Taming the Tabloids
Their circulations in free fall, the supermarket tabs have embraced a new survival strategy: respectability.
By Darcie Lunsford
Darcie Lunsford is a reporter for the Daily Business Review, covering Florida's Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.
D AVID PECKER EMERGES from his expansive, wood-laden office in a haze of smoke. A single cigar, fat and nubby, rests in a large ashtray, a remnant of the tabloid publisher's last meeting in a day that has dragged on well past 7 p.m. and is still one meeting short of ending.
Tall, with black, slickedback hair, Pecker, CEO of the media company that now owns the National Enquirer, Star, Globe and their more outrageous sister publications, has spent the last year in meetings with top consumer researchers and media consultants trying to get to the bottom of this tabloid shocker: Only one out of every eight people who flip through the pages of a tab on their way through the checkout line buys it.
Five thousand consumer interviews, ordered by Pecker in the summer of 1999, might reveal the reason. "They were fascinated," says Pecker, 48. "But they didn't believe."
What Pecker believes is that the publications that paper a path through America's supermarket lines have an image problem. So the accountant-turned-tabloid publisher has embarked on a $62 million campaign to recast the nation's top tabloids into something that readers want to buy and job-seeking journalists want to buy into.
No more grainy photos. No more autopsy photos, or shots that exploit children. And no more cheesy ads peddling cure-all remedies. That is the old guard. And Pecker is New York new, not long out of the executive offices of the French glossy chain that publishes Elle, Premiere and the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s George.
Who cares about what all those inquiring minds want to know? These days the Enquirer, the nation's largest-circulation tab, has a new slogan: "Get it first. Get it fast. Get it right." Or at least, that's the message painted on the back of 1,000 Hudson County News distribution trucks roaming the Northeast. "No Elvis. No aliens. No UFOs," is splashed on their sides in red-and-white letters.
But the Enquirer campaign is only one component of Pecker's plan to revive America's troubled tabloids, which lost readers in the 1990s faster than Fergie lost pounds. Pecker hopes to bring an era of respect to the National Enquirer and Star, sell the unvarnished truth in the Globe and launch new celebrity specials and niche tabloids, including a Spanish-language tab called Mira!
It's a mission to boost readership and to land tabloid-shy national advertisers. Pecker proudly boasts that since July 1999, he has attracted 22 new advertisers, including S.C. Johnson, maker of cleaning, personal care and pest control products. The April 4 issue of the Enquirer featured its first ad for Glade PlugIns, an air freshener.
Some tabloid editors are clinging to the turnaround plan like a lifeboat. "He is trying to save our profession," says Eddie Clontz, longtime editor of the Weekly World News.
But some mainstream journalists aren't taking talk of the tabloids' turnaround too seriously --and they aren't so sure readers will, either.
"I think it is a tough sell," says David Satterfield, business editor of the Miami Herald. "The National Enquirer, Weekly World News and Star, certainly with a more affluent demographic, have a reputation to overcome."
Accomplishing that will likely take more than a new slogan.
"The supermarket tabloids are so far down on the end of the spectrum compared to mainstream newspapers and magazines that I can't imagine a transformation that would give them credibility," says Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida. "Cheer for them if they want to respect themselves. The question remains: What do they really stand for as a news organization?"
Steele says serious news outlets prove themselves as fair and factual storytellers day after day.
M ORE THAN A YEAR has passed since Pecker announced he was leaving the top job at Hachette Filipacchi Magazines to take over the Palm Beach County, Florida-based American Media Inc.--publisher of the National Enquirer, Star, Weekly World News and Country Weekly, a tab covering country music. Nine months later, American Media cut a deal to buy its chief competitor, Globe Communications Corp., also based in Palm Beach County. It publishes the Globe, National Examiner and Sun. In a matter of months, Pecker had wiped away, at least from a business standpoint, years of nasty rivalries.
The deals, one might muse, were a surprising career move for a man who had counted JFK Jr. among his close associates and had rubbed elbows with New York's publishing elite. But Pecker, viewed by some as a bean counter, had largely been on the periphery of publishing's inner circle and had drawn criticism for some editorial decisions.
In one highly publicized incident in 1996, three Premiere staffers, including Editor Christopher Connelly, quit--after Pecker ordered them to kill an unflattering story about a business partner of financier Ronald Perelman, part owner of Premiere.
Pecker has said that the incident was isolated and unfortunate.
Connelly, now editorial director of MTV News, says he can't talk about what transpired. "It was part of the deal with them not to discuss it," he says. But Corie Brown, the writer whose story was killed, remembers it as being a very emotional battle.
Pecker "was not very interested in news," says Brown, who now edits entertainment industry copy for the Los Angeles Times.
Pecker, then and now, does appear to be interested in public perception.
"Pecker in the magazine business never thought he got the respect he deserved," says John Masterton, an editor with Media Industry Newsletter, a New York-based publication covering the magazine industry. "He had a reputation in publishing as being an accountant, basically."
An accountant by training, Pecker started off his professional career as an auditor for Price Waterhouse and Co. He broke into publishing in the late 1970s as a financial manager for CBS' magazine unit. Its roster of titles at the time included Woman's Day and Field & Stream.
Pecker was among a group of CBS executives who later orchestrated a $650 million buyout of the CBS publishing division to form Diamandis Communications, which in turn was purchased by Hachette in the spring of 1988. Pecker became Hachette's chief financial and operating officer and later its president and chief executive.
He pushed Hachette to make a play for the tabs owned by Generoso Pope--including the National Enquirer and the Weekly World News--when they hit the auction block after Pope's death in 1988. Hachette was outbid by MacFadden Holdings Inc. and its financial partners. But Pecker never lost interest.
A decade later, the sassy pubs would become his.
"Pecker is a big thinker," Masterton says, "and he has got big plans for that place."
O N THIS MUGGY SOUTH Florida Thursday, Pecker is casually clad in slacks, a jersey shirt and black loafers, no socks. It's a look that fits this wealthy county along the southeastern Florida peninsula, which claims the Kennedy-style society of Palm Beach to its north and the corporate nouveau riche of Boca Raton to the south.
Palm Beach County, whose residents' average annual per capita income of $38,772 is more than 50 percent higher than the national average, has a rich tradition of being at the center of the tabloid universe, although stars on the streets are about as common as snow on the ground. Tabloid titans Pope, founder of the National Enquirer, and Mike Rosenbloom, creator of the Globe, brought tabloid journalism here decades ago and carved an industry out of slinging gossip, hunting aliens and trying to scoop each other.
Pope, a New Yorker who bought a paper called the New York Enquirer in 1952 and renamed it the National Enquirer, moved his growing enterprise to the tiny town of Lantana, in the heart of Palm Beach County, in the early 1970s. Rival Rosenbloom, who also shifted the focus of his Montreal-based society publication to cash in on the public's fascination with the bizarre and sensational, followed Pope to Palm Beach's sandy shoreline in the late 1970s, finally laying down roots in Boca Raton.
The tabloids' aggressive pursuit of high-profile stories and sometimes-success at breaking news began to give them their first taste of credibility in the late 1980s. Exclusives like Star's story on Gennifer Flowers' alleged affair with Bill Clinton and the Enquirer's scoop on O.J. Simpson's ownership of a pair of Bruno Magli shoes, which his wife's murderer was alleged to have worn, began to be followed by other media outlets.
Tabloid editors saw it as vindication. But a steady stream of so-called exclusives on JonBenet, Monica, and Frank and Kathie Lee hasn't stopped the tabloids from bleeding readers at a life-threatening pace. "I don't think there is any debate that the tabs have been having trouble," says Masterton.
The advent of 24-hour news networks, talk TV that blurs the line between truth and conjecture, entertainment news shows and the mainstream media's growing appetite for sensational stories have eaten away at the tabs' once-plentiful readership, media watchers say.
In 1994, the National Enquirer had a circulation of more than 3.1 million readers, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. In 1999, it had 2.1 million readers. Star's circulation dropped from nearly 2.8 million in 1994 to less than 1.8 million in 1999. The Globe's fell from 980,990 to 821,884 during that same time period.
Pecker hopes to reverse the downward trend with his own definition of tabloid journalism. "What tabloids really stand for is to expose the hypocrisy of the rich and famous," he says.
Noble enough in its simplicity--but will it be enough to bring readers back?
PECKER IS TRYING TO position the tabs to cover the spectrum from the super sensational to the super weird. In that spectrum, the Enquirer would be at one end and the Weekly World News at the other.
This corner-the-market strategy began to unfold in May 1999 with Pecker and his financial partners' $850 million purchase of American Media Inc. The company's flagship Enquirer had long been the top reader-getter, even after the intensely competitive Pope died in 1988 and the tabs were auctioned off to MacFadden.
After what longtime staffers described as a decade of corporate belt-tightening by MacFadden, Pecker and his partners offered a refreshing change of pace and ample cash to spend.
Almost immediately, they hired well-known magazine design house Roger Black Consultants to give the Enquirer and Star a sleek, new, all-color look. Then last November, the newly infused American Media paid $105 million for Rosenbloom's Globe Communications Corp., bringing the Globe, National Examiner and Sun under its umbrella.
"I think part of the overall strategy was to increase our presence at the checkout," says Austin Beutner, a principal with Evercore Capital Partners, a New York-based investment group that bankrolled the deals. "It is clearly better to have more brands than less."
Pecker dipped into his own life savings for $5 million to make the deals with Evercore happen.
Now he's begun to reposition his publications. In August 1999, Pecker rolled out a $50 million TV and advertising campaign to tout the Enquirer as a credible, newsy publication and the Star as a respectable celebrity watcher.
TV commercials featuring a Diane Sawyer look-alike standing in what appears to be a newsroom urge viewers to pick up the latest issue of the Enquirer for the hottest news.
Beach beauties peddle the Star's sizzling, tell-all celebrity stories in another 30-second spot.
A $12 million image-building campaign to position the Globe as a tantalizing celebrity and news tab is set to start this fall, with TV and radio spots and trade publication ads.
Each tabloid has its place in Pecker's world. "The easiest way to look at it is, if a big Hollywood story breaks, then the Enquirer would do the investigative stories, the Star would cover the impact to the celebrity's career, and the Globe would really do the spicy parts of the story," Pecker says.
American Media's other tabs also will be fine-tuned. The National Examiner, a former Globe tab, will be branded as the teller of bizarre human-interest stories. The Sun, also once under the Globe umbrella, is being shifted to capture a more mature, 55-and-older audience, with health-oriented and religious tales.
Then there's the Weekly World News, most far-fetched of them all. That tab, which proudly boasts that it broke the 1988 story that Elvis was still alive and spotted in a Kalamazoo, Michigan, Burger King, will remain largely untouched. "We are still the most outrageous tabloid, and we are going to remain that way," Editor Clontz says.
Like other American Media editors, Clontz is pulling double duty under Pecker's watch. He also oversees the editorial direction of the Sun, Weekly World News' longtime nemesis, and American Media's detective magazines and Cracked comic book.
Clontz's credo for new Weekly World News reporters won't be changing. "Never question yourself out of a good story," he instructs. "You have got to know when to stop asking questions."
But at the top of the tabloid food chain, where the Enquirer, Star and Globe are taking the biggest bite of Pecker's cash feast, that ideology won't fly. For those tabs, credibility and well-sourced sizzle are on the menu, Pecker says. But striving to be more palatable to a broader audience doesn't mean starving the tabs' longtime readers of what Pecker says they hunger for: gossip. "I also have to be very respectful of our readers," he says. "We still cover heavy gossip."
Some people who have been on the receiving end of the tabloids' wrath don't believe Pecker's strategy has changed anything. "I haven't seen any difference. It is all utter fiction," says Lin Wood, the Atlanta lawyer representing John and Patsy Ramsey, parents of the murdered JonBenet. "I think that John and Patsy find the tabloids revolting and disgusting."
Wood filed a lawsuit in May against the Globe for implicating the Ramseys' son, Burke, in sister JonBenet's 1996 murder. The Ramseys' earlier suit against the Star was settled in March for an undisclosed sum, Wood said. No one has been charged in the case.
The tabloid editors argue that striving for accuracy isn't an alien concept to them. Neither is the notion that trading in two-headed aliens for more mainstream scandals might lure back readers and national advertisers.
And in a media climate where the president's sexual indiscretions, politicians' extramarital affairs and celebrity murders regularly lead newspapers and newscasts, even mainstream media types would admit it's become easier for the tabs to at least seem more mainstream.
"What we are doing has been an evolution since I came in 1996," says the Enquirer's Harvard-educated editor in chief, Steve Coz. New resources have been key to the transformation.
Pecker bolstered the newsroom budget at the Enquirer by $3 million a year, but declined to say exactly how much the tab spends to pump its editorial engines. The additional money is earmarked, Coz says, for more reporters, researchers and resources to nail down all those expected exclusives--resources that include doling out dollars to sources willing to dish the dirt on their celebrity friends and family.
Sources in about half of all the stories that appear in the Enquirer are paid, Pecker says, making no apologies. "I believe in checkbook journalism," he says. "I believe in paying [sources] for stories." The practice is frowned on by mainstream news outfits because the stories' credibility is thrown into question as soon as money passes from reporter to source.
T HE ENQUIRER ALSO BELIEVES in paying for reporters. Entry-level jobs start at $50,000 a year, with seasoned vets making more than $100,000, Coz says.
Despite the promise of plentiful resources and higher pay, Coz and Pecker say it's still a challenge to shake good journalists loose from the like-yourself-in-the-morning security of mainstream papers. "We are aggressively spending money to change the image to get the talent to get the stories and get the respect," Coz says.
But has all this tough talk translated into tougher journalistic standards? You be the judge.
The Enquirer's front-page headlines on March 2, 1999, before Pecker's strategy was implemented, include: "JonBenet Parents' Vicious Fight Hours After Murder," and "Janet Jackson Boots Out Cheating Husband." Both stories rely heavily on and directly quote unnamed sources. Inside, the tab has landed an exclusive tongue-in-cheek interview with the Twinkie that was eaten by the slender Calista Flockhart. It quotes the Twinkie, of course.
More than a year later, on April 4, headlines on the cover of the issue included: "Psychiatrist Reveals: Mom's Secret Murder Confession," and "Sandra Bullock Battling Mystery Brain Illness." The first story is based on the opinion of a forensic psychiatrist, who has read John and Patsy Ramsey's recently released book, "The Death of Innocence," but has no firsthand knowledge of the investigation. In a sidebar, the tab takes a told-you-so opportunity to remind readers: "You read it here first, John & Patsy Suicide Shocker." Too bad that wasn't quite true. In an interview with Barbara Walters in March, the Ramseys had confessed to the veteran TV reporter they had had thoughts of suicide, but had said they had to go on for the sake of their other children.
In the Bullock story, the tab bases the illness revelation on unnamed sources, then quotes the actress saying she took a fall and went to the doctor to determine if there was head trauma. Inside pages are packed with celebrity gossip, ranging from a plastic surgeon who says it looks like Burt Reynolds has had a face lift but offers no proof, to rumors that Madonna is pregnant again. (The pregnancy turns out to be true.)
There still seems to be plenty of room for some old-fashioned roughhousing. The Globe, the tab most often reviled as playing dirtier than all the rest, won't be cleaning up its act too much, says Tony Frost, editor in chief of that paper and the Star and National Examiner. "Controversy is our middle name," he says with a grin. "The Globe should always be a hard-hitting tabloid."
Frost, an English-born tab journalist who worked at London's Sunday Mirror, the Enquirer and the Star before coming to the Globe in 1995, clarifies: "The rules are to pursue the stories aggressively" without crossing the line into law-breaking.
Frost and Pecker may have different ideas on where the line is. To Pecker, a Star editor's unsuccessful attempt in 1997 to buy a ransom note said to have been found in the Colorado home of John and Patsy Ramsey crosses the line. "I inherited that" legacy, he says. "We would never do that."
Frost stands behind the tactic and the editor, Craig Lewis, who was indicted in December on criminal charges of extortion, commercial bribery and conspiracy. Lewis still works at the Star as a news editor.
Meanwhile, the Star, Frost's former employer and competitor, now falls under his editorial purview. That's where he focuses the bulk of his energies, he says. The Tarrytown, New York-based Star was relocated in April to the Globe's 60,000-square-foot building in an upscale Boca Raton office park. The tab still has bureaus in New York and Los Angeles.
The Enquirer and the Weekly World News also will move to the Globe's Boca Raton building this year.
As for the Globe, Pecker has one other decree: "No set-ups." That's what many accuse the Globe of doing to Frank Gifford when it reportedly paid former flight attendant Suzen Johnson to lure the former football great to a Manhattan hotel room, where a hidden camera captured the tryst.
"We stand behind the story. It was a great tabloid story," Frost says. "You only have to ask the editor of the National Enquirer how great that story was. He followed it many times."
Frost says the Globe didn't induce Johnson to do anything: "We paid for exclusive rights for Suzen's story and the information she was selling." He got testy when pressed for more details. "I answer one question and you want to ask 20 more," he says, adding, "we have nothing to hide."
T HAT ALL HAPPENED BEFORE Pecker, in an era when Frost and the Enquirer's Coz reveled in exchanging verbal blows. Now the dueling editors play on the same team. ###
Coz and Frost, dare we say it, even know what hot stories the other is working on. The pair has to know, tabloid executives say, so that the tabs don't duplicate stories. Variety is part of the turnaround strategy.
But Pecker's plan hasn't completely erased the papers' past. The newsrooms are still separate, and the scoops are still exclusives, so long as the tabs aren't chasing the same angle. If they are, Coz says, he and Frost would have to decide who gets to run with it.
"We are just two guys who are very competitive, and we have always wanted to handle the best stories, and that is not going to change," Frost says. "If Steve and I both want to bring the best stories, articles and photos to the table, that has got to be good for David Pecker."
But could tamer tabloids turn off loyal readers? Some seem to think so. "I think people who buy the Star and the Enquirer at the grocery store know exactly what they are buying, and they read it for amusement," says Edward Sears, editor of the Palm Beach Post. "I think they are nuts if they want to become like [mainstream newspapers]. I don't understand it."