Tabloids Lose Ground on Clinton Coverage

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The national soap opera starring Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky has been good for cable-news ratings, talk radio and the punditry business. It has led Page 1 day after day and has made for many news-weekly cover stories. But for all the sex, lies and audiotape running through the story, it has been of little apparent benefit to the three leading supermarket tabloids.

In short, the tabs are still sinking.

The total circulation of the National Enquirer, Star and Globe--nearly 5 million copies a week--exceeds the combined daily circulations of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post. But each of the weekly tabloids continues to suffer sharp erosion in circulation, according to new numbers from the Audit Bureau of Circulations that cover the first months of the Lewinsky frenzy.

The National Enquirer boasted circulation of 4.4 million in 1986. That plummeted to 2.6 million over the next 10 years and slipped further, to 2.2 million, in the first half of this year. Star magazine was at 3.6 million in 1986, 2.2 million in 1996 and 1.9 million in the first half of 1998. The Globe, which had circulation of 1.56 million in 1986, most recently stood at 845,000.

True, declines in single-copy sales and newsstand purchases have plagued many leading magazines in the past decade or more. Among the presumed reasons for the steep drops at the supermarket papers is the competition they face from tabloid-type TV shows, which have proliferated, and from glossy magazines and TV newsmagazines, which increasingly offer the same kind of aggressive celebrity coverage.

The Audit Bureau of Circulations' most recent report card, which covers the first six months of this year, shows that the Enquirer, Star and Globe each saw double-digit losses since the first half of 1997--of 18.8%, 14.4% and 18.9%, respectively. "The decline has been going on a long time," said E. Daniel Capell, a circulation expert who publishes Capell's Circulation Report newsletter. "But in the first six months of this year, it was bigger than usual."

The double-digit drops appear to suggest that the titillating developments in the Clinton-Lewinsky saga, which spanned much of the six-month reporting period, provided no circulation bounce. But it's more complex than that. Unlike the TV networks, daily newspapers and the news weeklies (Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report), the supermarket tabloids have not been all over the Lewinsky story since it broke in late January.

According to Capell, the word on the circulation side of the industry is that the tabloids suffered a falloff in sales earlier this year as readers rebelled against the amount of coverage the Lewinsky story was receiving. This would be no small concern, considering that the tabloids derive most of their circulation (and revenue) from single-copy sales (mail subscriptions make up only a small portion of circulation).

Out of an apparent concern that its readers were at least initially sympathetic to Clinton, the Globe, for example, has done little on Lewinsky in recent months. Her name does not appear in its Sept. 15 issue, which is dominated by Leonardo DiCaprio's "Secret Life" and a "JonBenet World Exclusive."

But something changed last month at the Enquirer and Star.

Enquirer executive editor David Perel recalled this week that the paper had backed away from the Lewinsky story after initially heavy coverage because "people seemed a little tired of it" and also thought "the president shouldn't be unduly attacked." However, Perel added: "As the story started to heat up before Clinton's non-apology (on Aug. 17), public interest grew and we increased the scope of our coverage and the manpower we were putting on it. . . . The landscape has shifted and people are now more open-minded about the story and its relevance to day-to-day events in Washington."

Phil Bunton, editor in chief of the Star, said this week that the tabloid has played or referred to the Lewinsky story on its front page four of the past six weeks, but in only about 40% of the issues published since the story developed in January. "We did not get quite as many breaks as we would have liked," Bunton added.

He claimed that cover references to Lewinsky have helped sell copies in the weeks they have appeared, attributing the recent circulation falloff to a lingering backlash against the tabloids in the aftermath of Princess Diana's death in a car pursued by paparazzi.

Judging from the Sept. 8 and Sept. 15 editions of the Star and Enquirer, which both are owned by American Media, the two papers see the Lewinsky scandal less for its political fallout, which has become the new currency of TV round tables, and more for its romantic and sexual content.

The Enquirer led its Sept. 8 front page with "Monica & Bill: The Love Tapes. Why prez risked it all--the romance revealed." Its Sept. 15 issue sticks with the "Monica & Bill" angle, claiming with a Harlequin romance flourish that the upcoming report of independent counsel Kenneth Starr "paints an incredible picture of a couple who threw all caution to the wind and lost themselves in a frenzied love affair filled with stolen moments of passion."

Last week, the Star screamed: "Shocking Sex Secrets Clinton Doesn't Dare Tell Hillary." The tabloid has followed in the Sept. 15 issue with two more Clinton stories with "Sex" in the headlines.

In considering the tabloids' on-, off- and back-on-again coverage of Clinton-Lewinsky, media critic William Powers observes in this week's National Journal: "The tabloids are reflecting the ambivalence of their readers. The tabs embody a rather traditional middle-class morality and hate nothing more than hypocrisy. This would seem to make Clinton-Lewinsky a ripe subject, but as long as a lot of Americans are unclear on the moral verdict in this case, the tabs will be testing the wind."

Big Circulation Gainers: With so much health, diet and exercise coverage published by a wide array of women's magazines, it's jolting to see in the latest Audit Bureau of Circulations report what a sound-body focus has done for two mags in particular.

Shape, published by Weider Publications, grew its circulation by 18.8%, to 1.1 million, between the first half of 1997 and the first half of this year. On the October cover: "Your Best Body Now: The smartest way to get strong, get lean, get results."

Fitness, a similar magazine launched six years ago by Gruner + Jahr USA Publishing, had another double-digit growth spurt. Its circulation increased 25%, to slightly more than 1 million, over the same period in 1997. The October issue offers pointers on how to "jiggle-proof" thighs and how to "burn mega-flab in just four weeks."

A third women's magazine, American Health for Women, published by the Reader's Digest Assn. Inc., was up 10.7%, to 1 million.

Among men's magazines, 10-year-old Men's Health increased its circulation by 5.4%, to nearly 1.6 million, and continued to lead the field (if one puts Playboy, 3.1 million, in a field of its own).

At the same time, the new Maxim has come on very strong and fast with its just-us-guys focus on revealingly clad starlets, sports and amusements. Launched in spring 1997, the magazine for young men in January will raise by 200,000 the circulation it will guarantee advertisers. Its new rate base of 650,000 will be on a par with that of the long-established GQ. A remarkable feat in such a short time.

Other double-digit gainers in the first half included Entertainment Weekly, up 10.1%, to 1.43 million; Vibe, up 17.1%, to 606,000; House & Garden, up 14.1%, to nearly 581,000; Marie Claire, up 14.8%, to nearly 735,000; and the rapidly growing InStyle, which gained another 19%, to 1.15 million.

All Books, All Weekend: One of life's pleasures is to happen upon an engrossing bit of real life as carried by C-SPAN and C-SPAN2, the commercial-free cable channels reserved for public-affairs programming. It might be a raucous debate on the House floor, a benefit roast of former White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater (in which the otherwise camera-shy columnist Maureen Dowd got off a bunch of funny lines) or the crowded funeral of former Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell.

Book lovers in particular have come to rely on C-SPAN--not only for "Booknotes," Brian Lamb's Sunday-night interviews with authors, but also for the scholarly symposiums presented throughout the week.

Starting this weekend, C-SPAN2 will dramatically increase book-related programming when it offers "Book TV" from 8 a.m. Saturdays to 8 a.m. Mondays. Yes, that's 48 hours of books.

Besides presenting more conversations with authors, historians and other nonfiction scribes, "Book TV" will visit bookstores and hear (in "The Business of Books," on Saturday mornings) from publishing insiders on how the industry works.

A detailed schedule will be available online at http://www.booktv.org.

* Paul D. Colford is a columnist for Newsday. His e-mail address is paul.colford@newsday.com. His column is published Thursdays.

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