Richard Johnson, 2001


Richard Johnson is a dyed-in-the-wool New York City journalist. Born and raised in Greenwich Village, he began his career at the gritty Hell’s Kitchen weekly, The Chelsea-Clinton News. He relocated to Times Square when The New York Post hired him in the late-1970s — back when the city was still wild, glamorous, and a little bit noir. Aside from a very brief stint at the The Daily News, Richard has been there ever since. For the past sixteen years, he has been the editor of The Post’s notorious — and very closely watched — “Page Six.”

index: Do you get a lot of anonymous tips, or do most stories come in “on the record?”
RICHARD: Oh, I get a lot of tips. The good stories generally come from a confidential source, because nobody wants to be known as the one that called “Page Six” and dropped the dime. Sometimes the tips are totally anonymous. Like if somebody wants to get their boss in trouble, or get a co-worker fired, they’ll write their story down and put it in the mail without revealing their identity.

index: How can you tell if an unauthorized story is true?
Usually, there’s just so much detail. There’s no way the informer could know this stuff unless they were inside.

index: Wow, I wish I got that kind of mail. I guess you also receive a lot of phone tips?
Oh yes. During the two years I was at The Daily News, back in the early ’90s, I broke a story about the chairman of Citibank. He was having an affair with the stewardess on his corporate jet. That story came from a man purporting to be the aggrieved husband of the stewardess. I kept the informer on the phone long enough, and got so much information out of him, that I was convinced he was telling the truth. When I called up Citibank and they wouldn’t give me a comment either way, I just went ahead with the story.
It was probably one of the riskiest things I’ve ever done as a journalist — if any lawyer had vetted the story, I’d never have been able to print it. But The Daily News was disorganized enough at that point that the story ran.

index: The good old days. [both laugh]
I got a call from my editor the next morning, “Have you heard anything from Citibank?” He was shitting bricks after he opened the paper and saw the story. He had no idea where it came from, how it was reported, or what my sources were.

index: You must’ve been a little bit nervous yourself.
Yeah, but of course it turned out that it was completely legit. And then there were jokes going around that the new announcement on the corporate jet was, “We’re approaching for landing. Please put your trays and your flight attendant in an upright position.”

index: That’s pretty good. When did you start at The New York Post?
I started in 1978, doing general assignment reporting and rewrite on the City Desk. I started with “Page Six” in 1984, under Susan Mulcahy.

index: I know part of your job involves going out in the evenings. Do you ever witness “Page Six” scandals directly?
Sure. But usually I don’t see the most exciting thing that happens at a party with my own eyes. I’m there too early, I’m too late, or I’m on the wrong side of the room. But if I call around, I can usually find a few eye-witnesses. Lots of times, those people call in anyway just to talk. “How late did you stay? Where’d you go afterwards? Oh my god, were you there when ...”

index: Right. Do you make an effort to develop recurring characters on “Page Six?”
Sure. They come and go. They’re usually based on who’s going out a lot. Dr. Ruth used to be a staple. We’d come up with different descriptions of her, like “the pint-sized professor of procreation.” We had Vincent Gallo in quite a bit last year. And Bijou Philips was great for about eight months — then I guess she sobered up.

index: Do you think many of the gossip-worthy events are staged?
No! Usually they’re the things that people don’t want to have in the paper. Like we had a great story about Eddie Furlong coming into a party and actually vomiting on the bar.

index: The publicist’s nightmare.
I think he went into rehab shortly after that.

index: Speaking of rehab, I’ve heard that The Post coined the word “supermodel.”
If somebody can come up with an earlier citation, I’d be interested. [laughs] It just always astounded me that the credits of a fashion picture will mention everything, down to the fragrance, but they won’t tell you who the girl is. I find that so dehumanizing. I think that for many years magazines kept the girls anonymous so they wouldn’t have to pay them too much.

index: So The Post began to report on the top models as celebrities.
Yeah. But I think that the term “supermodel” has been degraded by overuse.

index: What sort of newspapers and magazines do you read?
I read The Daily News just to see what the competition is up to. And I try to read The Times — at least my favorite writers, like Maureen Dowd and William Safire. I look at Women’s Wear Daily. And USA Today — I have to check out their “Life” section. Oh, and I always look at Lloyd Grove’s column in The Washington Post.

index: That’s a lot of reading.
And I read Jeannette Walls every day on And New York. And The New Yorker.

index: How about TV? Do you watch the news?
No, no. I watch 60 Minutes once in a while. But a lot of the programs that purport to be “news” shows are really worse than tabloid TV. At least tabloid TV is sort of exciting.

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