Awash in O.J. saga? Tabs will pull plug when sales drop off

July 01, 1994|By J. Freedom du Lac | J. Freedom du Lac,McClatchy News Service

There's something uniquely appealing about the ongoing O. J. Simpson saga, and if you don't believe that, simply check your local newsstand.

The proof is stronger than a bottle of rubbing alcohol, and it's pasted across the covers and all over the pages of Newsweek, Time, U.S. News & World Report, People, Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News, Globe, Star and the National Enquirer.

It's an unprecedented story, football great/media personality Simpson charged with murdering his ex-wife and her friend, then fleeing before surrendering to police.

It's the surreal-but-real stuff the lurid supermarket tabloids thrive on, only with a high-powered celebrity twist.

This is not exactly good news for the tabs.

Or is it?

"The mainstream press has become much more aware that the kind of story that the Enquirer is chasing is the kind that people want to read," says Enquirer news editor Steve Coz. "It's kind of a congratulatory pat on our back. . . .

"Of course, now that the world press has moved into our territory because of the unique nature of this story, it's caused us to use more resources and spend more money to stay ahead of the pack. So we've dedicated all our manpower and whatever else it takes to stay ahead."

Certainly, the Enquirer has not been timid about using its vast resources to pursue the Simpson story.

When Mr. Simpson emerged as the prime suspect in the double murder, for instance, the Enquirer immediately doubled the size of its Los Angeles bureau, dispatching 10 reporters and two editors to the bureau from its headquarters in Lantana, Fla.

The result?

"We've had blockbuster sales," says Mr. Coz, and here's the unofficial box score: An estimated Simpson-spurred circulation increase nearing the mind-boggling half-million mark.

Of course, because the mainstream media have wandered into a sordid story-content territory normally claimed by the tabs, the tabs themselves have been forced to shift gears, placing a higher-than-usual emphasis on so-called "exclusives."

The super-selling Enquirer (with a circulation of 3.4 million) has dangled some heavy-duty bait in front of some potential exclusive-blockbuster storytellers, including $1 million to Al Cowlings, Mr. Simpson's best friend and the man at the steering wheel of the now-famous white Ford Bronco during Mr. Simpson's strange journey as a freeway fugitive. The tab also offered to put $1 million into a private trust for Mr. Simpsons' children in exchange for Mr. Cowlings' story.

Mr. Cowlings declined both offers.

Likewise Paula Barbieri, who has been romantically linked to Mr. Simpson, was offered a significantly smaller sum to speak exclusively with the Enquirer, but opted instead to tell her tale on TV.

"That was unfortunate," Mr. Coz says of Ms. Barbieri's decision. "The name of the game right now is exclusives."

Not so, however, for People magazine.

The popular entertainment-slanted news magazine, which, like Newsweek and the tabs, featured Mr. Simpson on the cover in consecutive weeks, doesn't pay for information.

And anyway, says senior editor Charles Leerhsen, it doesn't need the exclusives: This story sells itself.

"This case has had so many facets that have kept it going; it hasn't been a one-note case," he says.

"There have been questions about O. J. himself, about the legal system and how it works and about spousal abuse, plus ongoing developments that have just kept the story unfolding and opening up like a flower. . . .

"It's a breathtaking story. It's almost like a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean play, where you've got someone who rose so high and seemed to have it all, then fell. . . . We never tire of hearing stories about people who seemed to have it all then lost it all."

Certainly, the tabs and other magazines aren't done with giving the saga extensive coverage.

"We're going to keep doing it until the public has been saturated," Mr. Coz says. "Sales are off the charts with the O. J. stories. When that calms down, we realize public interest has reached saturation point."

And if you're already suffering from newsstand overkill, don't fret: Next week's Enquirer, Mr. Coz says, will feature exclusive pictures of Vanna White's newborn baby.

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