Wall Street Journal
FEBRUARY 7, 2012, 7:02 P.M. ET
Hot Covers! One Prince, Three Sisters, Lots of Breakups
By RUSSELL ADAMS
What grabbed shoppers' eyes at the grocery checkout this past year? "Teresa's Prison Nightmare: My Life Without Joe" and "Teen Mom Farrah: Why She Gave Up Her Baby."
For celebrity magazines, this is the week of reckoning. The year-end Audit Bureau of Circulations numbers are tallied, revealing which celebrities and story lines attracted the most readers on newsstands—and who bombed.
People who owe their fame to reality TV accounted for about 40% of the covers of the six major celebrity weekly magazines in 2011, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal. And editors say they have been relying more and more on reality-TV stars to fill their pages over the past few years.
The principals on the MTV show "Teen Mom," which features Leah Messer, headlined nine covers of In Touch Weekly last year, more than Kate Middleton, Jennifer Lopez or Demi Moore who featured on seven covers in total. American Media Inc., publisher of the National Enquirer and Star magazine, in January launched Reality Weekly, a magazine devoted exclusively to the TV genre.
While exclusive news items about celebrity weddings, pregnancies and breakups remain reliable hits, a look at the numbers reveals some changes from years past. Uplifting stories about celebrities or celebrities' accounts of overcoming adversity—long mainstay magazine fare—aren't resonating with readers. Also, readers were interested in celebrities' pregnancies, but not so much in coverage of their children.
And the Kardashians, any member of the family, sell magazines. A Kardashian was the subject of about one of every six celebrity-weekly cover stories in 2011, and was a top-five seller for four of the six major titles. Kim Kardashian, the standard-bearer of the reality-TV franchise, was also on the top-selling covers of monthlies Glamour and Cosmopolitan.
As a group, the six top weekly magazines posted a sales drop of about 14% last year from 2010. Several factors contributed. People aren't going to the grocery store as often, meaning fewer trips through the checkout line where many celebrity weeklies are sold.
Meanwhile, the proliferation of websites and cable shows focused on celebrity gossip has broken up magazines' dominance. By the time the latest crop of publications hits the newsstand on Wednesday, many readers already have a firm grasp of the big story of the week. Another challenge for the weeklies is competition from monthly magazines, which increasingly rely on celebrity covers.
In this climate, editors say they must either advance the tale or find another story. Outside of the Brad Pitt/Angelina Jolie/Jennifer Aniston triangle—cover fodder since 2005—the celebrity establishment increasingly fails to churn out sufficient drama.
"My readers don't want to hear Will Smith over and over again telling them everything's fine, everything's great," said Dan Wakeford, editor in chief of Life & Style.
In the absence of compelling A-listers, magazines have come to rely more heavily on someone's willingness to over-share. "You know reality TV stars will tell you every detail about their life," said Richard Spencer, editor of American Media's OK! magazine and Reality Weekly.
With stiff competition and fewer customers, editors are quicker to "counterprogram," or find less mainstream stories, Mr. Spencer said. Take the recent collapse of Seal's and Heidi Klum's marriage. The split, involving two popular celebrities in what seemed like a happy marriage, had all the elements of a story that in years past would have appeared on nearly all the celebrity covers for weeks.
Yet in the first week after the news broke, only People and US Weekly highlighted the duo on their covers. In Touch turned to Kim Kardashian's adolescence, Life & Style delved into Mr. Pitt's fears about his daughter Shiloh's haircut, OK covered Ms. Messer's miscarriage and Star reported that Ms. Jolie was having health problems.
"That story was everywhere," said Mr. Spencer about the split between Seal and Ms. Klum. Without exclusive photos or other details, it is "dangerous" to automatically follow the competition on such stories and risk poor sales, he said.
People, which covers less reality TV and more noncelebrity news than its peers, remains the market leader. Last year, People sold an average of 1.13 million copies a week on the newsstand, down 11% from the previous year, according to preliminary figures released Tuesday by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, an industry data service. (Subscriptions rose 6%, however, a People spokeswoman said.)
Editors say they spend a significant amount of time mining newsstand-sales data for patterns. People and US Weekly generate about one-third of sales on the newsstand. Nearly all copies of In Touch and Life & Style are sold there.
The wedding of the U.K.'s Prince William and Kate Middleton provided a huge boost. People's royal-wedding issue sold more than two million copies on the newsstand, 80% above its average, while US Weekly's sold about 932,000 copies, more than 40% above its average. The weddings or rumored nuptials of three other couples—Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux, and Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds—made the top five of at least one of the top titles.
Of the five worst-selling issues of US Weekly through early October, three featured first-person accounts of celebrities overcoming personal and professional adversity. Christina Aguilera opening up about finding "new love and a fresh start" after a divorce and a drunken arrest sold about 531,000 copies on the newsstand, the second-worst seller of 2011 after Elton John posing with his child. Also in US Weekly's bottom five: an exclusive interview with Britney Spears on her "new life" and reality-TV star Bethenny Frankel on overcoming an eating disorder.
"Readers enjoy reading about drama, so the uplifting covers of celebs overcoming adversity by nature tend to pour water on the drama," said Michelle Lee, editor in chief of In Touch for the last two years.
People's five worst sellers of 2011 included features on what life is like for Mr. Pitt's and Ms. Jolie's children and for Charlie Sheen and his sons, which was the year's worst seller. Meanwhile, People's issue chronicling Mr. Sheen's public meltdown was in the magazine's top 10 for the year.
Editors say readers' views of topics evolve. Covers on celebrities having plastic surgery, for example, used to be big sellers, said Ms. Lee. But, as Botox and other procedures became more socially acceptable, readers became more forgiving and less curious about celebrities going under the knife, said Ms. Lee, who is leaving In Touch for celebrity website Hollywood.com.
"Nowadays, it's not uncommon to hear readers say, 'Oh, who cares—let them do what they want,'" Ms. Lee said.