The newest issue of the National Enquirer is a real doozy. The tabloid got their hands on a photo of Bobbi Kristina Brown on her deathbed and made it the cover. Not the sort of behavior that wins you friends online.
But apparently it's still part of a good strategy for selling ink-and-paper magazines.
The Enquirer sold 360,612 copies per week in 2014. Those are solid sales figures that keep the magazine on the Alliance for Audited Media's top 25 list. But that number was more like 1 million per week around 2004, and overall circulation has dwindled as well.
Those are old-media metrics, though. If you only know how to judge the 88-year-old tabloid by its social media footprint, the situation would look downright dire. Incredibly, the paper has fewer than 7,000 Twitter followers, which is pretty shameful for a media outlet with the history and reach of the Enquirer.
But the past couple years at the Enquirer have also been full of internal activity. The publication went through an editorial shakeup over some very flawed reporting about Philip Seymour Hoffman, handed over the editorial keys to the very young Dylan Howard, and moved its offices out of self-imposed Floridian exile, and into New York. It could be that their period of almost complete internet irrelevance is coming to a close.
Still, how did it get so bad?
"We're no different than any other publisher or brand. Social media plays a vital role in our continued growth and success," editor-in-chief Dylan Howard told VICE in an email. But his paper's online underperformance seems to tell a different story about the role of social media in the company's strategy. Its Facebook updates and one-note all-caps tweets are like kryptonite to likes and retweets, and—judging from the site's Alexa global rank of 34,498—the social media posts aren't getting clicked, either. For reference, the not especially popular People.com ranks 557 at Alexa. Of course, Radar Online is a web-based gossip site owned by American Media, the same company that owns the Enquirer. The two, run out of the same room, are viewed in some ways as sister publications, and Dylan Howard is considered editor-in-chief of both, with those duties apparently falling under his large-umbrella title, "Vice President of News," at American Media.
According to Compete.com, which roughly tabulates a site's traffic though Nielsen-like extrapolation from small samples, the Enquirer's traffic peak from the past year was less than half a million unique visitors per month.
Meanwhile, RadarOnline is doing serious business. It nearly reached 5 million views.
Radar Online, with its superior reach, appears to function as a way for American media to profit online from Enquirer content, as evidenced by their synergistic posts of concurrent stories, often about older celebrities like hyperactive fitness guy Richard Simmons, or 60 Minutes host Steve Kroft, usually on Wednesdays, when new issues of the Enquirer drop. Running your magazine and web businesses separately is far from unheard of, but operating them as two similar publications with different names is puzzling, particularly when one name is on the obscure side, while the other is so powerful it's practically synonymous with "shameless tabloid."
"They get a story and they say 'Would it be best to save it for print, or would it be better to go on Radar and drive traffic that way?'" Shawn Binder, a former web producer at American Media told VICE. Radar and the Enquirer are largely differentiated by the age of their readership. "There's an older, and a little bit more conservative, generation that have grown up reading the National Enquirer. They don't necessarily know who these younger stars are."
When that generation becomes too old—or too dead—to keep reading, it follows that Radar might one day swallow the Enquirer whole. That'd be a waste of an iconic brand. After all, say what you will about the National Enquirer, but you can't call it boring. For 88 years, they've been in the honorable business of reporting trash, and doing so without regard for anything other than what will make people buy a magazine while they wait in line at the supermarket. For decades now, that's been mostly celebrity news.
But if you actually treat yourself to a copy next time you're at the supermarket (and I recommend it) you'll notice that it's not like other tabloids. The Enquirer lacks the constant swooning over hotties that fills pages at publications like Us Weekly. There are usually stories in there about crime (no other publication offers this much coverage of the now two-decade-old JonBenét Ramsey mystery) and terrorism, treated with their trademark hysteria. And most issues have a genuine news scoop much more riveting than who looked flabby at the beach.
From time to time, Enquirer scoops even escape the tabloid quarantine, and enter the news cycle. High points from the past included the discovery of photos of OJ Simpson in his telltale Bruno Magli loafers back in 1996, destroying John Edwards's presidential ambitions by uncovering his affair, revealing Rush Limbaugh's painkiller addiction, publishing photos of Elvis in his casket, and exposing Jesse Jackson's out-of-wedlock child.
"Our content has never been more suited for the 'internet age' as you put it. The fact that digital outlets curate and aggregate Enquirer stories each Wednesday, is testament to that," Howard explained. But in the aforementioned internet age, churning celebrity news into money takes more than shamelessness.
For instance, last month, TMZ ran a story saying someone had approached them offering to sell the photo of Brown which graces Enquirer's current cover. They then ran another story when the deal was made. The subject matter is in TMZ's wheelhouse, and the resulting TMZ blurbs, combined with TMZ's incredible social media reach stand to turn the topic into clicks without even buying the photo.
But in contrast to the popularity of the social media posts which correspond to the TMZ posts about Brown's deathbed photos, even Radar Online's treatment of the genuinely shocking subject matter didn't attract much engagement. Radar's tweet of the photo got two retweets, while TMZ's taking-the-high-road tweet about the sale of the photo was retweeted 56 times. The Enquirer's tweet of the photo was retweeted once.
Selling hundreds of thousands of magazines is impressive in 2015, but clicks in these quantities translate to more real revenue that the Enquirer isn't seeing. Despite Sean Binder's claim that Enquirer readers are on the old side, they're not too old to be counted by advertisers. According to their own analysis, National Enquirer magazine readers are 49 on average, and users of the site are 54. That's hardly geriatric.
But then again, their site doesn't appear designed to do much but market their ink-and-paper magazine, and maybe their app, which just sells exact replicas of the ink-and-paper magazine.
Clarity as to the actual roadblock in the way of online relevance, other than apathy, is hard to come by. It might have been the bizarre choice to run their magazine out of culturally isolated Boca Raton, Florida, for the past 43 years. Publishing lore has it that this was because the mafia ran them out of New York in 1971. Still, being in Florida shouldn't stop anyone from getting their shit together online.
Furthermore, the Enquirer has a fascinating ability that would make for internet gold in anyone else's hands: its knack for attracting attention to itself like some kind of famous-for-being-famous reality TV star. It's an ability Howard alluded to in his emails when he pointed out how often his publication "becomes the story itself, like we have in Vanity Fair, The New York Times or GQ," referring to the John Edwards story. However, last year, the Enquirer made headlines elsewhere by using some apparently flawed intel to posthumously out Philip Seymour Hoffman as gay, which turned out to be both trashy and inaccurate. Then in November, The New York Times reported that in 2005, they made an interview deal with Bill Cosby in exchange for burying a story about his rape allegations.
Howard must be aware of the seriousness of these accusations, but that didn't stop him from being extremely reverential about the Enquirer's reputation. He said his future plans for the magazine are "rooted in an extraordinary 88-year heritage," adding that he would "put any of the reporters from the Enquirer's great history, through its current time, up against those from any other media outlet."
When he puts them "against" the writers from other media outlets, it's doubtful he's talking up their journalistic high-mindedness. More likely he means they've had the ability to attract eyes, and in that sense, I'd have to agree with him. So why shouldn't they be able to attract favs?
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NOTE: A previous version implied that the The New York Times claimed money changed hands between the Enquirer and Bill Cosby. This was reportedly a deal for an interview. Enquirer sales numbers have also been updated for accuracy. Our interpretation of a quote from Howard was also clarified. We regret the errors.