TMZ veteran emerges with rival celeb news site

Mike Walters of The Blast, a well-financed entrant in the celebrity news scene, at the company's offices in West Hollywood, on Sept 6, 2017.
Mike Walters of The Blast, a well-financed entrant in the celebrity news scene, at the company's offices in West Hollywood, on Sept 6, 2017. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LOS ANGELES (NYTimes) - Before dawn on Wednesday (Sept 6), a celebrity news site here published an anonymously sourced article about a kerfuffle involving Scott Disick of Keeping Up With The Kardashians fame.

It was a classic TMZ scoop. Except that it was not. The article was from The Blast, a new, well-financed entrant on the sharp-elbowed celebrity news scene that is run by Mike Walters, who left TMZ about eight months ago after clashing with that site's founder, Harvey Levin.

"I'm going to do what I've done for the last 15 years, which is break news with credibility and backbone and authority," said Walters, who previously ran TMZ's news desk. "There hasn't been a new face in this space for a long time. It's time." Consider the gauntlet thrown.

Levin did not respond to a request for comment.

Schisms are not infrequent in this cutthroat corner of the media landscape, which also includes stalwarts like The New York Post's Page Six, and Extra.

And it remains to be seen whether The Blast, envisioned by Walters as a blend of hard-edge news and lighter content like red-carpet photos, can truly compete with TMZ, which has long been a celebrity news-breaking machine. TMZ had 35.4 million unique visitors in July, a 17 percent increase from a year earlier, according to the analytics company comScore. The Blast is starting from scratch.

Even so, The Blast arrives at an interesting time. After a period of stability, change is rippling through celebrity media. In March, American Media Inc., publisher of The National Enquirer, paid an estimated $100 million to buy Us Weekly from Wenner Media, which had owned the magazine since 1985. Access Hollywood switched hosts last year. E! News bid adieu to one of its most senior people in June. And AT&T is in the final stages of buying Time Warner, which owns TMZ. The turnover has fueled speculation in Hollywood about TMZ's future.

The Blast is financed by Banijay Group, which is based in France and has become one of the world's largest independent television production and distribution companies. Banijay's holdings in the United States include Bunim/Murray Productions, which produces shows like Keeping Up With The Kardashians and Project Runway.

"We weren't sitting around plotting to launch the next entertainment news site," said David Goldberg, chief executive of Banijay Studios North America. "But when talent becomes available, you have to be prepared to jump. And Mike has constantly proven his abilities. He's kind of an animal."

Goldberg declined to say how much Banijay had invested in The Blast, which will operate as a stand-alone company, in part to preserve its editorial independence. "It's significant but not irresponsible," he said. "Clearly, we hope to expand The Blast into other businesses, television being one of them."

Levin, 67, essentially created Walters, 37. In the early 2000s, right after Walters graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, Levin gave him a job on his Celebrity Justice television show. In 2005, when Levin and Telepictures, now a division of Warner Bros., teamed up to create TMZ.com, Walters was one of the site's first employees.

By the time he left, Walters was TMZ's news director and an executive producer of TMZ Live, an online series. Walters, always clad in a signature black T-shirt, also made regular on-camera appearances on TMZ On TV, a syndicated show that gives viewers a peek into the company's news-gathering process.

Walters declined to discuss his departure from TMZ. When it happened, The Wrap, a Hollywood news outlet, reported that Walters had quit after a heated argument with Levin over Levin's refusal to give a new contract to Walters' sister, Liz Walters, who led TMZ's court-reporting beat.

Liz Walters now works for The Blast, which has about a dozen reporters and editors. "It's an all-star team of journalists from places like People, The Daily Mail and MSNBC," Mike Walters said.

Perhaps in a jab at his old boss, he added: "You are only as good as the people around you. It's not about you. It's about your team." Walters, who said he rises at 4am most days, has investigation in his DNA. Multiple members of his family, including his father and brother, work in law enforcement, he said.

But Walters also credited Levin with shaping him. "I learned two things from Harvey," he said. "One is urgency and the other is work ethic. Those things I will always live by."