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Most of us may well get our daily news fix from The New York Times, CNN and the Today show. But who can deny perusing the headlines, even thumbing through the pages, of the occasional supermarket tabloid while waiting to ring up our groceries? After all, those covers and celebrity snapshots constitute just one more irresistible consumer goods product, alongside that sack of Oreos and giant bottle of Mylanta, tempting us with the lurid details of Rosie O'Donnell's secret e-mails, or Hillary's confrontation with Chelsea over a poolside romp with her boyfriend, or accused murderer Scott Peterson's “gay prison sex.� As the old National Enquirer slogan went, “Inquiring Minds Want to Know!�

Unfortunately for the publishers of these papers, more and more consumers have resisted actually buying them over the years, as celebrity news and gossip, once solidly the domain of the tabs, have become a staple of media everywhere, from glossy magazines to respected (or once-respected) daily newspapers to TV news shows to the Internet.

“Circulation in the late '70s started to decline, then there was tabloid TV in the '80s, the Internet in the '90s. There's been a shift as the mainstream media became tabloid,� explains Kevin Hyson, executive VP/chief marketing officer of Boca Raton, Fla.-based American Media Inc. (AMI), which publishes the National Enquirer, Star and scores of other supermarket tabs and glossy magazines. He adds that the public's growing fascination with gossip and celebrity news — culminating in the O.J. Simpson and Bill and Monica scandals of the last decade, up to the recent Scott Peterson and Michael Skakel stories — only promises to make the tabs part of a “hot magazine category.�

But he's quick to admit: “Attracting new readers takes time.�

A decade ago, the 75-year-old National Enquirer's circulation stood at 3,250,863, the best-read paper in America, ahead of the Times and The Wall Street Journal. But by this year, that figure had plummeted by half to 1,672,401 copies, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, which tracks periodical sales. Likewise, Star, founded in 1975 by Aussie media giant Rupert Murdoch, saw its circ in the same period tumble from 2,801,844 to 1,259,001. In the first half of this year alone, the Enquirer lost 7.2 percent of its circ compared with the first half of last year, while Star's sales crashed by a whopping 12.3 percent.

In fact, the tabs, which are sold mainly at the newsstand rather than through subscriptions, have been hit with some of the biggest single-copy losses among all periodicals in the last decade, notes magazine consultant Dan Capell. Between 1992 and 2002, the Enquirer lost a staggering 1,656,823 newsstand copies, Star 1,474,956 and the Globe 515,026. This, even though the Enquirer is retail chain Wal-Mart's biggest selling title and Star its third largest, behind TV Guide, according to Distribution Services Inc. (DSI), AMI's distribution arm, which, besides the tabs, distributes magazines for major publishers including Wenner, Gruner + Jahr and Rodale. (For its part, Wal-Mart accounted for 11 percent of all magazine retail sales by 2001, according to research firm Harrington Associates.)

Coupled with the explosion in celebrity coverage, that dependence on grocery chains and so-called superstores has been a major factor in the tabloids' sales slide, according to Capell. “There are so many titles at checkout — and now there are 30 checkouts instead of 10, and half of them are closed half the time.�

Enter Bonnie Fuller, who AMI's CEO David Pecker tapped this past June to breathe new life into the Star and Enquirer, whose sister tabs include the Globe, the Sun, Country Weekly, Weekly World News and the Spanish-language Mira. AMI also produces a range of healthy lifestyle glossies, among them Men's Fitness, Shape and Muscle & Fitness. Pecker picked Fuller — most recently credited with building Wenner Media/Disney's once-struggling Us Weekly into a powerhouse in the magazine industry — to be AMI's executive VP/chief editorial director, at a reported annual paycheck of $3 million. Her first order of business has been recasting the Star, which is in the process of converting from newsprint to a glossy format.

Most agree if anybody can take the supermarket tabs upmarket, attracting a stable of fresh devotees and stanching the years-long flow of readers, it's Fuller. Before resurrecting Us, Fuller worked her magic on magazines the likes of Conde Nast's Glamour, Hearst Corp.'s Cosmopolitan and Marie Claire, and Gruner + Jahr's YM. Bringing in Bonnie “is a smart strategy on [AMI's] part,� says Serena Duff, director of strategy at Omnicom Group's agency OMD. “The Star and the Enquirer are the original gossip magazines, and they've really sat back and let other people steal their territory.�

Cornered at her midtown Manhattan office at nearly 10 o'clock on a recent Sunday night (Fuller famously works herself and her staff all hours, pushing deadlines to the limit), the energetic editor lays out her vision for grabbing the attention of more readers — especially younger ones. “It's always really important to grow your next generation of readers,� she says. “We definitely want to build even greater numbers of women in their 20s and 30s.�

Meanwhile, more than a few publishing and advertising insiders question whether the celebrity news market is nearing oversaturation. Says Robin Steinberg, VP/print director for the agency Carat USA, whose accounts include Coca-Cola, Sara Lee and the Walt Disney Co: “I already know more about Ben and J. Lo than I do my own sister! There's Us and In Touch and People — I don't know whose cover is whose anymore.� Fuller shrugs off the increasing competition. “There was Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, then Elle came along and people said there's no more room — and lo and behold, Elle became a big hit. When I launched Marie Claire, people said there was no more room for a fashion magazine. Then came InStyle. I'm not concerned about the fact that there's action in the celebrity category.�

The demo of tabs has remained relatively static over the years. The typical reader of the Enquirer and Star, according to Mediamark Research, Inc. (MRI), remains a grocery-shopping mom in her late 30s to early 40s with a high school education and household income in the upper 30s to mid 40s. In its pitch to advertisers, AMI boasts that readers of the Enquirer and Star “know everything about the big stars� and “watch a tremendous amount of TV.� The tab audience “has gotten a little older over the years, as is true with all the ‘Seven Sisters’ and other titles creating the front end of supermarkets,� says Hyson, who adds that Fuller, starting with Star, is aiming to get a “foothold� with readers 25 to 44.

Some say the aggressive pricing of the tabs — a uniform cover price of $2.19 for the Enquirer, Star and Globe, versus $3.29 for People and Us Weekly, $3.99 for InStyle and $4.50 for Vanity Fair — gives them a leg up, especially with younger buyers. While the tabs' “bread-and-butter� retail distribution centers like Wal-Mart and supermarket chains remain “critical� to their growth, Fuller says AMI and its distribution subsidiary DSI are forever exploring new channels. “We're always looking at additional places to distribute our titles,� she reports, stopping short of giving away any plans. Hyson says the company is looking at every option — from train stations to airport terminals to Blockbuster stores — to grow its distribution stable of more than 100,000 retail outlets in the effort to grab more consumers.

The tabs get the largest portion of revenue from circulation sales. They would like to change that, as circulation sales continue to slide. Ad execs say never before have the tabs pitched themselves so aggressively. Lately, AMI's slick, research-heavy media kits have littered Madison Avenue. The bulldog approach may be working. Even as circulation remains in the doldrums, the Enquirer and Star have managed to boost ad business, attracting packaged goods clients like Kraft, SC Johnson and Playtex and entertainment companies, including all the broadcast networks, the cable nets Comedy Central, Sci-Fi and FX, and movie studios 20th Century Fox and Paramount Pictures.

“There's no question the advertising-to-circulation ratios are going to become more equitable,� Hyson says. The exec notes that when Pecker bought the Enquirer and Star in 1999, they took in just $15 million in ad revenue; now that figure hovers around $50 million. It's a far cry from the late '90s, when tobacco — hardly a growth category — was the tabs' biggest source of advertising. AMI would like to attract more fashion and beauty ads, as Fuller emphasizes more celebrity and fashion coverage. “Since Bonnie took over, you can see more focus on service [journalism] — not just what the stars are wearing, but here's how to get the look for less.� (SAYS WHO?)

But it's likely to be a while, if ever, before the tabloids — Bonnie or no Bonnie — can seriously diversify their ad base beyond packaged goods, direct-response and entertainment, even if they can start to deliver a more desirable demo. “I wouldn't consider it [for a client] right now — they're not anywhere near there,� says Pattie Garrahy, CEO of Providence, R.I.-based agency PGR Media, whose clients include Tommy Hilfiger, Keds and Aramis. But Garahy, like so many others, has great faith in Fuller. “Look what she did with Us. It wouldn't even be considered for fashion and higher-end products, but with a bit of tweaking [advertisers] started to embrace it.�

Fuller is nothing if not in tweak mode — the Star, with its celebrity fashion spreads and Hollywood gossip (“Britney Makes Cameron Cry!�), looks more like Us every week, even before it has gone glossy. It's a formula that worked to bring new readers into the Us Weekly tent — and one that AMI is banking on. To lend the tabs credibility, the editor has been outspoken about changing their longstanding policy of paying for stories. But many wonder whether the reputation of the publications is so ingrained that not even a miracle-worker like Fuller can turn them around. “Will they come to what we knew as the Star for so many years?� asks Carat's Steinberg. “Will they be able to overcome that?�

Tony Case is a New York City-based freelance writer who reports frequently on media and advertising issues.

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