If anyone is on top of celebrity buzz, that would be People magazine’s Managing Editor Larry Hackett, who spoke last week at NYU’s Summer Publishing Institute. While Hackett spends much of his day immersed in figuring out who’s hot and who’s not, he’s also very much a businessman spinning red-carpet celebs into ROI. For People, the cover is the one chance the mag gets to draw in non-subscription readers —and finding the perfect image is the equivalent of a secret celeb sauce. “We have to sell approximately 1.5 million copies of the magazine on the newsstands every week in order to generate a profit,” Hackett said. “Our cover is a poster.”
Hackett and his team have been remarkably successful at persuading those of us in the grocery store checkout line to buy the $4 magazine. This has been accomplished thanks to hours of cover design, ensuring, among other details, that the subject is making eye contact with the audience and the story content is just ahead of the reader’s curve of interest. “You want to establish that connection with the reader,” Hackett said. People also prefers to have a picture that fits the shape of the magazine. Pointing to an awkward-looking square image of Brangelina, he complained: “Why can’t they ever give us a vertical image?” Additionally, much thought goes into how the headlines are organized. Lately People has been going with the sidebar approach, but Hackett will also use what he calls “bunny ears” – two feature boxes in the upper corners – if the picture lends itself to this treatment.
The choice of cover subjects is still guesswork, a fine art of figuring out celeb popularity rankings and the appeal of newcomers like the “Jon and Kate plus 8” stars. Hackett fully admits: “We don’t make People stars. The people choose.” And if a formula has succeeded in the past, Hackett has no problem with repeating the process. “If it works once,” he said, “do it again until it doesn’t work anymore.” Princess Diana appeared on the cover of People 54 times–what Hackett calls “probably the largest franchise in the magazine’s history.”
People’s willingness to place not just celebrities, but content on the cover shows its true core. “People need a sense of value,” Hackett stressed. “They need a sense of what they are paying for.” Seemingly saddened by the low professionalism of his competitors, he added: “I wish celebrity news was covered like politics, business, or sports.” With its versatile content, huge reporting staff and stringent standards, People is striving to do just that.
by Phil Schillaci Kropoth