Did TMZ Pay to Get Its Big Prince Death Scoop?

Celebrity gossip site run by Harvey Levin plays by different rules than competitors

TMZ broke another high-profile story yesterday with its scoop on Prince’s death Thursday at age 57. But the question remains: Did the celebrity gossip site pay for it?

Many news organizations have strict policies that prevent reporters from paying for information, at least partly because of ethical concerns. “Checkbook journalism” is thought to encourage sources to invent or embellish tips to get more money.

TMZ, run by legal journalist Harvey Levin, has a formidable record of entertainment-industry scoops — and a reputation for paying for them.

Last February, a lengthy New Yorker story detailed how “more than a hundred tips arrive every day” on the TMZ voicemail from people looking for cash payouts. The story even detailed how producers pay for scoops and help nervous tipsters follow through on leaks. An International Business Times story in 2014 reported that TMZ pays up to “several thousand dollars” for solid leads. A big video or photo can mean much more. Security footage of Solange Knowles attacking her brother-in-law Jay Z in an elevator is believed to have sold for $250,000.

Levin did not respond to an interview request; a TMZ rep likewise did not comment.

TMZ was on top of the Prince story ever since his private jet made an emergency landing in Moline, Illinois, last Friday. Prince reps said the plane landed because he had the flu, but the site pointed out that “his plane was only 48 minutes from home [in Minneapolis] before the unscheduled landing.”

Levin’s reporters, sensing something was wrong, then revealed that Prince appeared at a Saturday night dance party near his Minnesota home. The site first reported that “someone” died at Prince’s estate before confirming that the “someone” was indeed the music legend.

TMZ broke the story of Prince’s death on Thursday well before any “mainstream” media outlets felt comfortable enough with their information to go live with the story. TMZ posted the news at roughly 12:50 p.m. ET, but it took an Associated Press report nearly 17 minutes later for the news to hit media outlets across the world.

Publications that did run with the TMZ scoop were careful to make sure “report” was prominently featured in their respective headlines.

The Prince reporting recalled 2009, when TMZ beat major news organizations in reporting the death of Michael Jackson.

A New York Times story  pointed out how TMZ was far ahead of rivals in scoops about the pop star’s last hours. TMZ had sources everywhere, from ambulance drivers to paramedics.

Even so, many mainstream journalists remain leery of TMZ. But that’s slowly changing.

“Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace is among respected old-school journalists who have been won over.

“TMZ has enough credibility that if there is a story about a rock star’s death or a traffic accident in Hollywood, I certainly would pay attention to it,” Wallace told TheWrap.