Every Wednesday afternoon, in a windowless conference room in an office building at the tip of lower Manhattan, David Pecker decides what will be on the cover of the following week’s National Enquirer. Pecker is the longtime chief executive of American Media, Inc., which owns most of the nation’s supermarket tabloids and gossip magazines, including the Star, the Globe, the Examiner, and OK!, as well as the flagship Enquirer. Pecker’s tabloids have few subscribers and minimal advertising. Virtually all their revenue comes from impulse purchases at the checkout counter. A successful Enquirer cover can drive sales fifteen per cent above the weekly average of three hundred and twenty-five thousand copies, and a lemon can hurt sales just as badly, so the choice of cover headlines and photographs represents a nearly existential challenge every week.
Pecker started in the media business as an accountant, and he has attempted to impose a numbers-based rigor on the raucous world of tabloids. In the past decade, he has devised a proprietary database of the covers of all celebrity magazines, including those of his competitors. The “cover explorer,” as it’s known internally, tells A.M.I. executives how each cover sold in comparison with the magazine’s four- and thirteen-week averages. The explorer is indexed by celebrities and, uniquely, by words in the headlines. Pecker knows with some precision which stars sell (Kelly Ripa, Jennifer Aniston, Brad and Angelina, and, for the older generation, Dolly Parton and the Kennedys), and which phrases draw readers (headlines with the words “sad last days” and “six months to live”).
To open a recent meeting, Pecker, who was calling in on speakerphone from Dallas, asked Dylan Howard, A.M.I.’s chief content officer, to review the competition’s covers from the previous week. Howard, an ebullient Australian, is thirty-five, and something of a tabloid prodigy. He made his name with a three-year quest to prove that the actor Charlie Sheen had contracted H.I.V. (which Sheen ultimately acknowledged), and now supervises celebrity coverage for Pecker’s empire. Shuffling through a stack of magazines in front of him, Howard pulled out Life & Style, which is owned by Bauer, a German conglomerate. The issue featured Jennifer Lopez on the cover, with a headline claiming that she was expecting a child with her boyfriend, Alex Rodriguez. “Her ‘miracle’ baby at 47!” the cover announced. Howard dismissed the story. “She’s forty-seven,” he said. “Of course she’s not pregnant.” But there was another reason for Howard’s disdain. “J. Lo doesn’t sell,” he said.
For the forthcoming issue of the Enquirer, Howard presented a mockup of a cover on Megyn Kelly, who would be making her début as an NBC News correspondent the week that the issue went on sale. The headline read “What she’s hiding!,” which Pecker praised because the phrase had worked well on another coverline, “What Hillary’s Hiding!,” during the Presidential campaign. Bullet points under the Kelly headline promised revelations about plastic surgery and a “criminal past.”
Read more at The New Yorker.