NEW YORK (AP) — As editor in chief of Us Weekly magazine for 6 years, Janice Min often found herself zealously watching young women in airport lounges.
“I was amazed at how often they were reading every last word,” Min said with a satisfied smile. The celebrity editor announced that at the end of July, she was stepping down to pursue other, unspecified opportunities. She presided over a two-thirds increase in circulation during her tenure, in part by recognizing that young, affluent women like herself wanted to read edgier, newsier celebrity journalism — lots of it.
For that, Min was handsomely rewarded — close to $2 million, according to some accounts. But this is a tough time for print media, and though Us Weekly is doing well, there have been reports that Min decided to leave partly because her boss, Jann Wenner, was unwilling to keep paying her at the same level.
Min is probably one of the last magazine editors to be paid so well, says industry analyst Samir Husni.
“Those bloated days are gone in our business,” said Husni, director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the University of Mississippi. “We were riding such a wave of success that we blinded ourselves somewhat.” Yet, he credits Min and her predecessor, Bonnie Fuller, for putting celebrity journalism on the map.
“Now it’s a genre, part of the journalism landscape.” Min, 39, insists she simply needed a career change. “I just want to do something new,” she said this week in her modest midtown Manhattan office. “I feel strongly that there were skills I applied to Us Weekly that would be applicable to other media.” She said she had no job in hand and no plans — other than a vacation.
Wenner, whose Wenner Media also publishes Rolling Stone, denies reports that money had anything to do with Min’s departure. Rather, he said, “there’s a right time for everything, and Janice was smart and I was smart.”
A graduate of Columbia Journalism School, Min took over the magazine at the age of 33, having served for just over a year as a deputy to Fuller, who left for American Media and its Star magazine. Though Fuller is credited by many, including Husni, with the changes that led to Us Weekly’s success, there are differences, Wenner said.
“Bonnie was pretty negative about celebrities,” the publisher said. “Janice isn’t. You’d be hard-pressed to find a mean picture in our magazine. Pictures of celebrities carrying shopping bags aren’t mean.”
Still, Us Weekly thrives on features such as “Worst Wardrobe Malfunctions,” a photo gallery that includes embarrassing moments. A focus on such things is a marked change from the celebrity journalism of the ’80s and ’90s, Min notes.
“There was a very remote relationship then between the public and celebrities,” she said. “They were meant to be up on a pedestal. They were primarily movie stars, and their publicists totally controlled the news about them.”
But the whole relationship shifted, Min said, along with the very definition of a celebrity, a process that coincided with the rise of reality TV.
More recently, knowing she couldn’t forever depend on stars such as Brad and Angelina, Min listened to her staff of 20-something women and realized that an obscure, low-rated show called “Jon & Kate Plus 8” on the TLC network was catching women’s fancy.
“It was the talkability of the story — what do you go home and talk to your friends about?” Min said. “People were fascinated with this couple and how Kate treated her husband.”
But she had also realized that the viability of a cover story had nothing to do with how high a show’s ratings were. “We can sell a ‘Jon & Kate’ cover many times over an ‘American Idol’ cover,” she said emphatically.
Despite the difficult climate for print media, Us Weekly has held up well. It says its ad pages were down 10 percent for the first half of 2009, compared to a 28 percent decline for the rest of the magazine industry.
As the second largest celebrity and entertainment weekly behind People magazine, Us Weekly had an average circulation of 1.9 million in the last six months of 2008, the latest figures available from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. According to comScore, its web traffic is up significantly from a year ago.
Min doesn’t fear for the viability of pure celebrity journalism, due to people’s essential need to read about Britney’s latest parenting gaffe, Lindsay’s latest brush with the law, or Paris’ latest driving violation.
“If there’s one thing you can count on, escapism and frivolity will always come back,” said Min. “It’s difficult to imagine that the women who come to us for escapism will suddenly start reading ‘Foreign Affairs’ or watching ‘Nova’ instead. Everyone needs an escape.” ♦