Corporate Case Study: Us Weekly wins credibility by putting celebrities first

Us Weekly seeks to shed the negative image surrounding the high profile of its former editor and position itself as a leader in celebrity journalism by creating positive buzz.

Us Weekly seeks to shed the negative image surrounding the high profile of its former editor and position itself as a leader in celebrity journalism by creating positive buzz.

When the news of former President Ronald Reagan's death broke on Saturday, June 5, it spawned so much attention that a virtual news blackout fell upon the world outside Simi Valley, CA, and Washington, DC, where preparations for his funeral were going into high gear. But by Sunday morning, there was one story that could penetrate the 24/7 eulogy, and it didn't have to do with insurgent flare-ups in Iraq or some massive merger that put the business world on its ear. It was a wedding, namely the secret nuptials between Jennifer Lopez and singer Marc Anthony, the exclusive photographs from which were caught by shutterbugs hired by UsWeekly. Being able to showcase the only images of J. Lo's third marriage was a massive victory in the increasingly vicious battlefield of celebrity journalism. Lopez's love life, after all, has been an obsession in recent years as it snaked through such celebrities as Ben Affleck. A major PR opportunity for Us, the scoop was credited in hundreds of newspaper reports and the magazine's editors were all over TV news shows talking about the wedding. The weekend edition of NBC's Today led with 47 minutes of Reagan news before jumping right to Us' J. Lo story. Good Morning America followed suit the next day. Simultaneously showing off newsgathering prowess and editorial expertise, it was the kind of brand-building buzz that many magazines dream of. For Us, however, it was clear evidence that the days were gone when most mentions of Uswere centered around blind quotes from employees complaining about horrid working conditions - by media standards - and that the controversial regime of Bonnie Fuller, the editor who made Usan industry sensation, is now fading into memory. "The buzz has shifted," says publisher Victoria Rose. "Our buzz today is about what we have accomplished. Our buzz today is about a maturing magazine four years later that has created a category, that has the authority." Creating positive buzz This comment comes just about a year after Fuller left the Wenner Media-owned UsWeekly to refashion Star into a glossy, celebrity news magazine - and a legitimate rival to her former publication. In that time, new editor-in-chief Janice Min has maintained a profile that's low by comparison to the public image of her predecessor, who was seen as a hard-driving and at times irrational and tyrannical boss who, despite a flair for making magazines sell, was lost when it came to budgets and dealing with people. The image was honed by a seemingly endless series of leaks about late closings, budget overruns, and fed-up staffers. Min is low-key, as most interviewers remark. A New York Times profile earlier this year went so far as to call her "the undiva," and, listening to her discuss her tenure at the top of the masthead, it's hard to disagree. Asked to discuss what makes UsWeekly sell in a crowded market, Min points to editorial achievements and credibility with readers. She also plays down her role in the world outside the Wenner Media offices. "Outside about 500 people in New York, none of our readers care who the editor is," Min says. "Buzz is something that can hurt a magazine when it's not the right kind of buzz. When you talk about the kind of buzz that can come and go with certain editors, it can be very self-destructive." Referring to the knives-out coverage that shadowed the early days of the magazine, she says, "It wasn't about things that were in the magazine. That makes it hard to manage your staff and hire, and it makes it hard to have relationships with the outside world." As far as the business side goes, Rose echoes this. "Advertisers care very little who's editing a magazine, unless the magazine is in a particularly vulnerable spot or unless there's a harbinger of some major change as a result of the editor moving along." Rose says ad pages for the first half of this year were up 28%, and she expects that number to hold throughout the year. This kind of performance has led to applause from media buyers, many of whom were cautioUswhen Fuller left. "Usdoes a great job, and it has done a great job over this year," says Robin Steinberg, VP and director of print services for media firm Starcom MediaVest. "Since Janice has come in, I've seen a significant lift in newsstand sales, and in this climate, where newsstand continues to erode, that's pretty good. But Ushas competition out there, and I think everyone needs to look to their left and look to their right because there are four books in this category." Facing the competition Most consider Star to be Us' main rival. The newly glossy magazine is honing a niche for riskier celebrity coverage, compared with Us' more publicist-friendly take. Witness, for instance, Star's recent cellulite- and beer-belly-filled layout devoted to Hollywood's worst beach bodies. This approach has made some inroads as it has shed some older readers and increased its readership to 7.3 million, up 17% from a year ago. The third contender is Bauer Publishing's InTouch Weekly, which is widely regarded as an Usknockoff. Finally, there's that publishing goliath, Time Inc.'s People, which most see as a class apart because of its expensive subscription price and its human-interest and lifestyle coverage. By all appearances, Us' marketing effort is trying to portray a market-leader position in a category it created, focusing on scoops and numbers, not personalities. The publicity effort, led by Wenner Media director of corporate communications Lisa Dallos and Uspublicity director Samantha Rosenthal, doesn't only push its editorial content and talent to outlets like Today, Good Morning America, and Entertainment Tonight. The business story also is told through circulation and advertising page numbers, as well as the data that tell advertisers exactly how many and what kind of readers the magazine is reaching every week. That audience, particularly the female segment, is, put simply, young and rich and well-educated. Rose is particularly proud of recent findings from Mediamark Research Inc. [MRI] that the median household income of Us' female readers is $83,000, edging out publications like InStyle and Vanity Fair, and reflecting a major gap between itself and Star', whose readership has a median household income of $45,910. Those numbers were the key message in a recent trade advertising campaign. While some in the industry have questioned the validity of this research, Star' spokesman Stuart Zakim, formerly of Wenner Media, put a good face on Star's performance, pointing to an 11% increase in median household income and to a generally younger reader since the magazine went to a glossy format in April. "While Us' numbers are what MRI does report, I think we'll all be in a better position to evaluate these when spring 2005 [numbers] are released and we're in the marketplace in our new format for a longer time," Zakim says. To Steinberg, some of the sniping that's broken out over the MRI findings is proof of the fiercely competitive nature of the celebrity-journalism business. "A year or two ago, Usjust competed against People," she says. "Now it's competing against People, InTouch, and Star. There is no doubt in my mind that the war is heating up." But don't expect the competition to change Us' editorial approach. "We don't do mean and nasty coverage," says Min. "We're not out to talk about how fat someone is or to say, 'Look who has cellulite.' Those are things that, definitely, a segment of the celebrity-loving audience would like, but it's not our audience. It makes them uncomfortable. They think it's crass and sleazy and not the kind of thing they like out on their coffee table." PR contacts Wenner Media director of corporate communications Lisa Dallos UsWeekly publicity director Samantha Rosenthal PR agency Rubenstein Associates

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