You know journalism's in trouble when a reporter describes her job as "like a call girl without the sex." Meet "club girls," women paid to go out every night and party with celebrities, then report their findings to tabloid magazines.

The Los Angeles Times recently profiled this class of female freelancers, who earn thousands by lurking around celebrity haunts and feeding gossip items to tabloid magazines and websites, often via iPhone or Blackberry while they're still behind the velvet ropes. Their names do not appear in bylines (the better to stay in their celebrity targets' good graces) and when they are quoted it is usually as an anonymous "source."

A well-established yet seldom-discussed fixture of A-list Angeleno nightlife, they have good looks and air-kissy access beyond the velvet rope that enable them to eavesdrop on celebrities, send surreptitious text messages and snap iPhone photos in pursuit of gossip gold.

According to several former nightclub reporters and one retired tabloid editor, the publications typically employ one or two club girls at a time who generally earn around $300 a night. But that pay range can stretch into tens of thousands of dollars for "inside inside" exclusives.

Since I read the literary masterpiece that is Nicole Richie bildungsroman The Truth About Diamonds, I am already familiar with this phenomenon. (Undercover reporters are instantly recognizable as the only club-goers who aren't glassy-eyed and high out of their minds, Richie explains, because they are on the clock.) It's the same principle that allowed Jon Gosselin ex and Michael Lohan fiancee Kate Major to work for Star during her stint in Lindsay Lohan's entourage: She was being paid for access. Conflicts of interest are the whole point; it's like being a full-time tipster.

And sometimes it's like being a prostitute: The main subject of the LAT profile, Suzy McCoppin, recently earned $40,000 by telling News of the World about "rock star sex" with a British pop star. And sometimes, club girls are literally prostitutes:

Matthew recalled a reporter who started out "bright eyed and bushy tailed" but eventually let certain temptations overtake her life.

"She started off doing a good job but got in so deep after five years, she hung around with all these major celebrities and didn't know who anybody was because she was on drugs," he said. "She started missing stories and she'd come home with nothing. She became a full-time prostitute and had a couple of different celebrity clients. For those club girls, there's no return."

So, for little girls who dream of growing up to be one step up from a hooker, there are now two options: You can be Rachel Uchitel, or you can be Kate Major. And they say media is dominated by men! [LAT, photo of Lindsay Lohan and Kate Major via Bauer-Griffin]