Magazines' sales ride their celebrity's wave

If reputation slips or TV show ends, readers lose interest

August 21, 2002|By Tara Weiss | Tara Weiss,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Celebrity magazines always seem like such a good idea at the time. The formula is simple: Take a celebrity with a well-established message, and parlay that into a magazine bursting with her personality. As in Martha Stewart Living, Rosie and O, The Oprah Magazine.

But what happens when that celebrity's image is tarnished or her talk show ends? Martha, Rosie and Oprah are all in different circumstances - Martha is accused of insider trading, Rosie is battling her magazine's editorial staff, and Oprah is ending her show after the 2005-2006 season - but their magazines may suffer similarly.

Branding a celebrity to a magazine establishes an immediate, eager audience, but it also increases the risk of alienating those readers when something in that celebrity's life is altered.

Martha's case is the most dire. The queen of crafts, cooking and homemaking is getting slammed in the media for selling shares of ImClone Systems Inc. just before U.S. regulators rejected the company's cancer drug and its stock value plummeted.

Now a House committee is joining the list of those trying to figure out exactly what she knew and when.

Meanwhile, Martha Stewart's Omnimedia shares have lost more than half their value this year as the investigations hurt sales. Chief financial officer James Follo said last month that some advertisers are holding back from buying ads in Stewart's magazines until investigations are over.

"It's the talk of the town right now," says Karl Barnhart, a managing director of Core- Brand New York, a corporate branding and communication company. "On the newsstand, where there is more of a spontaneous purchase, people might be less likely to pick it up. She took the [position] that she's very moral and upstanding and that she is the epitome of American values. All of a sudden, there's a chink in the armor."

Rosie O'Donnell's situation is more complicated. Launched in May 2001, O'Donnell's magazine took over what was formerly McCall's. She set out to capture a TV audience that was attracted to her blunt, no-nonsense style and discussions of children and adoption. She serves as the editorial director and writes a very Rosie-esque feature called Cutie Patootie, in which she interviews a child every month.

In May, she ended her 6-year-old show, and in April, in her book Find Me, she revealed that she is gay.

"When she left her show, she lost her pulpit," says Barnhart. "She lost her No. 1 awareness-builder for her magazine."

Now reports are surfacing that O'Donnell is trying to impose a heavy hand at the magazine. She's disagreeing with the magazine's new editor, Susan Toepfer, about what should and shouldn't go on the cover. O'Donnell wanted Boy George on the cover; Toepfer said no. O'Donnell wanted her pregnant partner to appear in the magazine; Toepfer said no. Toepfer wanted to include low-calorie foods in a Valentine's Day section; Rosie said no.

"We are trying to work things through and would like to continue publishing a successful magazine," says Sue Geramian, director of corporate communications at Gruner +Jahr USA, the magazine's publisher.

Newsstand sales are starting to slip. During its first six months the magazine's newsstand sales averaged 550,000. Some issues in 2002 have fallen to 200,000.

"I don't think Rosie's magazine will be with us for a long time," says Samir Husni, a magazine expert and journalism professor at the University of Mississippi. "Rosie was supposed to be a women's magazine that took over from McCall's. Readers didn't want a preachy magazine. They can get Ms. if they want that."

As for Oprah, her magazine continues to do well. But with her talk show ending after the 2005-2006 season, she will lose a major platform. Oprah also added an extra level of personal security by installing her best friend, former TV anchorwoman Gayle King, as an editor. King is responsible for ensuring Oprah's viewpoints get into the magazine, and she serves as a liaison between Oprah and the magazine's editorial staff. So far it's worked.

Maybe Martha and Rosie should look for best friends.

Tara Weiss writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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