Spoken like a journalist. But ask the suits running the business side of TSG what the Frey scoop means and you get a different answerone with dollar signs attached. "This is now much bigger than the specifics they uncovered," says Henry Schleiff, CEO of Court TV, which bought TSG from Bastone and two other co-founders in 2000. The story encapsulates every major issue before the traditional media, says Schleiff. What is the proper balance of information and entertainment? What is the right mix of fact and opinion? When should reporters inject themselves into a story and when should they stay on the sidelines? What is the difference between investigating and merely reporting a story? What biases do conglomerate news organizations bring to their reports?
"There’s a huge debate within the industry and The Smoking Gun is now attached to it," says Schleiff. To drive home the point, he hastily organized a roundtable to delve into these matters last week. Bastone was one panelist. As a read on TSG’s heightened profile it’s worth noting that he was joined by some journalism heavyweights, including Don Hewitt, former executive producer of 60 Minutes.
The Frey scoop was by no means TSG’s first. The three former Village Voice reporters working in a single room with barren walls and technology that was old when they bought it in 1997 were first to publish some documents, including the secret grand jury transcript, in the recent Michael Jackson child molestation trial. They garnered attention in 2000 when they revealed that the groom on the Fox reality show Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire had been hit with a restraining order after allegedly threatening to hit an ex-fiancee many years before. Their biggest score came in October 2004, when they posted the sexual harassment suit filed against Fox News host Bill O’Reilly by a former co-worker. That month TSG got a personal-record 77 million hits.
The Frey scoop generated just short of that last month. But it was a far different and more important story, and catapulted the website into popular view. TSG didn’t just post a document, which is its forte. It investigated claims in the Frey memoir and ran a 13,000-word expose (a typical story runs 200 words). "Something like this shouts your brand," Schleiff says of the scoop. "You can’t put a dollar figure on your brand."
In case you were out of earshot, Schleiff hopes to have reached you by sending 400 journalists copies of Frey’s book along with TSG’s reportwhich constitutes a massive marketing effort for a low-budget website. Schleiff is also bringing on a new online ad sales executive in the next few days and has instructed the sales force to play up the Frey scoop, believing it will attract enough advertiser attention for TSG and Court TV’s other websites to turn the corner and become a profit center. Until now, the online division (which includes crimelibrary.com and courttv.com) has existed mainly to drive traffic to the TV network.
"This could be a real revenue generator going forward," says Galen Jones, head of the online division. He and Schleiff are so confident that they’ve asked Bastone to finally fill a long-vacant opening for another reporter. They want to keep the scoops coming. Says Bastone, who wants to stay focused: "I don’t want to be a manager. The three of us here have clear responsibilities, and it works." So it does. But the moneymen have clear responsibilities of their ownand they aim to make it work for them too.