It's a tough business, dishing dirt

None of them ever aspired to their current jobs.

Jeanette Walls, gossip correspondent for "The Scoop" on MSNBC, says she imagined herself as a hard-core journalist. Marc Malkin, who writes the "Intelligencer" gossip column for New York magazine, wanted to do community journalism: "I was going to change the world," he says. And Jared Paul Stern, who writes the "Page Six" column for the New York Post, says he had "no particular initiative" to become a gossip columnist.

But today they are among a handful of New York's highest-profile gossip columnists.

"It's a dream job," insists Michael Musto, aka "La Dolce Musto" of the Village Voice, who says he's at a party or function every night of the week. "I can't praise it highly enough."

The job definitely offers many chances to rub shoulders with celebrities and indulge in some New York high life. But all four columnists are also quick to agree on a fundamental fact: Gossip is a tougher business today than ever before.

They spoke about their work while participating in a panel set up by mediabistro.com, a journalism association that occasionally hosts events intended to give young and aspiring writers a chance to ask questions of the pros. The opportunity to hear about the life of a gossip columnist drew a lively crowd at a SoHo restaurant one recent evening.

But what they heard was not necessarily encouraging. It's a field that's being squeezed. There may be more news out there than ever before, but it's being fought over by an infinitely greater number of news outlets.

It's hard to compete with supermarket tabloids willing to expend huge sums of money to buy their scoops. But that problem is vastly complicated by the fact that more serious publications once loath to report gossip are now quick to slap such stories on Page 1.

In the days of Louella Parsons and Walter Winchell, powerful gossip columnists could wait for celebrities to call them with items. Today, no self-respecting celebrity calls a gossip columnist. If they have news, their publicists angle for a TV interview or a profile in "Vanity Fair."

That doesn't mean that gossip columnists have lost their influence – or the sometimes ugly things that come with such power. All four say that they have been offered bribes – and threats.

At the same time, they have liability concerns that Hedda Hopper couldn't have imagined in her wildest dreams.

"We're now the bottom feeders," says Ms. Walls. "It's a tricky job."

It's also an ancient one, as Walls recounts in her book "Dish." Cuneiform tablets from the 15th century BC sizzle with reports that a Mesopotamian mayor was having an affair, she writes, although it was the Industrial Revolution and the birth of the penny press that gave gossip columns their current commercial incarnation.

The notion of the society column came later in the 19th century.

But society columnists didn't have to agonize over some of the moral issues that today's gossip purveyors face. And questions to the panel reveal that the lines are drawn in different places depending on who's calling the shots.

Do you "out" homosexuals? (Mr. Musto: yes). Do you write about the misdeeds of celebrity children? (Mr. Malkin: no). How about illnesses celebrities wish kept secret? (Malkin: no).

Do you run "blind" items, hinting at the subject of a bit of gossip, without saying directly who it is? (Mr. Stern: yes.)

Levels of personal discomfort associated with the vocation vary greatly. Asked if they ever felt guilty, the panel responded from "sometimes" (Malkin) to "never" (Stern) to "Guilt? Qu'est-ce que c'est?" (Musto) to "It goes away quickly" (Walls).

To some degree, they laughed at the idea that they have done anything to others that hasn't been done to them. "No one's career is more ruined than mine," lamented Musto.

But much of the discussion was in a lighter key, affording the audience a rare insight into a unique slice of New York life. For fashionistas, the panel was also a chance to note that gossip columnists represent a wide variety of fashion statements.

Malkin, who is lean with a reddish crew cut, sported frayed khakis and could have been part of a sophisticated Gap ad. Stern, dapper in dark pinstripes and bright purple socks, had more of a GQ style. Musto, with thick glasses and an open-necked Hawaiian-style shirt, looked very East Village, while Walls, a trim redhead in a black sheath dress, was entirely Upper East Side.

But it was Musto – who briefly had his own TV show – who spoke the most and drew the biggest laughs. He perhaps also pulled the biggest surprise by responding to the question, "How extroverted are you?" with the confession, "I'm painfully shy."

It's been a huge asset, he says, because it makes him a good listener: "People blab to me."

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