Close your eyes and imagine what you think the editor of the National Enquirer might look like. Dylan Howard, who in 2013 took over the magazine — and, soon after, editorial oversight of its parent company, American Media Inc. — is not that. The dandyish Australian has thick blonde hair styled in the bro version of a pompadour; in his Twitter profile picture, he’s wearing a bright pink tie. When I met him earlier this month, it was at an old-fashioned steak house in Manhattan’s Financial District, where the waiter knew not only his name and his order, but also when the next National Enquirer special would air on TV.
In many ways, Howard is a throwback to an older age of journalism — the age of fat expense accounts and meals at restaurants with Frank Sinatra playing on the sound system. And he wants to restore the most notable names in his stable of publications, which includes the Enquirer, the Globe, The Examiner, OK magazine, Radar Online, and, most recently, Us Weekly, to their once-vaunted positions within the publishing world. His strategy is twofold: By restoring the old-school, glorious heart of each brand, he hopes to fashion American Media into the 21st-century version of a multimedia conglomerate, leveraging its power across the celebrity gossip spectrum.
Howard knows that each publication does its own thing, for its own audience, and does it well. There’s no reason for the Enquirer to try to expand its social media footprint, especially when, according to Howard, only 6% of his readership gets their news online. Instead, he’s refocused on the print magazine itself, doubling down on the populism that made the Enquirer dominate the newsstand in the 1970s. He’s re-embraced the old-school “postcard” polling method, which, coupled with email/online surveys, made it clear, more than a year ago, that his audience wanted more Donald Trump.
So that’s what he gave them: covers proclaiming “How Trump Will Win!,” “Donald Trump’s Revenge on Hillary and Her Puppets!,” and “Hillary: Corrupt! Racist! Criminal!” In officially endorsing Trump, the Enquirer joined just two of the 100 major US newspapers — one of them owned by a major Trump contributor.
Howard didn’t care how lonely the Enquirer was on the Trump bandwagon. He cared that his readers were there with him.
Like other tabloids, the Enquirer both intensifies and soothes its readers' anxieties and fears. It’s political, but it’s not necessarily dogmatic, and certainly not partisan: The tabloid, even one with an owner chummy with Donald Trump, has always been ideologically flexible. The Enquirer’s resurgence isn’t just about Trump; it’s a return to its core readership, and a recognition of how tabloid tactics actually work.
Us Weekly may seem like a distant relative to the Enquirer, but its glossy exterior elides the fact that it’s been adapting tabloid tactics for nearly two decades. The Us reader who makes fun of the Enquirer is like the snobby cousin who moves to the big city: No amount of fancy clothes can cover up where you come from.
For now, Howard has no plans to turn Us Weekly into an Ivanka lovefest — unless, of course, polling suggests that’s what the audience wants. Instead Us becoming the Enquirer, each AMI flagship publication will lean more into its primal self: Us will return to, as Howard puts it, “the glory days of Janice Min,” when, back in the mid-2000s, it became a must-read rival to People.
The Enquirer will continue to speak to the audience that’s long been ignored by the rest of the mainstream media — an audience that has read the Enquirer for decades, that is skeptical of pretty much everything, that loves celebrity news, that largely voted for Trump, and that still avidly reads tabloids purchased for $5.99 a pop at the newsstand. Somewhat remarkably, it's an audience that grew 84% among readers aged 18–34 over the last year. (In fall 2016, the Enquirer’s certified circulation was 370,000, with a total audience of 6.9 million — a 12% increase from spring 2016. For context, Entertainment Weekly has a circulation of 1.5 million and an audience of 9.24 million; Better Homes and Gardens has a circulation of 7.64 million, making it the fourth-largest magazine in the country, and an overall audience of 37 million.)
“Everyone paints a picture of the magazine business as something that’s dying a very quick death,” Howard said. “And the reality is, it’s not. In fact, at American Media, we’re thriving.” To understand why, you have to stop simply conceiving of the Enquirer and its sister publications as a propaganda arm — and start considering why the tabloid industry at large flourishes in the age of Trump.
The National Enquirer has been part of the American tabloid landscape for over 90 years — but it didn’t become a household name and shorthand for a certain type of coverage until the 1970s, when Generoso Pope Jr. transformed it from its “blood and guts” coverage (read: lots of shots of gruesome car crashes) to a softer, more palatable tabloid. Like the editors who launched People in 1974, Pope saw a gap in the celebrity landscape: The old-school fan magazines had devolved into Elizabeth Taylor–obsessed jokes, and American audiences, jaded by the Vietnam War and Watergate, were hungry for what became known as “personality journalism” — stories about the lives of remarkable people, both everyday and celebrity.
People packaged personality journalism in the respectable format of the Time Inc. magazine and became the most successful magazine launch of all time. The National Enquirer reframed it in tabloid form, and, by 1978, was reaching 5.9 million readers a week — twice the readership of People. While People had the polish of posed photos, exclusive interviews, and heartwarming stories of triumph over adversity, the National Enquirer used paparazzi photos, gleaned quotes from other publications’ interviews, and interspersed its celebrity coverage with features that warned readers against potential dangers and health concerns.
One exploited the tendency to think the best of celebrities and the world; the other exploited the desire to doubt and interrogate those narratives. One toed the celebrity line; the other obtained a photo of Elvis in his coffin — and sold a record-breaking number of copies. Both could broadly be considered populist, but People was targeted at middle-class readers, while the National Enquirer excelled with lower- and working-class audiences.
The success of Pope’s National Enquirer can be traced to three brilliant business decisions. Up until the 1960s, the Enquirer and other tabloids were generally sold at newsstands, at drugstores, and on street corners. But Pope wanted to make the tabloid seem more domestic, less sensational, less tawdry — so he lobbied supermarket associations to position the Enquirer on the shelves of the checkout stand, in racks emblazoned with the magazine's logo. He even guaranteed the sale of half of the issues on display. This seems rote now, but it was a stroke of genius at the time: He effectively positioned the Enquirer as an impulse buy, a move that more than doubled the circulation, outpacing even Reader’s Digest.
In 1971, Pope moved the Enquirer’s headquarters to Boca Raton, Florida — not out of some desire to be among the people, but because real estate was cheaper — and all the staff would be isolated, in one place, together. (According to Howard, Pope once planned to have all Enquirer employees live and work together on an island.) Plus Florida was known as a “haul back” state — most freighters bring products to Florida, but have little to haul back. A move there further decreased the cost of delivery to distribution points across the nation.
Many confuse the National Enquirer with its onetime publication cousin, the Weekly World News — which filled its pages with the most fantastical of unsubstantiated stories (Bat Boy, UFOs, aliens), stories that were too out there for the Enquirer. (Recently, Chris Matthews slammed the National Enquirer on Hardball, invoking an article that stated JFK had been found alive. The article in question was, in fact, from the Weekly World News, which ceased publication in 2007.) While the Enquirer often used — and continues to use — outrageous, unflattering, and otherwise suggestive photos and headlines, it has not been in the business of the supernatural.
When Pope took over and redesigned the magazine in the 1960s, he commissioned a team of researchers to visit dozens of cities, anonymously questioning residents, according to the Los Angeles Times, “with the singular objective of learning what the public really talked and cared about.” Pope then crafted the magazine to respond to those issues, extrapolating and expanding upon the desires, ideas, and concerns already percolating across a wider swath of the US.
Unlike traditional journalism, which often serves as an arbiter for what people should care about, Pope refined the art of figuring out what people already cared about, or were scared of — and focused on feeding, assuaging, or fanning those emotions. Some of those topics were related to movie stars and celebrities, but such stories were intermingled with ones that cultivated fear or anxiety over looming disaster, whether medical, natural, or financial: “The U.S. Will Almost Certainly Have a Nuclear Disaster Within 10 Years,” one 1972 Enquirer headline read; “98-Year-Old Who Got First Social Security Check Still Complains Payments Too Small,” declared another.
Whether rooted in scientific findings, dabbling with the occult, or recounting celebrity mishaps, these stories invoked feelings of contempt, sympathy, fear, heartbreak, and joy. The Enquirer’s primary skill wasn’t reporting; it was storytelling — its ability to create small melodramas with each article, whether it be photos of wild animals “kissing” or Elvis in his coffin.
You can draw a straight line from Pope’s conception of the Enquirer — and its invocation of melodrama — to the recent surge in the magazine’s Trump coverage. “It’s a soap opera,” Howard told me. “And that is what sells magazines. That’s why Brad and Angelina and Jen Aniston dominated the covers for 10 years. Because it was a soap opera — and political coverage and Donald Trump is the new Brangelina.”
CNN chief Jeff Zucker recently made a similar analogy: “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable,” he told the New York Times Magazine, “and we understood that and approached it that way.” People has been transforming politics into (slightly more highbrow) soap operas since it first put Gerald Ford, in a swimming pool, on the cover of its fifth issue in 1974. “Melodrama” might not be how political purists like to think of the work they’re doing, but it’s become the dominant framework through which politics is processed, packaged, and consumed today. The National Enquirer just happened to figure out the way that fit this particular set of politicians — and its particularly pro-Trump, antiestablishment set of readers.
This past year is not the first time the National Enquirer has dealt with politics or political scandal. When Pope died in 1988, the Enquirer was sold to a publishing company that, under the name American Media Incorporated, began to consolidate all of the major tabloids under one umbrella, acquiring Star from Rupert Murdoch in 1990, as well as The Examiner and the Globe (both purchased in 1999). AMI began to practice a sort of investigative scandal journalism, actually breaking news: It was the Enquirer that found a photo of O.J. Simpson wearing the same brand of shoes whose footprint was visible at the crime scene, the Star that got its hands on the tapes outlining Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. (He and Hillary denied the affair on 60 Minutes, but in 1998 he admitted, under oath, that it had occurred.)
The Enquirer exploited the titillation of Clinton’s affair (one cover line reads “Clinton: The Cheating, Lying, Dirty Phone Calls and Steamy Sex”) but wasn’t anti-Clinton, per se: An issue from 1992 promises to reveal how Hillary Clinton saved her marriage; one from 1999 declares “HILLARY BEATS UP BILL.” While Bill Clinton’s affairs had a material effect on his political career, the Enquirer did not explicitly engage with his or other politicians’ policies. Crucially, its journalists were equal-opportunity scandal-dwellers, investigating the backstories of leaders across the political spectrum. Sure, they covered the Lewinsky scandal for years — but that’s because Clinton was in office for years.
They weren’t breaking news or doing investigative journalism; they were inflating and distorting news, making it at once aggressive and digestible for larger audiences. That changed, at least somewhat, in October 2007, when the Enquirer published a story alleging that then-presidential candidate John Edwards had an extramarital affair in 2006 with a filmmaker hired by his campaign. At the time, most dismissed it as yet another Enquirer exaggeration. The following July, the Enquirer published a follow-up story claiming Edwards had met with the woman and a child it claimed he had fathered; a month later, Edwards admitted that he had been unfaithful to his wife, who was fighting cancer, but denied fathering the child; he was later indicted for using campaign funds in an attempt to cover up the affair and parentage of the child, who was, indeed, Edwards’.
The scandal — and the Enquirer’s reporting — is credited with tanking Edwards’ 2008 presidential bid, and the Enquirer’s move to submit its reporting for a Pulitzer prompted industry-wide hand-wringing about the state of journalism. But the magazine went on to report aggressively on Sarah Palin’s family, breaking the story of Bristol Palin’s pregnancy and threatening to publish information about a potential Palin affair. Its response to the McCain campaign’s threat of a lawsuit laid out its claim to a new kind of tabloid investigative journalism:
“The National Enquirer's coverage of a vicious war within Sarah Palin's extended family includes several newsworthy revelations, including the resulting incredible charge of an affair plus details of family strife when the Governor's daughter revealed her pregnancy. Following our John Edwards exclusives, our political reporting has obviously proven to be more detail-oriented than the McCain campaign's vetting process. Despite the McCain camp's attempts to control press coverage they find unfavorable, the Enquirer will continue to pursue news on both sides of the political spectrum.”
The Enquirer was taking a page from TMZ, which, in 2005, had transferred the hybrid investigative/scandal-mongering tactic online to enormous success, cornering the market on the next generation of tabloid readers and, in the process, essentially eating AMI’s lunch. Like so many gossip publications, AMI had essentially ignored the online market altogether; its websites were simple and janky, its social media presence nearly nonexistent. In an effort to compete, the company transformed its online property Radar Online to compete with TMZ, first gaining national recognition when the site obtained audio of Mel Gibson’s expletive-laden rants against ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva.
But AMI’s turn toward investigative journalism was short-lived. In 2014, David Perel, who’d overseen the Edwards investigation at the Enquirer, moved to In Touch. Perel replaced the existing team there with his own, including reporters Alexander Hitchen and Rick Egusquiza — both of whom had been instrumental in breaking the Edwards story and would later be responsible for breaking the Josh Duggar molestation scandal at In Touch.
Gradually, what remained of the Enquirer’s operation began to fall apart. In 2014, the tabloid published a story claiming that David Bar Katz, the man who had discovered Philip Seymour Hoffman’s body, was his lover. (They received that information from an interview with a different man named David Katz.) Katz filed a libel suit against the Enquirer, and in an unprecedented move, the Enquirer published a full-page apology in the New York Times — and started a foundation that would pay $45,000 a year to a playwright in Hoffman’s honor. Circulation fell to just 500,000. Tony Frost, who had succeeded Perel as the Enquier's editor-in-chief, stepped down. In his place: Dylan Howard.
Howard first figured out how to write about celebrities while covering sports for the Seven Network in Australia. He came to the US in 2009, serving as a producer for Reuters before joining American Media, where he worked for a number of publications, distinguishing himself at Radar Online, where he wrangled the Mel Gibson tapes. He briefly left, in 2012, to lead Celebuzz, but returned a year later — this time as editor-in-chief of the Enquirer.
Howard immediately made himself a student of the magazine’s glory days. While AMI maintains a massive storage space in Florida, Howard had a room’s worth of material sent up to its current Soho headquarters in New York. He found the original Elvis photo and had it framed and placed in his office. He bought dozens of Enquirer issues on eBay, along with copies of Confidential — the legendary scandal magazine from the 1950s — which he’s had bound in leather volumes. “I studied the old magazines because, to me, the Enquirer of the ’70s and ’80s — it was the institution,” Howard told me. “And I think we’ve done very well to restore a lot of what worked in the ’70s and ’80s. That’s why we’re performing better than our competitors.”
The company has expanded its television offerings — the National Enquirer Investigates series on Reelz; Casey Anthony and JonBenét miniseries on Investigation Discovery — and promotes them heavily both in print and online. “The week before Casey Anthony airs, look, there’s Casey Anthony on our cover,” Howard said. “That’s old-fashioned cross-promotion that’s actually effective.”
The other reason for its recent success? Its return to political coverage. “Regardless of what my political persuasion is, I did something the mainstream media didn’t do,” Howard said. “And that was poll the readers. That’s why we endorsed Donald Trump. Never once did he fall below 60% with our readership. He got as high as 80%. So as an editor, I was duty-bound to create content they wanted.”
It’s unclear how much of that “service” is also in service to AMI’s owner, David Pecker. In 1991, the Enquirer published a piece alleging an affair between Trump’s then-wife Marla Maples and Tom Cruise. Since Pecker bought AMI in 1999, however, the coverage of the Trump family has been overwhelmingly positive. “I have known Donald Trump for 25 years and I am proud to call him a friend,” Pecker told Bloomberg in September. “I support his candidacy for president and greatly admire what he has achieved in a relatively short period of time as a non-politician.”
It was the Enquirer that published an unscientific poll in 1999 suggesting Trump run for office — a suggestion he seriously pursued for half a year. In 2011, the magazine again implored him to run; when he did declare his candidacy in 2015, he penned an exclusive for the magazine, declaring, “I am the only one who can make America great again!” The magazine also celebrated its 90th birthday at Trump’s Soho hotel; in 2013, Trump repeatedly tweeted that Pecker deserved to take over the helm of Time magazine — a publication Trump holds in highest esteem.
Howard deflects accusations of Trump favoritism — or chalks it up to general snobbery about the Enquirer and its coverage. “The mainstream media doesn’t take celebrity media as a legitimate form of the trade,” Howard said. “But what is celebrity journalism today? It is journalism. It is the mainstream media. The New York Times reported about Eliot Spitzer’s scandal, which would’ve been a sacrosanct story that should never appear in the pages of the Gray Old Lady.”
Plus, the National Enquirer invests a tremendous amount of resources — particularly for a tabloid or gossip magazine — in actual reporting. “Anyone can publish a website, and curate and aggregate content, whereas no one spends the money that we do to actually have boots on the ground to actually investigate stories,” Howard said. “I had people in DC all week covering a story unfolding. That story didn’t materialize, but I still had people there.” (TMZ’s content is largely derived by a combination of tips, scouring the Los Angeles court filings, and paparazzi shots, although their DC coverage has recently expanded thanks to an unlikely collaboration with Jason Chaffetz).
Yet Howard has no interest in the Enquirer joining the ranks of alt-right outlets like Breitbart and NewsMax, which have jockeyed their way into the White House press corps. “One of the first things I learned working in the American media system is that when a story breaks, run the complete opposite direction of the press conference,” Howard told me. “Because you’ll never find the real story at the press conference — or the story our readers want.”
The story Howard’s readers want is found by talking with tipsters, by looking under rocks, by relying on longtime Trump advisor and "trickster" Roger Stone, by chasing the counter-narrative. Stories like the “exclusive” from March 27, relying on the testimony of ex-NSA whistleblower William Binney, that “agents of Obama turned an NSA surveillance operation into secret tool to sabotage the new administration.”
The Enquirer pays sources for stories, but “every word” it publishes is signed off on by a lawyer and a researcher. All sources, according to Howard, also take polygraph tests and sign a contract that testifies that the information they’re providing is true, which has the secondary effect of indemnifying American Media.
“The checks and balances that we have in place are more than any mainstream media organization has,” Howard said. “That’s in part for a business decision. We know that we have a larger target on our back, and we’re a susceptible target, so it’s important that we’re buttoned up to the top.” In other words: They make sure they’re legally immune to libel charges. Ultimately, the actual veracity of the story matters less than the existence of sworn testimony of its veracity.
As for the allegation that paying sources somehow sullies the content of the magazine, Howard is unequivocal. “Let’s not kid ourselves,” he said. “The mainstream media pays for stories; they just make it under the guise of licensing photos or videos or documents” (e.g., People magazine pays to “license” the photos of a celebrity’s wedding or their child). “They’re doing it, and we’re doing it, but we’re not ashamed about it. We advertise in our magazines that we pay for good gossip, and I've got a checkbook, and it’s open and it’s large.”
That sort of statement is typical of Howard, who has the swagger of a man who knows that what he’s doing, at least in New York, might make him unpopular at cocktail parties. (It depends on the cocktail party: Howard told me that at a recent one, a high-profile former politician heard that he worked for the Enquirer, sent his wife home, and sat down to talk to him for an hour.) But Howard insists that he’s just pursuing the soap opera where it leads him. “I understand that the types of stories we do — they’re the type of stories the mainstream media won’t do, that will get us attacked by the liberal media. But you know what? We’re being talked about.”
It’s undeniably true: Shots of Enquirer covers proliferate on Twitter. But Howard thinks the derision is misplaced. “Sean Hannity spoke about us when he was interviewing Ben Carson, and questioned a story that we reported about Carson allegedly leaving a sponge in a patient’s brain,” he said. “Which was a court-filed lawsuit! A legitimate story! To me that’s the story the mainstream media should do but wouldn’t do. We dig into people’s backgrounds to find those kind of stories — because they’re important, and yes, they’re juicy, and yes, they help sell magazines.”
For the week of April 24, American Media’s political coverage felt less like “digging into people’s backgrounds” and more like wish fulfillment. The cover of Globe featured a story headlined “HILLARY: THE REAL RUSSIAN SPY!” while the Enquirer went full military hawk, pairing a picture of Trump in a military cap with the headline “TRUMP DECLARES WAR ON DICTATORS!” and an inset of Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, and Bashar al-Assad. Inside the magazine, the three are labeled as “Weasel #1, Weasel #2, and Weasel #3”; a two-page full-color spread on victims of Assad’s chemical weapons attack is labeled “OBAMA’S SHAME!”
On the next page a poll reveals that 52% of Enquirer readers “highly approve” of Trump’s performance as president, while 12% “simply approve” and “30%” label him a “total failure.” Alongside that poll: an “Enquirer Exclusive” with radio talk show host Wendy Walsh about sexual harassment by Bill O’Reilly. “As Bill O’Reilly continues hosting his popular Fox News program unpunished,” the piece begins, “one of his alleged victims claims she has been the target of a sinister intimidation campaign to compel her silence!” (Just days later, O’Reilly was forced out of his position at Fox.)
The Trump and O’Reilly stories might seem to be in conflict, but they reflect a similarly ideologically conflicted readership. A cover story from earlier this month on “What Trump Doesn’t Know” (second headline: “Putin’s Deadly Election Hack”) alleges that Putin killed 10 spies in order to cover up an election hack — hardly the sort of head-in-the-sand reportage one would expect of a Trump propaganda arm. AMI’s publications may be Trump-friendly, but they also know which way the wind blows.
Which might be why Howard claims he would’ve published the Trump intelligence dossier. “I can’t sit here and say that I wouldn’t do that, because there are similar situations where I’ve done the same,” he said. “The public has a right to decide for themselves. Our job, as journalists, is to shine light in dark places. There was no darker place than the allegation that the deep state was working against the incoming administration.”
It’s a fantastically altruistic statement. But it’s harder to square with the knowledge that the National Enquirer paid $150,000 for the story of Playboy Playmate Karen McDougal’s alleged affair with Trump during his marriage to Melania — and then squashed it. Some corners, especially those related to a “good friend” of the publication’s owners, might remain too dark to truly explore. (An AMI statement maintains that it “has not paid people people to kill damaging stories about Mr. Trump.)
Anyone closely watching Us Weekly over the months leading up to its sale, in February, would’ve noticed a change. People had started featuring Donald Trump — and his sprawling, photogenic family — in its pages as early as the summer. After Trump’s election, Trump himself made his way to the cover, despite allegations levied by former People writer Natasha Stoynoff that Trump had sexually assaulted her while she was on assignment for the magazine back in 2005.
Since the early 2000s, the two magazines had been competing for the minds and eyes of the gossip-consuming public, often offering counter-narratives and competing exclusives and tell-alls. But Us did more than one cover. One week, there was the entire Trump family gallivanting on the cover; the next, there was “Ivanka’s New Life” as “daughter-in-chief.” Then there was “Melania’s Struggle,” an attempt to softly humanize the otherwise distant and largely invisible first lady, and “Ivanka and Jared: Under Pressure,” highlighting the “strain” the couple had felt after “two roller-coaster weeks.” Four weeks, three Trump covers.
In December 2016, Jann Wenner, the Rolling Stone editor and publisher who’d owned Us Weekly since 1985, began actively looking for a buyer for the magazine. It seemed Tronc — the rebranded name for Tribune Media — was poised to buy. But within media circles, rumors were swirling that Wenner was courting another buyer, and the Trump covers were a deliberate ploy to show the potential suitor what the magazine was capable of.
Those rumors came true on March 15, when Wenner announced that American Media had purchased Us for $100 million. For most readers, the purchase was unremarkable: A gossip rag is a gossip rag — who cares who owns it? But those who’ve been watching the industry closely know better. AMI saw it as a completing puzzle piece in its “suite of brands,” which includes, as Howard put it, “a publication aimed at baby-boomers” (Globe and The Examiner), a publication “capitalizing on the soap opera of politics” (the Enquirer), and magazines that “trade in celebrity gossip” (Star and OK!). According to Howard, Us Weekly “adds a really compelling and unique brand that is cooperative with celebrities — and I think that sets us up for the future better than any other publisher.”
That’s publishing-speak for “Us does something slightly different than what the rest of those publications do” — and, crucially, hits a different reader demographic. Us Weekly’s readership is significantly younger and more affluent than the rest of the gossip magazines': Us loves to tout the statistic that its overall readership is wealthier (with a median household income of $107,000) than Vogue’s ($85,000).
With those affluent, younger readers comes a different set of advertisers: Oil of Olay, Tampax, Sketchers, Secret, and Mirena (an IUD). (Current OK! advertisers include Satin Hair Color, Advil, Febreze, SlimFast, Special K, and Oscar Mayer; current Star advertisers include Littleton Coin Company, Viviscal hair supplement, Ritz Crackers, GetEnergy3.com, Alert 911, and Sally Hansen.)
Us’s circulation has fallen, dropping from 2.03 million in 2013 to 1.96 million in 2016. But its digital presence is robust: It currently boasts 2.2 million Twitter followers and 3.65 million Facebook likes. Those followers are increasingly difficult to reach without paying to “boost” content into reader feeds, but they’re still a desirable, discernible market. The National Enquirer has been working to expand its digital presence, but Howard understands it’s just not a digital brand: His readers don’t get their news online, and those who do don’t want it showing up in their likes.
After all, just because you read the National Enquirer doesn’t mean you want to broadcast it. As one AMI comms person put it to me, “there’s your Netflix queue, and then there’s what you really watch on Netflix. Your queue is filled with documentaries and award-winning movies; what you’re really streaming on a Saturday night is Weekend at Bernie’s.” The Enquirer, then, as the Weekend at Bernie's of the publishing world.
If AMI wants to keep those readers (and, by extension, those advertisers), it needs to keep the product consistent. It’ll remain “celebrity-friendly,” which is to say it’ll collaborate, on and off the record, with publicists and celebrities. It won’t publish photos of celebrities looking fat. It won’t speculate about pregnancies, although it will post cute photos of “pregnancy style.” And according to Howard, it’ll aim to return to the Janice Min cover philosophy.
That philosophy was first established by Bonnie Fuller, who took over Us Weekly in 2002 and transformed it from a boring also-ran into a scrappy gossip competitor. When Fuller left the magazine, Min — until then her deputy — stepped in and further refined the Fuller sensibility.
Her covers would either pose a question (“Will They Ever Have Babies?” — 2002) or promise the answer to a question you didn’t even know you had (“Why Ben Won’t Marry Her” — 2004). See also: “Mariah: What Really Happened,” “Why Rosie Came Out,” “Why I Left Billy Bob,” “Why I’ll Always Love Justin.” Recently, Us has pivoted more toward People territory — profiling, rather than posing and answering the central questions at the heart of a celebrity’s moment in the spotlight. See: “A Ring for Taylor!,” “Love, Lies, and Dancing,” “Prince’s Final Days,” “Teen Mom Wedding,” and “Our Olympic Stories.”
“Janice Min was a pioneer in so many ways,” Howard said. “But the brand, to an extent, has lost its way. It’s also evolved — it’s more of a lifestyle brand now, which is important. But we are really excited to return it to its core, to what Bonnie and what Janice did.” That includes maintaining the famous Fuller philosophy that people don’t actually like reading — they like looking. Scrollable content, then, before you were scrolling. Under AMI, the magazine’s consumability won’t change — nor will its status as a “guilty pleasure” that’s still not so trashy that you’re ashamed to buy it at the airport.
Fears that Us will turn pro-Trump — or, more precisely, more in line with the aesthetic and messaging of the Enquirer — are unfounded. “One of the great myths of our acquisition of Us Weekly is that it’s going to go down-market tabloid," he said. "No one invests $100 million in a business to make a dramatic U-turn on the foundation that it was built on.”
That doesn’t mean it won’t cover Ivanka or Melania, but that, according to Howard, is just good business sense: Those covers sold. As for the suggestion that Us leaned heavily into Trump coverage in order to court AMI, Howard dismisses it. “It was good business on their behalf,” he said. “They knew that we were having a spike because of our political coverage, and imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.”
As for a recent cover headlined “Melania’s Struggle: A Life She Never Wanted,” Howard called it “a little risqué — perhaps too risqué for a brand that is celebrity-friendly.”
“We’re not in control of the editorial management of the magazine at the moment,” he continued. “So read between the lines there. I think they’re doing some coverage that is a sort of middle finger to the acquisition.”
Unlike People, Us doesn’t have the (explicit) ethical quandary of how to cover a figure who allegedly assaulted one of its former staff. “People took a very vocal and public stand,” Howard said, referring to People’s decision to stand by Natasha Stoynoff — and then, the day after the election, put Trump on the cover of the magazine. “Ultimately, what they presented was not consistent,” Howard said. “I think readers know that. Don’t underestimate the intelligence of the tabloid reader.”
Underestimating the tabloid audience is what got Trump into office. There was a preconceived notion of who Trump’s audience was, and they were largely ignored. But the Enquirer saw that audience clearly. “I go out to [focus group] room in Long Island and sit around with women who read out magazines to find out what they want,” Thomas added. “To service them.”
There’s a tremendous body of research, spanning the fields of anthropology, sociology, psychology, and media studies, that suggests that gossip performs a crucial societal function. Whether published or spoken, gossip sustains and interrogates values in flux or under threat: The things we can’t shut up about are the things that point to larger fissures and growing fractures in society. That’s why the Enquirer couldn’t shut up about O.J. Simpson or Monica Lewinsky in the ’90s, and why it can’t shut up about Trump today. Those ’90s stories were rooted, respectively, in societal traumas of race (buttressed by murder) and sex (and how our president should be expected to behave).
Today, the scandal of Trump — at least how it’s manifested in the Enquirer — has revealed itself to be one of presidential vulnerability. Enquirer readers already know how Trump behaves. That’s not new information, nor, to their minds, is it scandalous. The real conversation is whether our country has opened itself — via Obama, Hillary Clinton, or now Trump — to outside forces. Put differently, whether the security of our nation has come to reflect the insecurity of the typical American reader.
The Enquirer legitimizes those fears, but it also expands and intensifies them. Us Weekly does something different. Some call its celebrity coverage a “distraction,” but the more appropriate term, especially when it comes to the coverage of the Trump women, is domestication: It transforms the political into the personal, allows conversations of clothing and children and romance to subsume the real-life ramifications of legislative policy. What we don’t talk about when we talk about Ivanka’s clothes, then, is the ramifications of her father’s policy decisions for millions.
And maybe that’s the genius of AMI’s strategy: With its stable of publications, it’s figured out how to simultaneously inflame and soothe the wound at the heart of the American psyche, up and down the age, class, and taste spectrum. That’s a tremendous power, especially when you consider rumors of AMI’s interest in purchasing Time Inc.’s weekly magazines — including People and Time. (“I think that Time magazine should be the Vice of today,” Howard told me, after softly deflecting the question of AMI’s interest in the Time Inc. publications, “an organization that has the guts to go behind enemy lines in North Korea, or confront children fighting for ISIS.”)
With great power, the adage goes, comes great responsibility. Howard and his iteration of AMI acknowledge that responsibility, but like so many tabloid and gossip masters of the past, they approach that role from a different angle. Back in 1972, the Los Angeles Times asked then-editor Nat Chrzan about the Enquirer’s success. “The reason is fairly obvious,” he said. “We’re giving readers what they’re interested in, not what we as editors think they should be interested in.”
It’s not about educating the reader. It’s about, as Howard put it, “servicing” them. Good service is contingent upon deference to the consumer; good journalism, however, hinges on a willingness to piss that consumer off, especially if it’s in service of the truth. Truth can require bravery; good service just requires good market research.
As the check came for our lunch, Howard leaned in close, almost conspiratorially. “I reintroduced a very important thing to the Enquirer that you’ll appreciate,” he said. “It’s the old slogan: the only magazine with the guts to tell it like it is.” The guts, in other words, to meet readers exactly where they are.
Update: The piece has been updated to clarify a misattribution of a quote.
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Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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