The March changeover by the chairman of Wenner Media is a bid to make the publication -- to be called Us Weekly -- more relevant to readers.
TURNS TO MCDONELL
The privately held company, which also publishes Rolling Stone and Men's Journal, has earmarked $50 million for the project, an amount Mr. Wenner contends is more than abundant for a successful conversion. He also will name one of his most high-profile and widely respected editors, Terry McDonell, to oversee Us' weekly editorial direction.
"If this is successful, Us will be a larger proposition than Rolling Stone. It has the potential to make more money," Mr. Wenner said.
Since last year, when Wenner announced intentions to increase Us' frequency, the publishing industry has been abuzz with two overriding questions: How would a company with estimated revenues of $270 million finance such an ambitious venture? And why would it want to -- considering it means taking on behemoth Time Inc.'s People?
Mr. Wenner responds he's building on an existing franchise, not starting from scratch. Therefore, the costs are not as high as the $200 million estimated by some industry-watchers.
As for taking on People -- widely considered the most profitable magazine in the nation -- the company contends there's room for another celebrity magazine.
'ROOM FOR STRONG NO. 2'
"Some great ideas are so big and so obvious that no one thinks of them," boasted Kent Brownridge, Wenner Media's general manager. "Everyone said, 'You can't take on People, they're so powerful it can't be done.' But the fact that they are so powerful turns out to be the reason why we should. With People having such a big market to themselves, it seems there's room for a strong No. 2."
The crux of Us Weekly's business plan hinges on a sociological trend: consumers' insatiable appetite for personality-driven news. When Us becomes a weekly it will be more relevant to a larger group of America's celebrity-watchers, thus increase newsstand sales, Wenner officials say. The increased costs of production, distribution and editorial will be offset by what they hope will be a significant increase in single-copy sales.
Wenner Media has signed contracts through its distribution company, DSI, with supermarkets and drugstore chains to increase the number of checkout counter pockets from 70,000 to 200,000. Us also will move from the bottom shelves to the prime position at the top, and be at every checkout lane rather than every other one, as is now the case.
"You won't be able to escape the store without encountering Us," Mr. Brownridge said.
NO PLANS TO RAISE RATES
For now, the company has no plans to raise its $3 cover price or ad rates; a color page ad will still cost $53,750. The rate base -- the number of readers a magazine guarantees advertisers -- will remain at 1 million.
The company has postponed plans for a new Internet title in an effort to direct the bulk of its energy to Us Weekly. And it has begun to shift staff, office space and computer systems in anticipation of the March relaunch. Plans call for 40 or 50 editorial positions to be added to the current staff of approximately 25.
Additionally, a Los Angeles bureau will be opened.
Charlie Leerhsen, 50, will remain as editor under Mr. McDonell, currently VP-editor in chief of Men's Journal.
GSD&M TO CREATE ADS
After a search for an ad agency to produce a consumer campaign to accompany Us Weekly's debut, Wenner recently tapped GSD&M, Austin, Texas, to create the ads.
Wenner Media executives believe a weekly frequency will help with certain advertisers who spend ad dollars based on formulas that rely on weekly cycles. Mr. Brownridge points to automotive, package goods, film and TV promotions as categories that could grow under the weekly schedule.
Seth Romine, media supervisor at Starcom USA for cable channel E!, said he plans to advertise more frequently in Us Weekly.
Added Kris Coontz, ABC VP-advertising and media planning: "Especially for TV, Us becomes a much more useful vehicle for ABC. A major problem has been its lack of timeliness."
Still, others plan to sit out until the weekly proves itself.
"We would wait until we saw that they had the ability to make rate base, that they got the rack positions that they need, see whether distribution will work, that they have a sufficient promotional budget to support the launch," said Marlene Tornabene, VP at Advancers, Chicago, agency for Jockey International.
A HIP SLICE OF MARKET
Us Weekly doesn't want all of People's market, just a small, hipper slice of it. The editorial will be "more on Ben Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow than Barbra Streisand," Mr. McDonell said.
But some wonder whether it's possible. For starters, even with the additions, the staff will number fewer than 100; Entertainment Weekly has more than 100; People has 265. People spends nearly $3 million a year on fact checking. And weekly magazines require a cultural change in the number of hours employees work and the deadlines they are asked to meet.
Wenner's $50 million investment, some believe, will fall short. When Time Inc. launched Entertainment Weekly in 1990 -- the nation's last weekly consumer launch -- it spent an estimated $200 million. EW took nearly eight years to turn a profit.
Wenner originally considered taking on a partner, but eventually decided to fund