reportedly larger than even Post-man Len Downie's. He arrived in New York to much anticipation and many sharpened knives. Eight months later, he's successfully keeping on, and he spoke to mediabistro.com about his career, competing with the Post, and the glamorous life of the gossip columnist.
Birthdate: February 6, 1955
Hometown: Los Angeles
First section of the Sunday Times: "I read it online, and I need to buy an apartment here. So lately it's been the classifieds, for open houses."
Before you were a gossip columnist, you had a long career as—for lack of a better term—a real reporter. Tell me about it.
Well, I had been at newspapers for 25-odd years before I accepted the role as the gossip columnist at The Washington Post. I'd done a number of things at the Post, starting out on the Weekend section, which is their Friday entertainment tabloid: I reviewed every play that opened in Washington for about two years, including those put on in church basements. So I really got burnt out on Washington theater, let me tell you. Then I jumped over to the Style section, where I was a general-assignment reporter. But I've always been interested in politics, so I started edging my way into writing political profiles, these long pieces, and then I got to the point where I was asked to come on the national staff for the 1988 presidential campaign.
I did that and had a great time covering the media and the political campaign, which had to do with advertising and earned-media campaigns and media strategies. Plus, still writing profiles. That's how I first met, for example, Roger Ailes, who of course was a character even then. Then I resumed, after a hiatus for a book leave for a book I never wrote, at the Style section, where I continued writing about politics and political profiles and campaign coverage. I never wanted to be a gossip columnist, and I was resistant when they asked me to do it. Eventually I allowed myself to be persuaded.
What persuaded you?
In the end I was persuaded by—it's not good to keep doing the same thing, to always be comfortable at what you're doing at work. Anything that keeps you awake is in the end good. I found that it was a new challenge, and something that would be interesting to try—and the fact there was more money in it was also a factor. I guess I just buried the lede there, didn't I? In any event, it took me in a whole new unexpected direction in my life and career. I did that for four years; I think I was the longest-tenured "Reliable Source" writer they ever had at the Post.
So clearly you took to it.
Yeah, it turns out I had a knack for writing superficial items with scurrilous intent.
What was it like to do it for the Post, which generally is a pretty serious newspaper?
I think there was a bit of hand-wringing and angst over some of the things that I ended up writing, because the Post is not at bottom a paper that deals in gossip. In point and fact I was a gossip columnist in name only, as I am really right now, because I don't write anything except what is reported and confirmed, and I make lots of phone calls to make sure that things are right and that things that are potentially attracting libel suits—and even if they're not—we have in-house lawyers here that go over everything with a fine-tooth comb. We're very careful.
Are you suggesting that there's another paper in town that is perhaps less fact-based in its gossip reporting?
Well, I've always been an admirer of The New York Times, so I don't want to.... The truth it, I don't do blind items in my column; Richard Johnson at Page Six has acknowledged without any defensiveness whatsoever that the reason he does blind items is because they're not nailed down. Certainly I've had my own experience being written about by his esteemed colleagues—not only was it inaccurate but they didn't even bother to call me to see whether there was any point of view other than what they were wanting to write or trying to write. So it's a great brand, "Page Six," and the New York Post is a terrifically fun newspaper to read, but, as someone who comes from Washington, it continues to mystify me that the New York Post is considered this hot, successful brand and newspaper, when in fact they're losing money hand over fist.
Isn't Mort Zuckerman, too?
On the Daily News he's making money. Mort Zuckerman is not a businessman who is happy to have businesses lose money. The Daily News stands on its own two feet. It has increased circulation while maintaining its 50-cent newspaper price. Look at the advertising, and just compare the ad pages between the Post and the Daily News. And I'm not speaking for the paper, mind you, I'm just making an observation as a reader. The fact is that the New York Post is losing, at least by Lachlan Murdoch's own acknowledgment, $40 million a year, and if someone's willing to acknowledge that, as he did to Ken Auletta, then you can just double it and probably be pretty accurate, as a rule of thumb. So it pleases Rupert Murdoch to have this newspaper in New York and to be able to wield this influence; the money involved is probably a rounding error in the whole News Corp. empire. But I have to tell you that, looking at which newspaper more successful, which has the higher circulation, which is actually financially more reasonable proposition, it's the Daily News, my friend.
But never mind the business; on the gossip front, what's it like to compete with the juggernaut that is "Page Six"?
Well, what's the juggernaut that is "Page Six"? It's a terrifically entertaining and fun column to read, and I'm an admirer of it. But if you on a day-to- day basis looked at "Rush & Molloy" and looked at my column and assessed the gossip packages that both newspapers are offering, I think that we are offering a better gossip package day in and day out than the Post is, with the caveat that they have these fantastically entertaining and unique voices—Liz Smith and Cindy Adams—which I think are assets to the paper. But just in terms of, if readers want to find out stuff they don't already know, if you looked at my column and "Rush & Molloy" and compare that with "Page Six"—which is probably a bit unfair because we're two columns and the "Page Six" team is doing one column—I think we can match them.
Do you think the public thinks that?
More people are reading the Daily News every day than are reading the New York Post.
But there's certainly the perception—rightfully or, you're arguing, wrongfully—that "Page Six" is the hot gossip column. Does that make it harder for you to get leaks or information?.
Everybody, including myself, is a creature of habit. And people are in the habit of taking certain kinds of things to "Page Six," but, frankly, I haven't felt terribly disadvantaged. I'll leave it for others to judge, but I think I've made a good account of myself in terms of having the gossip-column types of scoops and interesting reportage, and it is my hope every time I write a column—which is five times a week—to have stuff in there that people don't know, and to have original reporting every day, and to have stuff that people tend to talk about both among the people who plunk down their 50 cents for the paper, and also among people such as yourself, who are expert readers of these sorts of products, and understand what is good, bad, or indifferent, from a professional point of view.
So what's the actual day-to-day life of the gossip columnist? A J.J. Hunsecker, glamorous thing?
Yeah, generally I like to sit at the Stork Club and smoke thin cigars and terrorize senator's sons. Well, no. But it's not for the faint of heart, let me tell you that. Among the people in this business, there is a very deep bond, because there are only a few of us who know what we all go through every day. So Richard and I, for one, although occasionally he's written things or his column has written things that I haven't particularly enjoyed—and certainly I about him—I think we have an abiding sort of, we like each other and we respect each other.
I get in at 10:30, already having gone on the Internet and looked for stuff, seen what's out there, and read the competition. Sometimes I'll compulsively read stuff the evening before, if I'm still up. And then it's a mad scramble to figure out how am I going to fill a tabloid page tomorrow with interesting and well-reported material. There's a lot of emailing and talking on the phone all day and just trying to sort of go after stuff. So we get the column in—"we" meaning myself and my new associate, Hudson Morgan—then we go out and gather more material at night, hopefully. There's no shortage of events and screenings and parties and fashion shows and whatever at which to try and gather material. Then it starts all over again.
You mentioned your new associate—your prior associate went to the other side, to the Post. How does the defection feel?
She got a very attractive offer from them. She got her own column, and that's very hard to resist. That's life in the big city. And I've been enjoying her column.
So "Lowdown" started about eight months ago. This far in, are you pleased with how it's turning out? Is there something you'd like to be different?
I think I'm pleased. I think it's being read increasingly; it's a voice that's being listened to from time to time. These things are incremental; you can't expect to go from zero to 100 miles an hour immediately, especially for me in a city where I'm on a steep learning curve—still. But I think we've done a pretty good job of bringing things that would otherwise go unreported that particular day. I'm just hoping that we do better and better as we go along.
Do you have any regrets about leaving the "Reliable Source"? You were the really big fish of the gossip world there, whereas here you're just one of the larger fish swimming around.
I'll take that, for now. You know, this is the greatest city on earth. It's just so interesting to be here, and I have the opportunity to do something that not everybody in this business gets, and I'm very lucky to have it and I want to make the most of it.
Being a big shot New York gossip columnist, does this make you more fodder for other gossip sources to report about you than you'd been previously?
I guess so.
How's Elisabeth Rohm from Law and Order doing?
That was a Gawker item? That was so silly. I'm happy to be thought of as dating beautiful actresses, so I wouldn't comment other than to note that in my own column I've noted that she's dating Dan Abrams from MSNBC and NBC. But if you want to think that I'm dating her, I would never deny that.
Jesse Oxfeld is editor-in-chief of mediabistro.com.