NEW YORK — The cover of last week’s Star Magazine promised to tell readers who are the 30 biggest spenders and cheapskates in Hollywood. On the left was Jennifer Lopez. Obviously in the biggest-spender category. On the right, Catherine Zeta-Jones, whom it dubbed a “tightwad.”
But perhaps Fuller should think twice before calling someone cheap. At just more than 800,000 copies sold, it was the worst-selling issue of all time, scan data obtained by competing publications show. Moreover, with just two weeks left in the calendar year, the data suggest that the magazine’s final newsstand tally reported to the Audit Bureau of Circulations is likely to come in at about 930,000 copies, a drop of more than 15 percent from the year before, when Star’s average was north of 1.1 million copies weekly, according to the ABC.
Has Fuller lost her magic touch? Her supporters say a more accurate barometer of her success is to measure the current sales figures against Star’s 10-week average of 973,000 copies just before she was hired in June by American Media chief executive David Pecker as the company’s editorial director (a job that reportedly makes her the highest-paid editorial employee in magazines). By that token, the drop is more moderate, at about 35,000 to 40,000 copies a week. But that comparison overlooks the fact that the circulation numbers have been in free fall for the last three weeks, with not a single issue selling more than 900,000.
Responding to a request for comment about the circulation decline, the company’s chief financial officer, John Miley, suddenly introduced a shift in strategy for Star, which will go glossy next month.
“Our plan with the Star glossy is to reduce the dependency on newsstand copies and to take it to a 2 million rate base by building subscriptions,” said Miley in a telephone interview. “In the past, that was not a big part of any of the tabloids. That’s the way we’re going.”
The plan represents a major strategic shift on the part of AMI, which has built its titles on a newsstand-driven sales model under which it owns more checkout counter pockets than any other publisher. Under the new plan, however, Star would revert to a more traditional magazine circulation model, with the bulk of its circulation coming through subscriptions — no doubt discounted ones at that. Additionally, Miley said the new strategy would double profits in fewer than two years. It’s the latest in a series of ambitious projections by AMI, many of which have yet to pan out.
He also said recent MediaMark Research data has been incredibly encouraging and the magazine is now making more money than it was prior to Fuller’s arrival.
But the industry is not so easily convinced. Both the Wall Street Journal and Vanity Fair are planning Fuller profiles, several sources said, and the overall reaction among observers has been mixed at best.
Speaking of Pecker’s decision to hire Fuller, one person who knows him well said, “David looked at the marketplace and panicked. He was trying to find a way to differentiate Star from the Enquirer but now there’s also Us Weekly and In Touch.” His conclusion? “I think it is going to be another Rosie.”
Others are becoming similarly pessimistic. One celebrity journalist familiar with the situation joked that Star was beginning to look like “Bonnie Fuller’s Talk Magazine,” while another said, “It’s the same stories, the same sense of humor, the same sensibility [as the other celebrity weeklies]. What is Pecker doing?” And with In Touch priced a dollar lower than Star at $1.99, the source noted, it has real advantages on the newsstand, even though it is not as profitable a circulation model and even though it is not necessarily a “better magazine” than Star.
A year and a half into its existence, In Touch is already on the cusp of cracking the 500,000 mark at the checkout, while Us Weekly is regularly selling 600,000 copies, an increase of about 15 percent since Fuller’s exit. And then there is People Magazine, which has been selling a solid 1,450,000 a week on newsstands during the second half of the year, several sources said.
Star’s troubles precede Fuller, of course. All the tabloids have been suffering on the newsstand in part because their approaches have been coopted by almost all of mainstream media. Consumers who, 20 years ago, bought the tabloids now have not only In Touch and Us Weekly, but also E! Entertainment, Court TV, Entertainment Tonight and Inside Edition.
Between July and September, newsstand sales of AMI’s tabloids dropped a collective 19 percent from the prior year, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Pecker, who did not make himself available for an interview, has said previously that the key is to compete with the mainstream outlets and become more advertising-driven. But as Star does that — characterized by improved paper stock, pages of photo-driven content and Fuller’s signature pastel typefaces — it is becoming difficult to distinguish it from Us Weekly.
Early signs on the ad picture are not especially positive, either. It currently costs just $16,500 to take out a full-page ad in Star, according to a copy of the magazine’s media kit which was obtained by WWD. And upscale advertisers are nowhere to be seen, with most ads seemingly coming from Glad trash bags. Between July and September, ad revenue at the company’s tabloids increased by just $160,000, according to the SEC filing. (Upon leafing through a recent issue of Star, one weekly publisher at a competing company told their corporate higher ups, “Wow, Bonnie Fuller has created an entire magazine directed at cleaning ladies.”)
The company continues to look for ways to cut costs. While Star’s editorial costs are ballooning under Fuller, staffers are being laid off and skimped on the little things at the company’s other titles.
The result is that there is little goodwill for Fuller at the company’s other tabloids. When she came to AMI, she clashed with their editors and asked to have her name taken off of the Enquirer and The Globe’s mastheads because, sources said, she was embarrassed to be associated with them.
Fuller and a spokesman for AMI have both denied the masthead story, but sources say at this point, Fuller has very little involvement with the company’s other tabloids. (Interestingly, the media kit at some points refers to her as the editor in chief of Star rather than the editorial director of AMI, which was her title when she was hired there five months ago.)
But Pecker seems committed to her. In January, the company will test a full redesign of Star with full-coated glossy stock and a price increase from $2.99 to $3.29, the same as People and US Weekly. Pecker also has vowed to do a huge marketing push for the title, complete with billboards in Times Square.
There have been some positive signs. In October, the company increased the magazine’s page count from 59 to 84 and boosted the cover price from $2.19 to $2.99. The effect is that newsstand revenue increased considerably even though overall readership continues to erode. It was a boon for retailers, who are now making considerably more off the title than they were prior to Fuller’s arrival. But industry sources also noted that price increases on mass market titles often aren’t noticeable to consumers until readers take them home and that, subsequently, the readership begins to decline.
Given that, 800,000 readers could be something Fuller and her Star staff wax nostalgic over in a few months’ time.