Printing The Truth Hasn't Kept Readership From Fleeing the National Enquirer

Last Updated May 10, 2010 2:26 PM EDT

National Enquirer, the American supermarket tabloid published weekly by privately held American Media (AMI), sought to broaden its appeal beyond salacious gossip of celebrity missteps by establishing a reputation for reliable journalism. Getting its facts right and successfully scooping other media on game-changing stories haven't had the intended effect, and the paper continues to struggle with declining readership numbers.

In March 2010, average weekly print circulation -- newsstand and subscription -- of the National Enquirer declined year-over-year 16.1 percent to 732,000 copies. By comparison, total paid and verified weekly circulation averaged about one million in 2007, according to media observer Audit Bureau of Circulations (ABC). AMI didn't respond to my request for comparative ad sales or online subscription trends.

Declining circulation is not just endemic to the Enquirer. Overall average paid daily circulation for the top 25 dailies fell 8.7 percent year-over-year for the six months through March, according to ABC. Weekday sales at the New York Times (NYT) and the Washington Post (WPO) fell 8.5 percent and 13.1 percent to 951,063 and 578,482 copies, respectively. In fact, only the Wall Street Journal managed to eke out a gain, of about 0.5 percent.

To management's credit, it was early in recognizing that the advent of 24-hour cable news would virtually eliminate the lines between politics and entertainment. The Enquirer, long an expert in spinning multi-issue stories about the private lives of Hollywood celebrities, had stumbled on a new world it could introduce to a readership grown tired of the latest Elvis Presley sighting or botched actress boob job.

To the dismay of its mainstream competitors, the Enquirer has proven to be more than just another rag in the grocery checkout line. Impressive firsts scored by the paper include the following:

  • Published photos of former Senator Gary Hart frolicking with his mistress -- then 29-year old model Donna Rice -- in the Bahamas, derailed the Democratic hopeful's 1988 run for the White House.
  • Unearthed photos of O.J. Simpson wearing a pair of Bruno Magli at a 1993 Buffalo Bills football game contradicted earlier testimony he gave that he never owned a pair of the high-quality Italian loafers. The white glove might not have fit, but the Juice's shoe sure matched the infamous bloody footprint found at the murder scene of his former wife Nicole Brown.
  • In 2001, damning evidence exposed Rev. Jesse Jackson to be a philanderer who fathered an illegitimate child with staffer Karin Stanford two years earlier;
  • To the envy of top 25 dailies like the Los Angeles Times or the Chicago Tribune, dogged, old-fashioned detective work by Enquirer reporters exposed 2008 presidential candidate John Edwards to be just another pathetic and mendacious adulterer who fathered a love child with Rielle Hunter; and,
  • In November 2009, the Enquirer topped its Edwards' coverage with the stunning revelation that golfer Tiger Woods frequently stepped out on his wife Elin with a bevy of alleged mistresses, from a cocktail waitress to a porn star.
Throw enough mud against the wall and some is bound to stick. Or, as the paper's detractors like to say, "Even a broken clock is right twice a day." Given the plethora of stories the lamestream media has been quick to dismiss in the last 20 years -- think Paula Jones' accusing Bill Clinton of sexual harassment; whispers of John Edwards' infidelity and love child; or, significance of Tea Party movement on two major political parties -- one doesn't need to be a conspiracy nut to see an often orchestrated attack by the entrenched Fourth Estate to quickly attack those who don't embrace the laziness expected from today's journalists. Want the story, just rip-off a Reuters'news item.

That said, a publishing model driven solely by investigative stories is rarely profitable, as the economics of Investigative journalism -- in terms of time and expense -- can be prohibitive: tracking down leads and sending out a team on stakeouts to report on and likely snap the confirming "money shots" can last months. Fielding an investigative unit capable of generating 2 - 3 multi-issue stories per year cost upwards of $500,000 a year, according to a 2009 white paper out of the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy, Duke University. Ergo, the constant scrambling for new "smoking guns," jazzy headlines, and sales growth often forces the Enquirer to relax compliance standards and blur the ethical line separating fact from fiction -- especially during a slow news cycle:

  • In 2005 the tabloid admitted fabricating a story that actress Cameron Diaz was caught cheating on her boyfriend, actor and singer Justin Timberlake;
  • In 2006, American actress Kate Hudson won a libel action against the Enquirer magazine after it published an article suggesting she had an eating disorder;
  • That same year the tabloid came under fire for incorrectly reporting that Mass. Senator Ted Kennedy had fathered a love child; and,
  • In June 2009 the Enquirer reached a financial settlement with actress Brooke Shields after a reporter and a photographer from the paper checked her mother Jackie, who suffers from dementia, out of a New Jersey nursing home for the ostensible purpose of a lunch date, when the real goal was to gather information for a story.
Early to recognize the value of political gossip as fodder for tabloid readers, the Enquirer has nonetheless been slow to capitalize on the ongoing secular shift to digital media forums, from iPad Gossip Junkie HD apps to online video streaming sites -- places where the teens and young adults of this generation click to for the gossip they want, when they want it. The Enquirer's integrated, multi-media presence pales in comparison to those of celebrity gossip upstarts like TMZ.com and PerezHilton.com: trailing three-month average U.S. traffic rankings for TMZ, PerezHilton and the Enquirer were 104, 196, and 1,612, respectively, according to market intelligence provider Alexa Internet.

The Enquirer's latest investigative controversy is a rehash of an alleged presidential cheating scandal between Barack Obama and a former campaign aide, Vera Baker. Unless the paper can produce alleged security video footage of the two together, the story won't do much to pump up sales through the summer months. If only parent company AMI could re-brand the paper with a memorable slogan to slow declining subscription figures. Here's a thought -- AMI should bring out of retirement its early 1980s "Enquiring minds want to know" slogan -- and wrap the catchy message around an ambitious new multi-media platform launch. Are you listening AMI? Enquiring minds want to know.

  • David Phillips

    David Phillips has more than 25 years' experience on Wall Street, first as a financial consultant and then as an equity analyst for several investment banking firms. He sifts through SEC filings for his blog The 10Q Detective, looking for financial statement soft spots, such as depreciation policies, warranty reserves and restructuring charges. He has been widely quoted in outlets such as BusinessWeek, The International Herald Tribune, Investor's Business Daily, Kiplinger's Personal Finance, and The Wall Street Journal.