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Smokin’

Last Wednesday, William Bastone shared a stage at fashionable midtown Manhattan restaurant Michael’s with media giants ranging from Don Hewitt, longtime executive producer of CBS’ 60 Minutes, to former Random House Inc. executive Harold Evans, to Time magazine managing editor Jim Kelly.

The central topic for the panel put together by Court TV: Whether the exposé of “embellishments” in author James Frey’s best-selling tale of addiction, A Million Little Pieces, should change how hard publishers should have to work to verify the truth in the pages of books before printing them.

That Bastone’s three-person fact-checking posse known as The Smoking Gun -- which has been in pursuit of documentable truth for less than a decade -- has spawned nationwide discussion and debate on publishing-industry practices is testament to its outsized influence. No less a reputation than that of entertainer Oprah Winfrey has gotten caught up in the riptide of its latest bit of gumshoe work, which it published on the Web in a 13,000-word analysis Jan. 8 (www.thesmokinggun.com/archive/0104061jamesfrey1.html).

The report started out innocently enough. “We were just trying to find the mug shot” of an author who claimed to have been arrested 13 or 14 times, Bastone said.

The difficulty of finding even a single mug shot was what instead drove he, managing editor Andrew Goldberg and producer Joe Jesselli to keep digging. And when they were done, six weeks later, they had pulled the foundation out of Frey’s assertions that he had been incarcerated for three months in one stretch or centrally involved in accidents involving the death of two teen-age girls or a collision with a police car.

Besides breaking Frey’s reputation into a million pieces, the report boosted traffic on The Smoking Gun’s Web site (www.thesmokinggun.com) to more than 70 million page views in January, about 50% above the site’s norm for a month

Even so, it’s hard to prove whether the publicity that results from The Smoking Gun’s hits also benefit Court TV. “Court TV and The Smoking Gun are kind of like Jon Voight and Angelina Jolie -- they're related but disparate,” said Lela Corcoros,

a marketing and publicity consultant with October Strategies Inc. in Centennial Colo.

The Smoking Gun URL, for instance, appeared in 123 articles in publications ranging from The New York Times to The Times of London in the month after the Jan. 8 report on Frey’s past, compared with just seven the month before. But only once did Court TV get a mention in the same article in the entire two-month period.

Has the investment in the oft-offbeat investigative Web site paid off for Court TV, itself a joint venture of Time Warner Inc. and Liberty Media Corp.? It’s hard to, well, document. Neither Court TV nor The Smoking Gun report their financial results publicly.

But “it is profitable,” Court TV chairman and CEO Henry Schlieff said. “It hasn’t been a significant portion of our insignificant profits, but it’s certainly growing.” And Schlieff is trying to capitalize on the surge in interest in the site, pitching Hollywood on creating a scripted series -- an edgy, flip Lou Grant? -- based on the Gun’s exploits.

On top of that, Court TV -- which another Web site, Hoovers.com (www.hoovers.com), said generates $227 million in annual revenue -- did not have to invest much to pick up The Smoking Gun. The price? Under $5 million, Multichannel News estimates.

That was five years ago, when visitors only pulled up and watched 5 million pages of Smoking Gun content per month.

Now -- even absent an extraordinary event like the frying of Frey -- the site’s page views total almost 50 million every month. And the imputed value of the site is close to 10 times what Court TV paid for it.

Not that Bastone spends much time thinking about Smoking Gun as a business. In fact, he spends no time at all on it. Two openings for reporters remain unfilled because Bastone likes the efficiency of working with Goldberg and Jesselli.

Goldberg cajoles court clerks and police officers to get the paper that Smoking Gun lives on and scans them into electronic form; Jesselli builds the Web pages, posting the documents and stories, adding images, headlines and other elements; and Bastone writes the report that explains it all.

When the process works right, the trio can have a new document and story posted minutes after it’s picked up from a source. With most documents, “we pull out the seven or eight money shots -- the smoking guns, so to speak. And so, bang, we do it,” Jesselli said.

With a document like the sexual-harassment suit filed in 2004 against Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly, Jesselli just keeps posting pages as fast as they come in. Readers may call in to ask Goldberg and Jesselli to post more quickly.

If The Smoking Gun added staff to this triangle offense, Bastone might actually have to think about organizational issues, not just pursue documents. “I don’t want to manage people. I don’t want to go to meetings. I don’t want to be doing all the things that grownups have to do, to manage news operations,” he said.

He spontaneously eschews trappings, like the corporate car waiting to carry him out of the cold and back to headquarters. After his moment rubbing elbows with Hewitt and Evans, he instead walks the dozen or so blocks back to Court TV’s offices on Third Avenue.

Once there, he laments the site’s move upstairs from space that used to house the company mailroom. Sure, he’s now got a view. But, he said, he’d rather be in the basement, out of view.

On the wall of The Smoking Gun’s perch? A poster-sized print of a patent for a

“Human Gas Filter Pad for Wearing in the Underwear” (patimg2.uspto.gov/.piw?Docid=D0398994&homeurl=http%3A%2F%2Fpatft.uspto.gov%2Fnetacgi%2Fnph-Parser%3FSect1%3DPTO1%2526Sect2%3DHITOFF%2526d%3DPALL%2526p%3D1%2526u%3D%2Fnetahtml%2Fsrchnum.htm%2526r%3D1%2526f%3DG%2526l%3D50%2526s1%3DD398,994.WKU.%2526OS%3DPN%2FD398,994%2526RS%3DPN%2FD398,994&PageNum=&Rtype=&SectionNum=&idkey=BD3241D5599C). On the floor? A circular rug from an FBI field office promoting “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity” that came, indirectly, via eBay Inc. (www.ebay.com). On a book shelf? A gathering of aging mob figures under a “tree of death” at a penitentiary in Springfield, Mo.

On the door? The site’s name: The Smoking Gun. But Bastone doesn’t even like that. He wanted to name the site “The Paper Chase” or “The Paper Trail.” He likes the idea that the site’s entire focus is on finding paper and posting it to a paperless medium.

Why didn’t he? The names, of course, weren’t available.

The site itself is almost unchanged in appearance from nine years ago. But that’s about to change. Last Tuesday, Court TV appointed Linda Reddington, a former Comedy Central executive, to develop all its online sites, including The Smoking Gun. Her immediate plans: Freshen up the design and begin a serious sales effort.

So far, Court TV Online has a total of one salesperson, selling positions on any and all of its sites -- Courttv.com (www.courttv.com), Crime Library (www.crimelibrary.com) and The Smoking Gun.

Reddington wants to pull advertising away from brand-name magazines such as Vanity Fair, Esquire and Wired as ad dollars move from print to online. Her pitch: The Smoking Gun’s demographics are the same, skewing to 60% male, largely between the ages of 25-59, with annual incomes, one-third of the time, exceeding $100,000.

The design work may be relatively easy. Like popular search engine Google Inc. (www.google.com), the Gun fell into a design that is what artists -- and marketers -- like to call “uncluttered.”

But the bigger challenge may be for Reddington to define for those marketers just what the Gun’s “brand attitude” is. While she talks of “amazing demographic delivery,” Goldberg, Joselli and Bastone just want to laugh, whether it’s on the way to the bank or not. If anything, they’re trying to carve out a new niche -- sarcastic investigative journalism. If they can’t laugh at a story, they won’t do it.

“Everything we do is funny,” Goldberg said. “We try to do funny.”

Steve Donohue contributed to this story.