In a world of social network widgets, videoblogs and Web 2.0 gewgaws, sometimes it’s the simple things that work best. That’s the lesson of Web 1.0 startup The Smoking Gun, a simply designed site that relies on public documents and criminal mugshots to bring in boatloads of traffic.
If a prominent politician or celebrity has run afoul of the law, chances are good that The Smoking Gun will have a mugshot, lawsuit brief or other document to provide the gory details. New York governor Elliot Spitzer caught with a prostitute? They have her photos. NBA star Carmelo Anthony busted for drunk driving? They have the mugshot. Google Street View cameras going up someone’s driveway? Photos here.
Plus, The Smoking Gun has gone in-depth on a few occasions, taking down author James Frey’s “nonfiction” book “A Million Little Pieces” as a con job, and refuting R&B star Akon’s exaggerated criminal record as bogus. The site also took on the Los Angeles Times for a report based on false documents about the shooting of Tupac Shakur — forcing the newspaper to retract its story.
The Smoking Gun started 11 years ago as a side project for Village Voice organized-crime reporter William Bastone, who had his wife design the site. In 2000, it was sold to Court TV, which itself was sold to Turner Broadcasting (part of Time Warner), and Court TV was renamed TruTV, with a couple shows using The Smoking Gun brand name. Over the years, the site has expanded to include an entertaining Backstage Pass section on what musical stars want in their dressing rooms, as well as a video archive of strange public domain videos. But its core mission and staff size hasn’t changed; it’s still three folks running the show, hunting down incriminating documents and digging up dirt.
“I realize it’s still the infancy of the Net, but it amazes me how few places are doing this sort of stuff, at least that aren’t tethered to huge news organizations,” Bastone told me. “There are a lot of people commenting on stuff and riffing on things and blogging, but actually reporters breaking stories on the Net — there are a lot fewer than I would expect…Even though we’re no longer running the site out of my living room and sold it, we’re still a three-person outfit. We’re the smallest division within the Time Warner monstrosity. We’re still three guys in a room who generate every story we do…We still maintain a shadow of our indie cred.”
The key to the site’s success is its focus on finding documents and mugshots — and broadcasting them to a massive audience online. Bastone, 46, told me that last month the site logged 5.7 million unique visitors and 58.8 million page views, thanks to the double-whammy of stories on Tupac Shakur and Elliot Spitzer’s call girl. He said the monthly numbers are usually around 3.75 million uniques and 45 million page views. While every large news organization is trying to figure out a business model for online reporting, The Smoking Gun has proven that small and simple can work.
“Much has been said…about how the emerging digital economy has decimated the business model of journalism,” wrote New York Times media columnist David Carr in a recent story about The Smoking Gun. “But the same digital technology has made each remaining journalist several times more powerful. As working reporters, we are able to get information — through the public and government web databases and proprietary digital sources — that our ancestors in the business would not have dared dream of. I know because I’m one of the ancestors.”
In a wide-ranging phone interview, Bastone told me how the staff chooses stories for the site, explained why he wouldn’t want to do crowdsourcing, and said he hoped to add a blog-like news column to the site for stories that don’t have documents. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
How have things changed for your site since you launched it 11 years ago? Do you have more competition, more resources to do your job, more respect?
William Bastone: Comparing now to the early days, we’re obviously a known quantity. People have great confidence in the stories that we do. We have a lot more sources, we know how to do this a lot better. The core of what we do is the same. We’ve never changed how we go about getting documents and doing stories. That has been a constant.
From the site’s birth, we ran the thing as a side project, it wasn’t our full time job. I was a staff writer at the Village Voice, so I had to be careful not to do things on the site that could be considered competition for the place that employed me. So we had some restrictions about what we could cover. I had to make sure I was breaking stories for my employer instead of for my dopey website. When we set out to produce the site full time, everything we did went on the site, but the reporting for the site hasn’t changed. I don’t think it ever will. It’s basic shoe leather reporting, hunting down sources and documents and confirming authenticity. That’s always been our thing.
As far as what you’ve covered, I know you have a mix of celebrities, public figures, and average people. Has that changed over time?
Bastone: No, I think what our site covers is a reflection of our staff’s interests. We have a fairly wide range of interests. We follow politics, crime, pop culture, sports, and celebrities. I don’t think you’d come to our site to see business stories, we don’t cover Wall Street. If we think the story is interesting or funny and it gets a kick out of us, then it’s something we do. We have a pretty good news sense and we have a good sense of what our audience would enjoy.
And then we did this thing recently about the L.A. Times [and Tupac Shakur], and I don’t think it was something our audience was looking for us to do. It’s not the biggest traffic generator for us, but it’s right in our wheelhouse, it’s what we do well. It’s not like people are writing in to us to cover disputes in the rap music world. But it was a story that worked for us on a variety of levels.
What does your audience want?
Bastone: I think they like strange crime, funny mugshots, dirt on celebrities. Days do not go by without someone writing us something like this: ‘Dear The Smoking Gun. My brother was arrested a week ago and we’re trying to get a copy of the mugshot so we can give it to him framed for his birthday. Can you help us get a copy of his mugshot?’ That’s the main concern of our fans. They do ask us to cover things, but the overwhelming majority of what we do is driven by the three of us. If there is something that other people are covering, we figure out a way in for us to find a foothold, usually revolving around a primary source document.
With the Virginia Tech shooting, we had to figure out a foothold into the story without a police report or incident report available. We try to find a little piece about it with interesting documents or images through the prism of what’s out there.
(In that case, The Smoking Gun found that the shooter had bought 37 rubber duckies on eBay in 2006.)
I noticed that you don’t use bylines. Why do you do it that way?
Bastone: When we started the site, the introductions are no more than a couple hundred words, and what we’re offering is the document that’s taking up 70% of the page. So the intro fully contexualizes it and gives you the newsy bits [from the document]. Initially it just seemed like the pieces were never long enough for taglines. Now, from time to time, we do long stories that feel like they should have names there but we’ve never done it. You can assume in almost every instance, though I write the stuff, everybody has reported some piece of it, and had some role in it. We don’t want to be faceless but we want it to come out as from The Smoking Gun guys.
We had a brief discussion before we did the L.A. Times piece about whether to put our names at the top because it involves another journalist, and we don’t do stories that examine the work of other reporters. But then we thought it would look weird because it would be the first time ever. So we sat down and let that idea pass.
What made you decide to do the Tupac Shakur story if it’s a departure from what you had done before?
Bastone: Yeah, that’s not our thing. There are plenty of other people doing that all day, sniping up in the trees at other journalists. It became of interest to us because the story itself revolved around documents, the investigative reports of which we happened to be very familiar. In addition, it involved famous people, one of whom [Sean “Diddy” Combs] was accused of advance knowledge of the shooting of one of the most famous people in hip-hop ever. It worked on a lot of different levels.
We don’t sit around trying to figure out how to [mess] with other journalists. We have no interest in doing that, but we looked at the documents and thought, ‘These things look fake.’ I reached out to [L.A. Times reporter] Chuck Philips to tell him that, and he assured me he had confidence in them. And I just thought there was no way they were real. We went down that road and lots of bells went off about the documents and the person who was the focal point of the documents and the false assertions in the 302 reports [by the FBI].
Everyone talks about investigative journalism being in dire straits with newspapers cutting back. I’m curious how you see things and whether you have any hope that there are new platforms and new ways of doing investigative reporting online.
Bastone: It kills me to see these stories about people taking buyouts [at newspapers], some of the stars of the field. The prospect that there will be publications in five years where they’re happy to have a reporter or team of reporters work on one story for an extended period of time… I’m worried that business-wise it’s not a proposition that will be supported by anyone. They will only be doing things that generate hits on a website, and for the most part, the most important stories that are coming out might not be the sort of stories that are passed around and going viral with comments on these heavy trafficked sites.
I’m talking about newspapers because I don’t think there’s much investigative journalism being done on TV; maybe in local markets, but it seems like just riffs on the same kind of story. Big, important pieces of journalism are the province of newspapers and always have been. Online, who’s taking that up? Are we going to rely on the ProPublicas of the world to do this? A not-for-profit operation? One place is going to do this? You look at the stars, the breakouts of the web, and they’re not doing anything that approaches investigative stuff. Is Perez Hilton, TMZ doing things like that?
What about what Josh Marshall is doing on TalkingPointsMemo?
Bastone: Well I think we’re doing it as well, but there’s really only a handful of places, and TalkingPointsMemo is one of them. They’re trying to do other things that are original reporting, and that’s great, that’s fabulous. I spend all of my day online, and can you really tick off, fill up your hand with places like that? That don’t just exist to riff and comment on other’s people work and have people do the same thing in the comments section?
It’s still relatively early but I don’t see a lot of places doing that. I get a kick out of the Gawkers and Defamers of the world, but how much of that is a news story, they broke a news story. It really isn’t. It’s a high profile site, but can you identify a story that they broke? If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have thought there would be a huge scrum for [breaking news online], and it may get to that point, but I don’t really see it.
You see these people like Tina Brown having her own site, and Michael Wolff has this site. You have these main journalists/columnists migrating online, but what are they doing? News aggregators. That’s what blogs are. I’m dying to see what ProPublica comes out with because these are pros. But do we want people to come on and say they are going to point us to more stories? That’s what Matt Drudge already does or Fark.com. You’re not going to deliver me anything better than what they’re doing. I want to see you break stories and not just tell me what’s on the Washington Post. What you’re going to need soon is a news aggregator of the news aggregator sites.
What do you think about crowdsourcing, or combining professionals with amateur journalists to do in-depth reports?
Bastone: I kinda like the idea. I don’t ever want to have to do it ourselves. There are a lot of bright people out there and people who know how to dig up things. And then there are a lot of lunatics. We rely on primary source materials, and we have never taken a story off of our site, we’ve never taken a primary document off of our site. We have never published any piece of paper that wasn’t a legitimate document. We just did a story about what happened to poor Chuck Philips [at the L.A. Times] and we live in fear of something like that happening.
We have never solicited help from our audience and asked people, ‘send in your documents’ because the last thing we need is a Photoshop genius trying to pull one over on us. I like the idea of throwing something out, saying ‘help us try to figure it out,’ but it’s not something I am totally comfortable with for our operation. When CBS did the Bush National Guard record story, that may have been one of the earliest blogs doing that initially, Powerline. A lot of the analysis came in from the audience, where people were piling on about PostScript and the availability of certain typewriters. It was interesting to see. It’s pretty cool but I don’t know if I want to do it.
I don’t see the New York Times or CNN doing that, saying ‘help us report stories.’…No one’s telling me to come over to their accounting firm and asking me to help them with their taxes.
What plans do you have for the future?
Bastone: This will be contingent on our ability to hire a couple other people. They might be considered blogs or news columns. I look at Gawker as a blog and Radar magazine has a column on the front page of their site that’s called Fresh Intelligence with news stories. We want to do something similar to that, because we come across a bunch of stories that don’t make their way onto our site if they don’t have a mugshot attached to them. And in the past, we’ve just given it away to other journalists we know. So we thought it would be a good idea to keep them in-house. They fit into a more standard format with three or four paragraphs that are newsy but doesn’t have a document attached to it.
If there is any other site you’d like to run instead of The Smoking Gun, what would it be?
Bastone: For the longest, longest time, one of our favorite sites is Fark.com. I think that would be an incredibly fun operation to run and the audience is unbelievably smart, the commenters are brilliant. We know the guy who runs it, he operates from our offices when he’s in New York. I’m not a big tech person, so I don’t go to Engadget, so I like Fark because it’s across the board. It feels like that audience is totally similar to our audience. I’m a big fan of Drudge Report, we have political differences, he’s much more conservative than myself or my colleagues. But I love that his site looks the same as it looked when it started. Our site really hasn’t changed much either.
A few years ago we went to a focus group run by Court TV. They had two groups of 20 people and they had them go through our site, Court TV’s site and the Drudge Report. And almost to a person, they talked about the Drudge Report as the worst designed site they’d ever seen, and all I could think of is that it’s the perfect site for what he does. And they were crapping on it, saying ‘It’s the ugliest site I’ve ever seen.’ But it works unbelievably well for what he’s doing.
What do you think about The Smoking Gun? Can their model be replicated by other news organizations looking to do original reports online? Why do you think the site has succeeded for so long? Share your thoughts in the comments below.