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Going Down: Celebrity Weeklies Battle Circ Slide

The sector needs more than a blockbuster event to stop its longtime slide in newsstand sales.

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Ok Magzine

Cover of Ok Magazine

Photo By Courtesy Photo

Life & Style

Cover of Life & Style Magazine

Photo By Courtesy Photo

Kardashian octuplets? Unnamed sources report that desperate gossip rags have offered to pay for fertility treatments for Kim Kardashian in the hopes that she might produce a record-breaking…celebrity cover.

Of course, this isn’t true — but an editor can dream, can’t he?

This might be the kind of blockbuster event needed for the celebrity weekly sector to stop its longtime slide in newsstand sales. Glossy, gossipy weeklies have long ruled the check-out aisles like majestic dinosaurs, with larger-than-life stories of exotic celebrity nuptials, fantasy vacations and completely implausible diets. But the recession has hit the titles like a Paleolithic meteor, and the encroaching glaciers of Internet gossip mop buckets, such as TMZ and OMG, herald climatic changes that not all magazines may survive.

Just look at last week’s newsstand numbers as evidence of the shift. OK magazine, which was recently acquired by American Media Inc., sold about 255,000 issues with Sandra Bullock on the cover, a surprisingly small figure considering typical Bullock sales or sales of the title at its peak. During the past seven weeks, the title has averaged just 270,000 copies sold, according to sources. Its lowest-seller ever, per insiders, was the Sept. 12 issue with Kim Kardashian and Jennifer Aniston, selling 175,000 copies on newsstands.

The magazine’s slide has been inexorable since the 2008 recession began, with a 43 percent drop on the newsstand, comparing the first half of 2008 versus the first half of this year, according to Audit Bureau of Circulations.

Nor is OK the only one not OK.

Life & Style sold 364,000 single copies for its latest issue, according to sources, and is down 36 percent on the newsstand, to 334,700, from the first half of 2008 versus the same period this year. Sister title In Touch is down 29 percent on newsstands during the same period.

“These magazines don’t have premium advertising to lean on,” said one insider. “I don’t know how they are making money.”

The business model of Bauer, parent of Life & Style and In Touch, is set up to make most of its revenues from newsstand sales. “It’s one of their biggest problems,” said one source.

“At some point, if I’m on the media buying side, you’re asking why I need Life & Style,” said Jack Hanrahan, publisher of CircMatters. “It has shrunk so far that it’s unlikely that it’s adding much reach to a media schedule. I’m not sure both of those can continue [In Touch and Life & Style] given current trends.”

So how to survive the meteor if you’re a celebrity weekly?

“This is the beauty of being at AMI,” OK editor Richard Spencer said, claiming he’s not panicked about newsstand. “They [AMI] are very good at looking at the numbers and being cost effective. It was a waste of money before. We’ve turned into a lean, mean fighting machine.”

One example that Spencer provided: Hiring people who can both write and edit stories. Plus OK’s back-office operations are now all handled by AMI, further trimming the title’s expenses. “I think a lot of people at the competition are quite depressed every day,” Spencer said. “We’re not depressed. We’re really excited. The model is working for us, cost wise.” Executives at the title even claim that with all the changes, profitability is on the horizon.

US Weekly

Cover of US Weekly

Photo By Courtesy Photo

It’s not as if they have a choice — across the category, declining single-copy sales have led to layoffs, cuts in trim size, fewer pages per issue and some magazines are simply printing bigger photos, using captions that are written by the paparazzi. The reporters are cut out of the equation, while the photo departments are staffing up.

“With the exception of People, now if you get 500,000 copies sold, it’s considered a hit,” said one source. “Four or five years ago, that would have been considered a disaster. If someone had told Janice Min [former Us Weekly editor in chief, who left the title in late 2009] that selling 600,000 copies was a success she would have said you’re a crazy person.”

Since 2008, every title has sneaked price increases into the equation, and People is, in some cases, raising the price one week to the next. It’s one small way of combatting a new reality. Recent examples at People include the royal wedding issue, which sold 2 million copies; exclusive coverage of the Kardashian wedding, which sold 1.5 million (although the magazine reportedly paid the family a few million bucks), and the recent Steve Jobs cover.

“It’s worked out for the reader and the magazine,” said managing editor Larry Hackett. “Those issues are really special. We had 13 pages devoted to the life of Steve Jobs. These are smart things to do and I think shows a sign of confidence in the brand. ”

People’s newsstand, which is down 24 percent over the past three years, has Time Inc. management concerned: Some weeks, sales have dipped into the 800,000 range. In the old days, the title never went below 1 million copies sold a week. In a sign of the times, Hackett noted that People was number one on the Nook out of the gate, and many issues of the Kardashian wedding were sold on the Nook.

In some cases, People has been posting $1 off coupons on its site to drive newsstand. This gimmick comes at a cost, but Hackett claims it’s been working. “We’ve seen a real impact with that.”

People rival Us Weekly is also down 24 percent on the newsstand since 2008. Like the competition, it has been negatively affected by the economy, changes in spending and fewer trips to the supermarket. And then there’s the Internet, with the dozens of blogs and sites that are being constantly updated.

The weeklies have responded with their own Web sites, but they must continue to adapt and be more nimble. Or else they’ll truly end up like the dinosaurs — who were out-competed by the furry, ratlike early mammals that evolved and now take the 5:15 New Jersey Transit home to Montclair.