As news broke today of Junior Seau’s passing, it seemed to me as if the best source for the up-to-the-minute early updates was the TMZ website, and I believe they had some of the first “on-site” photos.
And it doesn’t seem like that’s the first time it’s happened - it felt to me like immediately after Michael Jackson’s death, that TMZ was the first with “troops on the ground”. And during the whole Charlie Sheen phase, it seemed as if they were the primary source for the “breaking news”.
How do you think they do it? Perhaps CNN, the networks, etc., didn’t see the point in being first to break the Charlie Sheen story, but they sure did a damn good job of reporting on it constantly, in the days and weeks afterwards. Perhaps it’s just me, but it sure seems like you hear a lot of “TMZ is reporting that…” when something like this breaks. I guess I’d be less surprised if that was replaced with more “CNN is reporting that…”.
Disclaimer: This is going purely off of my own recollections and I do not have a cite.
I believe the reason TMZ was the first to break the news of Michael Jackson’s death is because its verification guidelines are not as strict as that of more reputable news sources such as CNN. If this is true, this could very well be the answer to the larger question posed in the OP. TMZ became the go-to source for breaking news because their lower standards for verification allows them to break news while other news sources are still in the process of verifying the stories they get wind of.
Of course, they are the source for breaking news only for a certain type of story: Something to do with celebrities. You wouldn’t turn to them for the latest on a natural disaster in Japan, an update on the elections in France, or even for a story about a shooting in the next town.