After beating both tabloids to the tale of Madam Gristina, DNAinfo has the 'News' and 'Post' in a sweat
5:00 pm Mar. 7, 2012
The tale of Anna Gristina, the animal-loving upstate New York soccer mom who was busted on charges of moonlighting as the madam of a high-end Upper East Side call-girl ring, was made for the city tabloids, it would seem.
But news of the indictment broke not in the New York Post or the Daily News, whose neverending battle usually bids up salacious crime stories. Both papers got beat by DNAinfo.com, a scrappy newcomer that has been nipping at its elder print counterparts' heels for about the past two years.
It was a little before 5 p.m. Monday when the site broke open what is arguably the biggest prostitution scandal since Eliot Spitzer's dalliances with petite escort Ashley Dupre—just enough time to set the Post and the News scrambling to pull together bombshell cover packages for the next day's papers. (Surprisingly, only one of them did so. More on that to follow.)
The story behind the story, meanwhile, is yet another sign of insurgency within the local news ecosystem. DNAinfo is positively becoming a thorn in the sides of the city's newspaper metro editors. And for the tabloids in particular, the site's increasing visibility is a reminder that they might have to keep an eye on their flanks.
Anna Gristina was a huge coup for DNAinfo. The local journalism venture got off to a slow start after wading into the Manhattan news market in 2010. But it began building up credibility by landing newsbreaks that have surely raised eyebrows in competing newsrooms. A National Arts Club scandal here, a drunken West Village puppy-buying epidemic there. Plus, various other types of locally generated stories with proven viral appeal in the New York and sometimes national media. All of this was built on top of relationships DNAinfo developed neighborhood by neighborhood. The site is structured so that reporters are assigned to specific neighborhoods covering the entire island of Manhattan, supplemented by beat reporters who cover things like the courts citywide.
The Gristina breakthrough was magic: A neighborhood tale (the brothel was on the top floor of an unassuming building on quiet East 78th Street) with sex appeal, big money, and heavy law-enforcement guns.
The lede says it all: "A mother of four, who made millions running an Upper East Side brothel, was sent to Rikers Island jail on a $2 million bond after a five-year investigation by the DA's public corruption unit."
And yes, she's a blonde!
"MADAM XXX," the Post's front page reads today, next to a breasty boudoir shot (apparently poached from a Facebook page) of Gristina and her chiseled husband in a shirtless embrace. There's lots more dirt on the inside: "Sizzling pix of 'sex ring' mom; NYPD sarge feeling the heat; Hubby tells of shattered kids."
The Daily News—which, unlike the Post, was running with the story on its front-page for the second day in a row on Wednesday—went with a shockingly dowdy shot of Gristina looking all nanny-like while peering out from behind her wire-rim spectacles in court.
"EAST SIDE SEX SCANDAL," the headline reads, adding of her reported stash: "$10M LAYAWAY."
It's a thin sort of sunlight for the tabs to bask in, because neither can claim the story as its own. They got beat by a website that doesn't even have the words "New York" in its name.
Nor was this the sort of story where DNAinfo was just lucky to hit the button first. Leela de Kretser, DNAinfo's editorial director, told Capital the site's Manhattan courts reporter, Shayna Jacobs, was tipped off to the indictment by a source late last week. She got the documents and began fleshing things out with investigative reporter Murray Weiss over the weekend. After Jacobs and Weiss broke the story on Monday, other reporters and editors jumped on board to confirm the details of a second scoop—the identity of Gristina's alleged co-conspirator, Jaynie Mae Baker, whose named had been redacted from the court files. Wednesday afternoon, the team published an exclusive interview with the Morgan Stanley banker said to have been one of Gristina's financial backers.
"I am sure we once again surprised other media organizations," said de Kretser.
In fact it should not be that much of a surprise. DNAinfo's 30-person staff has about half a dozen refugees from the tabloids, said de Kretser, including Weiss, who stunned media watchers when he suddenly left the Post after 25 years in June of 2010 only to resurface not long after at a curiously named website that no one had heard of.
De Kretser herself is a former Post editor, and recently nabbed another veteran of her erstwhile employer, William Gorta, to join her growing stable of web journalists.
Gorta's final week at the Post is turning out to be an eventful one: An atmosphere of "consternation" in the newsroom yesterday was described to Capital by people familiar with the situation.
Not only did the Post not have the Gristina scoop, but the paper inexplicably kept the story off its Tuesday cover, limiting its treatment of the saga to a short item on page 5. The News, conversely, blew the story up on its Tuesday wood with the full-page headline, "HIGH CLASS MADAM BUSTED," to promote a heavily illustrated two-page spread on the inside.
"We spent the whole day trying to catch up," said one Post insider, who also said that the tone coming from the top was not a happy one.
The DNAinfo crew, on the other hand, is feeling pretty good right about now.
"DNAinfo is constant proof that hard work and great journalism pay off," said de Kretser.
But de Kretser isn't satisfied simply slugging it out with the tabloids.
"The New York Times and Wall Street Journal, or TV [outlets], or a multitude of websites are just as likely to follow us on a story as the Post or News," she said. "We have reporters in the neighborhoods and in key city beats."
And there will soon be more of them.
DNAinfo, which is bankrolled by TD Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, is plotting an expansion into the boroughs, territory still largely controlled by the neighborhood-friendly Daily News. (Ricketts, interestingly, has been rumored to want to take the News off mercurial owner Mort Zuckerman's hands.)
Beyond that, newspapers in other cities may want to take note: A national expansion is being eyed down the line.
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