Tabloid-Struggle Shock: Insiders Tell 'Ad Age' All!

Slipping Newsstand Sales Have Led to Staff Swiping and Revamped Web Sites

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- In the Brangelina-vs.-Jen days of summer 2005, the celebrity weeklies basked in the sun, enjoying a seemingly unstoppable rise that was capped by Wenner's Us Weekly posting a remarkable 33% bump at the newsstand to reach a 1.7 million circulation. But a year is a long time for gossip mags.
'Life & Style' is selling its next issue at 25 cents, as the celeb tabloids battle over newsstand sales.
'Life & Style' is selling its next issue at 25 cents, as the celeb tabloids battle over newsstand sales.

Today, as they scrap over circulation growth that has slowed -- and is perhaps even declining -- the major tabloid players are starting to resemble the stories in their own pages, with sniping comments passing between editors and insiders "reporting" declines in rivals' newsstand numbers, numbers that are vital to each of the magazines' ad sales pitches.

Take Us Weekly's editor in chief and Wenner It Girl, Janice Min (who, like her favorite celebrity subjects, spent the year sporting a "bump" and just gave birth to her second child). Having inherited the mantle from reigning tabloid queen Bonnie Fuller -- who ditched Wenner for a bushel of money over at American Media to remake Star -- Janice finds herself awash in the white noise of bad celebrity journalism.

Shocking Accusation!
"Depressingly, outside of Us and People, it's the one category in journalism where there is no accountability for fabricating a story or getting something totally wrong," she told Ad Age just days after giving birth. Janice singled out as a case in point rival Life & Style Weekly's report that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes would split once their baby was born. "It created a huge amount of commotion, but ended up not being true," she sniffed.

Debra Birnbaum, editor in chief of Bauer Publishing's Life & Style, said the TomKat split was no fabrication. "We stand behind our stories 100% and go through an extensive fact-checking process to ensure the accuracy of all our stories," she said.

Scoop!
But Janice has her own plans, revealing to Ad Age that Wenner is bringing in onetime Maxim editor in chief Keith Blanchard as launch editor of its Web site, which is getting a major revamp. The site, once essentially a promotional and circulation tool, ramped up in March with an Oscars blog that outlasted the awards and now often gets more than 100 comments a day.

Not to be outdone, Bonnie's Star just lured Jill Dobson from her job as New York correspondent at E! Entertainment Television to be the magazine's newest face on TV and its news and style editor at large.

While Star works on a Web site redesign, it is signing people up for an online beauty club, which it says is the first from a magazine and has accumulated 10,000 members in just five weeks. And it is finalizing a deal to produce a TV special with Women's Entertainment.

Trouble?
The focus on TV and online could be a reflection of a flattening out at the newsstand. Nobody releases newsstand sales except to auditors twice a year, so it is difficult to gauge momentum. But Ad Age went to insiders, who each put their own spin on the single-copy performance of the top four stargazers -- Time Inc.'s People, Us Weekly, Star and Bauer's In Touch Weekly. Depending on whose numbers you believe, the top four either sold 1% more on newsstands through May 8, compared with the start of last year, or lost 1.5% in sales.

The confusion just gets thicker by title. One circulation insider reported that Us Weekly's newsstand sales have fallen 9% so far against the start of last year, while another said sales actually grew 1%. Is Star up almost 3%, per the first insider, or down 11%? Is People up 7% or just 1%?

Official numbers will eventually emerge, but for now, the spinning continues. As will the gimmicks. In Touch and Life & Style are each selling their next issue at 25 cents instead of $1.99. Richard Desmond's OK magazine has extended its own temporary price promotion, pricing the newest celebrity tab at $1.99 instead of $3.29.

Needed: More Drama
Promos might be necessary as star-stalking titles wait for the next drama to capture the popular imagination. With the waning interest in Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie-Jennifer Aniston triangle, celebrity weeklies are being forced to gamble on which stars deserve coverage -- and covers. "That was the breakup of the century," Bonnie said.

At In Touch Weekly, editor in chief Richard Spencer said he believes the Heather Locklear, Richie Sambora and Denise Richards love triangle has the earmarks of last year's Jen, Brad and Angelina saga. "Many people see Heather as Jen, the all-American woman we've enjoyed watching on TV for years, whose man is swept away by the sultry Angelina-type, Denise," he believes.
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