PALM BEACH, FL — Starting in 2004, Jose Lambiet had a near seven-year run as South Florida’s go-to source for celebrity news and society gossip. He plied his trade for the Palm Beach Post in a column called “Page Two”–a deliberate homage to the New York Post’s “Page Six.” While other reporters skimmed the surface of breaking news, the Belgian-born Lambiet tapped his sources in the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Department and elsewhere to get all the gory details for Floridian readers with a taste for the outré.
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But in 2011, he took a hard look at the newspaper and asked himself whether he wanted to ride what he felt was a sinking ship all the way down. He didn’t. So, after an interim gig as executive editor of Los Angeles-based gossip site Radar, he returned to his old turf last October to start Gossip Extra, a one-stop shop for the salacious in South Florida.
Lambiet’s beat is much the same as it ever was: celebrity gossip, weird crime, society functions. But he also does some good old-fashioned civic muckraking. He takes credit, for instance, for helping to bring down State Attorney Michael McAuliffe, who announced that he would not seek reelection mere days after Gossip Extra posted a courtroom video of a potential juror declaring herself unfit for duty because she had been threatened by McAuliffe and was afraid of him.
“I like the variety,” Lambiet says. “If you want low-market gossip, you can come to me. But if you scroll down two or three items, you might get a real political item.”
He had originally planned to bootstrap Gossip Extra all the way. But several months into the venture, he was approached by an investor (who prefers to remain anonymous). Lambiet sold 51 percent of his shares in the company in exchange for what he describes as “a major cash influx.” This arrangement, Lambiet says, allows him to draw a salary from the company. He also says the investment is enough to support the site for three more years even with no additional revenue–an enviable position for a six-month-old startup.
At present, Lambiet is the only full-time staffer. He employs a part-time reporter, a part-time web developer, and a part-time photographer who goes out each weekend to shoot red-carpet premieres and society events. Lambiet personally works 15 to 16 hours a day, and claims no interest in someday cutting down his hours.
“I’m seriously taking advantage of the hardship that has befallen TV stations and newspapers,” he says. “If a newspaper fires 50 people, they deserve to have their heads handed to them, and I do it early and often and with glee.”
Of course, Lambiet’s operation is far smaller than even the most pared down legacy newsroom. Still, he updates the site about five times a day, covering national celebrities from a South Florida angle as well as local celebrities. Plenty of famous people have homes in Florida, so it’s a rich vein to tap. One of his favorite recent stories is that of the hapless JP Morgan Chase process server who was trying in vain, on a daily basis, to serve O. J. Simpson with foreclosure papers at his four-bedroom home in South Florida–apparently unaware that the disgraced former football star was serving a prison sentence in Nevada.
“People want to know what their neighbor is up to,” Lambiet explains, “and if their neighbor is Serena Williams, then you’ve got a good story.”
Since November 2011, the first full month of Gossip Extra’s existence, Lambiet reports that monthly unique visitors have ranged between 60,000 and 100,000, and monthly page views between 300,000 and 500,000. While these numbers seem high for such a young site, Lambiet points out that they aren’t surprising when you consider the fact that Miami’s metropolitan area has a population nearly the size of New York City’s. Headlines like “Tiger Woods Comes Out!” probably don’t hurt, either.
This month, Lambiet spent his first promotional dollars, buying ad space on Facebook and on the overhead monitors at an upscale gym franchise. He also promotes his site through a twice-weekly column he writes for the Miami Herald. In the column, also called “Gossip Extra,” he is allowed to mention and link to stories on his home site, provided he breaks some news in the Herald.
His biggest problem, he says, is finding a good salesperson. Of the $15,000 worth of available ad space on his site each month, only one-third is occupied. He has tried six different sales representatives, but so far, he says, “the only one who’s been able to sell ads is me.”
The Palm Beach Post’s website charges advertisers on a per-click basis, but Lambiet has chosen a different strategy. He reasons that his ad base will be comprised of people who can’t afford the Post and other major websites, and charges a flat monthly rate not tied to the ad’s performance. His most expensive ads are $1000 per month; the cheapest ones are $300. He actively targets local businesses, and says those currently advertising on the site have been with him since the beginning, renewing their commitment each month.
Even though his ad inventory is currently stagnant, the outside investment allows Lambiet to think long-term. He wants ultimately to build a regional network of gossip sites. Though there’s no set timeline for the expansion, Gossip Extra would serve as the hub, and the spokes would extend out to sister sites in mid-size markets such as Charleston, SC and Savanna, GA–both of which he finds promising for their affluence and society-driven gossip scenes. Although the investment he received was not dependent on such a plan, Lambiet says his backer is enthusiastic about the potential for growth.
Lambiet is well aware, however, that if he does succeed in turning Gossip Extra into a far-reaching network, he won’t be able to let his efforts slip back home in Palm Beach. For now he’s content to grow his startup organically, showing doubters that gossip, like other kinds of reportage, can thrive on the local level, and making good on his investor’s gamble, which he describes as: “Here is money: prove yourself. Prove that this can work.”
Gossip Extra Data
Name: Gossip Extra
City: Palm Beach