The plight of the celebrity weekly: or, reinventing the (third) wheel

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Reality Weekly, a reality-star-focused celebrity weekly magazine, was launched in early January. Before the month was over, amid rampant rumors of disappointing sales, any early optimism regarding the title all but disappeared.

Since then, other industry murmurs of a decidedly negative sort have expanded to celebrity weeklies in general. While it must be emphasized that these worries are not new, the launch of Reality Weekly might make a quick review of the gloomy situation less redundant than usual.

Given the industry’s size and the regular underperformance of celebrity weeklies, it’s ultimately unsurprising that Reality Weekly was unable to meet even modest expectations. The unofficial numbers: an estimated 100,000 sold out of the 500,000 shipped to newsstands. Also unsurprising is Reality Weekly publisher American Media Inc.’s (AMI) claim in Women’s Wear Daily (WWD) that the magazine figures are not accurate and actually higher.

A similar narrative can be found concerning more established celebrity weeklies as well. “[OK! Magazine] has averaged less than 200,000 in single-copy sales during the first quarter of 2012 … If the figure is accurate, it would be the lowest sale in four years for OK,” wrote WWD’s Amy Wicks. “An insider at AMI denied that sales are averaging 200,000 a week, adding that it’s closer to 245,000.” Methinks the insider doth protest too much.

It might be unfair to single out Reality Weekly, when the overall genre is suffering. One could even view the Reality Weekly launch as a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But one might also reasonably wonder if the conditions of the place and time were really so difficult to foresee.

Rebecca Bredholt, managing editor of magazine content for the Vocus Media Research Group, agreed that the timing of the launch was curious considering the genre’s current struggles. The Reality Weekly disappointment is all the more discouraging when juxtaposed with signs of life from other types of magazines. Fashion titles, for example, have expressed a recent resilience at least in regards to ad sales. Adage reports that “most fashion magazines increased ad pages in their important March issues again this year, showing some strength in an uncertain economy.”

Bredholt also noted that economics are important. As evidenced above, some industries are turning the corner faster than others. And it makes sense that magazines associated with those industries are showing hints of recovery as well. That’s not to suggest fashion magazines are doing objectively well, only less worryingly bad. Some of this difference might be accounted for by the particular nature of celebrity weeklies.

For one, celebrities no longer need magazines for exposure, and fans no longer need magazines to be exposed upon. It has been some time since celebrity weeklies enjoyed the status of primary middleman between the two. They’ve become the third wheel of the relationship. Tweets, after all, do not require paid subscriptions.

Also, gossip is unsympathetic to time. Delay: unforgivable. The aforementioned OK! Magazine actually closes a full six days before it hits newsstands, reported WWD. Can consumers be expected to lap up days-old celebrity scoops? Fashion, though itself notoriously time-sensitive (so I’ve been told), cannot be said to require the same level of immediacy as celebrity gossip, which is an important immunity in the age of instant access.

Additionally, it can be argued that fashion magazine brands have held on to some semblance of exclusivity. The fashion industry and their magazines enjoy a relatively close, productive relationship. Popular fashion titles, despite poor sales, have generally maintained their respected positions on the fashion landscape.

In comparison, the relationship between celebrity magazines and the celebrities they cover is complicated. While at first glance it seems something bordering on parasitic, with rabid paparazzi and phone hackers scheming ruthlessly for celebrity scoops, in actuality there is a good deal of mutual interest and cooperation. Press Gazette notes 70 to 80 percent of top celebrity magazine content is “pre-approved” with the celebrities themselves.

The recent attempt at a full-time Kardashian magazine shows some of this tension at work. Apparently, the deal that would have allowed us unequalled access into the Kardashian ecosystem fell through due to the notable family demanding more editorial control than AMI was willing to surrender (one small step for editorial integrity, one giant …). Rumors, or common sense, had it that exclusivity was being sold for the price of unprecedented – even by celebrity magazine standards – editorial control.

Celebrity weeklies, it seems, are doomed to make sometimes unseemly concessions to celebrities just to keep up with Internet-age competitors. If that is not enough to explain the downturn, there is always the possibility that we are currently in the throes of a reality/celebrity winter. After all, if there was a royal wedding every few months, one could imagine we’d be having a slightly different discussion. But alas, by nature, royal bachelors are rare. And it is not too frequently that the Tiger Woodses of the world offer up months and months of unsavory gossip material for free. Of course, this is a rather unscientific approach to the problem. It is undoubtedly dubious to pin the genre’s struggles on a shortage of scandal. Nevertheless there is a kernel of truth in there somewhere, and the point remains. Sales fluctuate, as they did in each of the above cases, with the current state of celebrity scandal-hood.

On a side note, fashion magazines seem more resilient on this front as well. Fashion is hardly something that can be considered in short supply, and it relies a great deal less on the unreliable scandals of its designers and models.

So how does the celebrity weekly escape impending irrelevancy? If there were an easy answer, it would have been discovered already. With that being said, some of the common strategies already employed by the rest of the magazine industry seem particularly suitable to the world of celebrity gossip: Interactivity? Celebrity-themed smartphone apps? iPad integration? Emailed content? Whatever the strategy, in order to thrive, they must add something valuable to the celebrity-consumer dynamic. To avoid being the third wheel, the celebrity weekly just might have to reinvent it.

— Brent Treworgy

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