Keeping People From Blowing Their Covers

How Magazines Protect Exclusive Content in Age of Web, Celeb Obsession

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NEW YORK ( -- A former Us Weekly editor sued the magazine earlier this month, saying it hurt her career by accusing her of stealing content from its computers. The details are murky -- although the FBI got involved, the former editor was never arrested or charged, and the magazine calls her suit "without merit." But the issue at the crux of the case shows how much priority magazines have begun to place on securing their content, particularly exclusives, outtakes and big-event franchises such as Time's Person of the Year.
Baby pictures: Guards secured Vanity Fair's Suri Cruise photos, but a shot of Marcia Cross' twins wound up online.
Baby pictures: Guards secured Vanity Fair's Suri Cruise photos, but a shot of Marcia Cross' twins wound up online.

We're only three months from the next Person's public anointment, as a matter of fact, and of course only a small number of people will know beforehand who that Person is. But in these days of digital media and celebrity obsession, which have combined to make leaking content easier than ever, even that precaution can't guarantee a surprise.

Luckily for Time, there's going to be enough speculation leading up to the big December reveal to keep us confused. "One of the unintended positive consequences of things being all over the web is that there's actually more people who think they know; there are more names that are out there," said Richard Stengel, Time's managing editor. "In a way, it's a much huger smokescreen now."

That obscuring chatter, however, is about as good a security system for editorial as you'll find any more. Some publishers are finding that out the hard way.

"In the same way that technology allows people to steal your identity now, it's also enabling people to steal our content," said Ellen Payne, director-editorial operations at Hearst Magazines. "The people who are on the covers -- there's a lot of interest from the public. It's the collision of technology and pop-culture fascination."

Hearst lived that collision this summer, when the Gawker Media blog Jezebel offered a $10,000 bounty for an "unflattering" original version of a magazine cover photo -- and was leaked a Faith Hill photo that had become Redbook's July cover. The magazine shields some editorial by handling it on computers that aren't linked to the outside world, but somehow the Faith Hill shot got out. Side-by-side comparison revealed that Redbook had thinned the star's arms, smoothed her crow's feet and erased some bulging back fat.

It was a tough break for a magazine doing what so many others also do, but it shows why protecting proprietary content is becoming an industrywide concern.

Shiloh and Suri
People magazine has made its share of content-control such as the time its lawyers relentlessly pushed bloggers to take down a photo of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt that People had planned for a U.S. exclusive. (Britain's Hello briefly posted the image early, loosing the image for all kinds of digital clip jobs.)

And when Vanity Fair won exclusive rights to publish Suri Cruise photos, security guards were called in to prevent any leaks between printing and distribution. The extra protection proved well worth it: The October issue, delivering the first public photos of Tom and Katie's baby, sold 713,776 copies on newsstands, almost 65% more than the year's average.
Ellen Payne, director-editorial operations at Hearst Magazines
Ellen Payne, director-editorial operations at Hearst Magazines

But the subject doesn't have to be a Suri or Shiloh any more. When People planned an exclusive cover story on Desperate Housewife Marcia Cross and her twins, the magazine tested a few cover treatments with an online panel of readers. "Somebody took a cellphone picture of the cover and sent it to one of those gossip sites," said Larry Hackett, managing editor of People. "Can you imagine? Now we have second thoughts about testing covers online."

"What's maddening in these situations is the utter loss of control," Mr. Hackett added. "It's like if someone breaks into my house: It's not so much what they stole; it's that someone was in my house."

Limiting access
When Star magazine buys a set of juicy photos, nobody gets the negatives but Editor in Chief Candace Trunzo and her senior photo editor, Ms. Trunzo said. "I try to put all the security measures I can in place," she said. "But in the end, we're human, and you've got to respect the people you work with."

For Playboy, the real trouble is online. "We do have a huge problem with people on the internet stealing our images," said Gary Cole, Playboy's photography director. So Playboy employs three cyber cops who do nothing but cruise the web looking for unauthorized use of the magazine's content.

But that's after the fact; even armed guards can't prevent every pre-publication leak. Last year someone tried to sell People a photo spread from Vanity Fair's Suri Cruise shoot. "I called Vanity Fair and said, 'I think these pictures are yours, and somebody's trying to sell them to us,'" Mr. Hackett recalled. "We never would have printed them anyway. But Jezebel would've put them online."

Maybe the best approach -- certainly it's the most foolproof -- is to get philosophical about it. There is, of course, public-relations value in secrets. "If something really is exclusive, now that's a bad thing," Mr. Stengel said. "There's a benefit of something leaking out in small ways before, because I think it increases interest." But the emphasis there remains on "small ways"; Time's printing-plant workers still had to sign nondisclosure agreements before being allowed to handle the most recent Person of the Year pages.
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