Over the last decade, the country's biggest tabloid has helped transform
American journalism. Now it's trying to transform itself. Is this the paper
of the millennium?
by Seth Mnookin
LANTANA, FLORIDA -- Roseanne is in her California sound studio, getting
ready for some visitors to her daily syndicated talk show. In less than 24
hours, a group of reporters, editors, beauty consultants, and astrologers from
the National Enquirer will join the trimmed-down self-described
"domestic goddess" for a special taping of The Roseanne Show -- which,
as even the notoriously short-tempered host will admit, could be doing better,
The occasion? Roseanne, less than a decade after she sued the nation's
best-selling tabloid over a series of love letters that her then-husband, Tom
Arnold, leaked to its staff, is guest-editing the March 2 issue.
"At least this time, I'm working with a magazine real people actually read,"
says Roseanne, referring to the time two years ago when she guest-edited an
issue of the New Yorker. "Plus, the cartoons are funnier."
"Shit," she says. "I mean, who doesn't read the Enquirer? I always
have, even when I was suing them."
Roseanne's must-read paper has been going through a transformation. Over the
past decade, the tabloid has helped revolutionize American journalism, pushing
the boundaries of acceptable mainstream news firmly toward the fringes. The
change has been strikingly quick -- and slightly hazardous for the
Enquirer itself, which risks being crowded out of its own niche. So for
five years or so, the tabloid has been striving to reposition itself, trying to
make a case that it is still necessary.
The results aren't clear yet, but investors are betting it'll work -- betting
more than $750 million, in fact. Just last month, Evercore Capital
Partners paid $767 million for American Media, which owns the
Enquirer as well as the Star and the Weekly World News.
Evercore, headed by former US deputy treasury secretary Roger Altman, will
install David Pecker, a New York magazine publisher, at the head of American
Media; the plan is to make the Enquirer and the Star the
cornerstones of a new media empire. Executives have already floated proposals
for a Spanish-language Enquirer and a Teen Enquirer.
For Steve Coz, the Harvard-educated editor of the National Enquirer,
it's all good news. "They're not going to change the Enquirer's content
at all," says Coz. "This is fantastic for us. They're bringing a boatload of
cash to expand [the paper] and turn it into a launching pad for ventures for
To get to the National Enquirer's offices, you take the Lantana exit off
I-95 and drive east past a Burger King, a bait-and-tackle shop, a massage parlor,
and a pair of rundown Little League fields. The Enquirer building, less
than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean, abuts one of the two train tracks that run
up and down the eastern coast of Florida.
Lantana is a working-class community smack in the middle of Palm Beach County.
Unlike Boca Raton, a city 20 miles down the interstate where minimum-security
prisons freckle the landscape and pink stucco is the building material of
choice, Lantana is not a place where rich Northerners come to die. People here
buy American, fix their own cars, and get paid by the hour. If this town is
known for anything, it is the fact that more Finnish people live in Lantana
than anywhere else outside Scandinavia.
The Enquirer's headquarters is a pebble-walled one-story building with
emerald awnings and perfectly manicured grass out front. It looks more like the
suburban headquarters of an insurance company than anything else: well
maintained, even tasteful in spots, but nothing out of the ordinary. You
wouldn't guess that this building holds the world's largest celebrity photo
archive -- and you certainly wouldn't guess that it's been the seat of a
large-scale shift in American journalism.
Steve Coz has been the editor of the Enquirer since 1996. He came here
in 1982, a couple of years out of Harvard and eager to explore the world.
Although his mother has publicly denounced his choice of careers -- she told a
reporter last year that he's too smart to be working at a tabloid -- Coz says
he loves his job. On the back wall of his office, directly in his line of
vision as he sits at his desk, is a framed collage of four magazine covers.
There's Newsweek's November 4, 1996, issue, which has a picture of
lesbian couple Melissa Etheridge and Julie Cypher with the headline WE'RE
HAVING A BABY. There's People's cover of June 9, 1997, headlined
MEN BEHAVING BADLY; inside, the magazine details the scandalous doings of Eddie
Murphy, Joe and Michael Kennedy, Donald Trump, and Frank Gifford. There's
Time's June 2, 1997, issue, which has a full-page cartoon of an
alien on the cover. And then there's the Enquirer's April 1, 1997,
issue, the one that details the confession of Ennis Cosby's murderer. That case
was cracked as the result of a tip the Enquirer solicited after Bill
Cosby challenged the tab to put its money to a good use.
The heading on the collage reads, WHICH ONE IS THE TABLOID?
"That's great, huh?" says Coz. "That collage has been on TV."
"What we do today and what the mainstream media are doing -- it's not that
different anymore," he says. "We've become a lot more mainstream. And they've
become a lot more . . . " and here Coz pauses. "More
. . . like us."
Or, as Roseanne puts it: "These days, the mainstream news is following the
Enquirer. I read something there, and then six months later, I read it
in the New York Times. In the last 10 years, the tabloids have started
covering what the mainstream guys are doing, and the mainstream guys are doing
all the tabloid crap."
Indeed, Vanity Fair recently dubbed the 1990s "the tabloid decade." But
if you had to point to a watershed moment when the lines between the tabloids
and the mainstream news organizations became permanently blurred, it would have
to be 1987. Not surprisingly, the Enquirer was the catalyst for this
breakdown of barriers. In the early days of the presidential primary campaign,
the Enquirer and the Miami Herald broke a story about Democratic
aspirant Gary Hart's marital infidelities. The Enquirer ran a
now-infamous picture of a grinning (and married) Hart on its cover, with Donna
Rice perched coyly on his lap. Hart was forced to drop out of the race.
Up to that point, mainstream papers had been squeamish about printing details
of politicians' private lives, especially if those details had to do with sex;
it is well known today, for example, that scribes and advisers alike winked
broadly at John F. Kennedy's very public indiscretions. Today, the
question of reporting on politicians' infidelities is a no-brainer.
If Hart's escapades were a coming-out of sorts for the Enquirer, the
O.J. Simpson case represented the pinnacle of its competitiveness with
"The Simpson case was a gold mine to us," says executive editor David Perel,
who headed up the Enquirer's coverage of the case. "Here was a huge
story that occurred right in the middle of our source network. And we nailed
This is not empty boasting. Time and again, the Enquirer was the first
with major O.J. news. Their reporters arrived at Simpson's Brentwood estate
minutes after the Los Angeles Police Department. To get an interview with
Denise Brown, Nicole Brown Simpson's sister, Enquirer reporters staked
out Nicole's grave for weeks on end, illustrating the tabloid's single-minded
-- some would say obsessive -- pursuit of a story.
The Enquirer was the first to report that, five weeks before the
murders, Simpson had bought a 15-inch stiletto. And in a scoop that was later
cited by the New York Times, the Enquirer reported that a prison
guard had overheard O.J. say "I did it" to football-great-turned-minister Rosey
The tabloid's biggest coup of all is memorialized by a large framed picture
that hangs on the wall of Perel's office. It is a picture of O.J. Simpson
walking across the end zone before a Buffalo Bills game, one foot in the air,
wearing a pair of Bruno Magli shoes. These were the same brand and style of
shoes that investigators determined were responsible for footprints at the
scene of the murder. The same brand and style of shoes that Simpson denied ever
"To get that photograph, we worked backwards and figured out all the football
games O.J. had worked [as a television commentator] over the past couple of
seasons," Perel says. "Then we just found lots of photographers and asked them
to look through their photo archives." They unearthed a picture that Simpson's
criminal prosecutors had overlooked. "There's no question the shoes were the
single most important piece of evidence in the case," says Dan Petrocelli, who
represented Ron Goldman's family in the civil trial against Simpson.
Emily Yoffe, who writes the "Keeping Tabs" column for the online magazine
Slate, got turned on to the Enquirer as a result of her Simpson
obsession. "I was an O.J. fanatic," she says. "And there was just no way that
you could follow that trial and not read the Enquirer."
More than just legal and journalistic insiders noticed; indeed, the
Enquirer began getting kudos from folks who generally look down on the
tabloids. In 1997, Steve Coz was named one of Time magazine's 25 most
influential Americans. "At a time when the press is drawing fire (rightly or
wrongly) for everything from stalking Richard Jewell to bringing hidden cameras
into grocery stores," the Time article read, "the National
Enquirer is on a roll. . . . In stories ranging from the
Dick Morris scandal to the JonBenét Ramsey murder case, the
Enquirer and its fellow tabloids have been out front, while much of the
mainstream media follow."
The Enquirer now uses the Time piece as part of a four-page
press release, a package titled "Accurate and respected -- that's today's
National Enquirer." The release includes quotes from Ted Koppel
("I've developed a healthy respect for the men and women of the National
Enquirer") and the New York Times, which praises the tabloid's
"aggressiveness and accuracy." And those are just some of the articles the
Enquirer has been generating over the past couple of years: a 1995
Miami Herald headline read, MAINSTREAM PRESS GRUDGINGLY PRAISES ACCURACY
OF ENQUIRER; six months later, the Columbia Journalism Review ran a
lengthy article that wondered, "When the respectable press chases the
National Enquirer, what's going on?"
To find out what exactly is going on, it helps to visit the Enquirer's
newsroom in suburban south Florida. Inside the Lantana office, where a total of
about 25 full-time editors, reporters, and rewrite staffers work, Perel is
holding court at his desk. A parade of editors, reporters, and photographers
walk in with their pitches for next week's issue. Perel, a former markup editor
for the Washington Post, is a wiry, intense man. Physically, he's been
compared to Sean Penn, although the tabloid editor is decidedly skinnier and,
if anything, more high strung.
For the most part, Perel is affable with his charges, but he's hardly
indulgent. "Is your shirt untucked?" he asks a long-time
Enquirer reporter. "If you're gonna pitch for my team, you
gotta look good."
Perel spends much of his day on the phone with various
Enquirer correspondents around the country. Around 11 a.m., he does
his daily checkup with New York: "And then we always have the drugs to add to
the other story. Chase it down . . . whaddya mean, how? Go through
the fucking court files! And check out Travolta. Is this like a regular
Scientology thing going on, or is it weirder than that?" Here Perel pauses and
winces at his reporter's tepid objections to finding out whether John
Travolta's recent foray into marriage counseling is tied to his religious
beliefs. "Look, what's the matter here? Are you too wimpy to cover this? It's
not mean, it's factual. Look, just cover it, okay?" Slamming down the
phone, Perel asks for an update on rumors of pending Brad Pitt-Jennifer Aniston
nuptials. "We're holding that. So we got Travolta, Hillary, and Jackie
Stallone. Get more, and get back to me."
At one point, Perel asks a visitor to leave his office: "This is too good to
even risk losing," he explains. "This is a full-cover, all-out exclusive.
You'll know about it soon enough."
Perel's glass-enclosed office overlooking the newsroom is the
Enquirer's nerve center, and it also serves as the paper's de facto
smoking room. A steady stream of central-casting tabloid types come in for a
quick puff on a filterless Lucky Strike and a few words of encouragement.
Watching Perel at work is not unlike watching any other high-powered newspaper
editor sweat through the day, except for one thing: the payoffs. The
Enquirer, like all tabloids, pays its sources, and Perel isn't afraid to
talk money on the phone. "Look, don't go into agent mode, all right?" he purrs
into the ear of a source in the professional dirt-dishing business. "We've
always paid you good and we'll keep paying you good, so don't try to screw me."
Perel rolls his eyes. Slimeball, he mouths, before laying on more of his
unctuous charm. "Pitch me a winner, and it'll be worth it."
The tabs not only pay their sources well, they pay their reporters well. A
reporter at the Enquirer -- or at the Globe or the Star,
for that matter -- makes between $50,000 and $100,000 a year, double what most
reporters at midsize dailies earn. Some editors make upward of $500,000 a year.
"I used to be young and idealistic," says long-time Enquirer staffer
Charlie Montgomery, who once toiled at dailies in New Jersey and Philadelphia.
"Then I got smart and went for the money."
Montgomery is a squat, flat-faced, Kojak-bald man who talks like Tom Waits
with a hangover. Since jumping to the tabs in the early 1980s, he has done
stints at both the Enquirer and the Globe, the Enquirer's
crosstown rival. (Five of the nation's six leading tabloids are located in Palm
Beach County. The Enquirer shares a building with the Weekly World
News; the Sun, the Globe and the National Examiner,
all owned by Globe Communications, are located in Boca Raton.)
"We do great work here," Montgomery says, and he looks for support to former
New York Daily News staffer Don Gentile, a big man with liberally
tattooed arms and wavy, flowing gray hair. "Give me five of our best reporters
and give [former Washington Post executive editor] Ben Bradlee five of
his best reporters, give us the same information to start with, and I guarantee
it -- we'll beat them every time." Gentile snorts and raises his eyebrows.
"Well, it's more fun than the Daily News, anyway," he says. With that,
Gentile stubs out his cigarette and returns to the newsroom. "It certainly is
More fun, maybe. But also, these days, more difficult. The closer the
mainstream media move toward typical tabloid fare -- full-press coverage of
scandals ranging from the dismembering of John Wayne Bobbitt to oral Oval
Office ministrations -- the less territory the Enquirer has to call its
The Enquirer, like all tabloids, has been in a slow but steady 20-year
slide -- after hitting a high of more than five million copies per week in
1978, it has been averaging 2.2 million readers a week for the past year.
The decline is a result of competition for its demographically meaty
blue-collar audience as TV shockumentaries (When Housewives Go Bad!) and
celebrity-based tabloid shows (Extra Hollywood Entertainment Special
And since the late 1980s, this slide has been greatly exacerbated by the
mainstream pursuit of traditional tabloid fare. When readers can open the
New York Times for their daily dose of tawdry tales, they don't need to
pick up the Enquirer in the checkout line. The biggest blow of all (no
pun intended) was the presidential sex scandal of the past year -- essentially
a series of tabloid stories that the mainstream media not only covered, but
covered with so many resources that they consistently beat the tabs at their
own game. ("The Enquirer might be able to get Beverly Hills hospital
attendants and room-service workers to give them the dirt," says Slate's
Yoffe, who lives in Washington. "But White House stewards and Washington
insiders are going to go for the prestige.") In the first half of 1998, the
months when the Lewinsky story erupted onto the front page of every newspaper
in the country, the Enquirer lost almost 20 percent of its
The result has been a prolonged, public, and costly identity crisis for the
tabs. "Since the 1980s, with the explosion of the TV tabloids, all this stuff
that had been the province of the print tabs started showing up all over the
place," says anthropologist Elizabeth Bird, author of the book For Enquiring
Minds: A Cultural Study of Supermarket Tabloids (University of Tennessee
Press, 1992). "And so the tabloids were all flailing around trying to find a
way to get their audience back."
At the Enquirer, the solution has been to subtly massage what had
worked for so long. Today, the cover of the tabloid touts "The New
National Enquirer." Inside the paper, what that means is that the
Enquirer, long the nation's premier vehicle for the tawdry, the
supernatural, and the bizarre, has been shifting more toward the mainstream --
which is to say it's been focusing on the tawdry and the bizarre and eschewing
The transition hasn't been all that striking, at least not to the untrained
eye. What it boils down to is that aliens and Elvis sightings have been pushed
aside in favor of a greater-than-ever focus on the paper's bread and butter:
"That's an area we can do that other people can't," Steve Coz says. "And that's
becoming more and more important, more and more interesting. Celebrities are
selling themselves as politicians, as national spokesmen."
"Look at what's going on today," says David Perel. "You have celebrities
trying to influence public policy, celebrities marketing every aspect of their
life. That's something that needs to be looked at, and no one else is doing
Coz is more blunt. "We're all there is,'' he says, "if you want more than
Indeed, the Enquirer's counterparts in the "legitimate" magazine world
-- glossies such as People, Us, and even Vanity Fair --
regularly give their celebrity subjects veto power over cover photographs, and
even over photographers and interviewers. The Enquirer, meanwhile,
covers the same celebrities by digging through their court records and running
photos of them without makeup. In other words, it covers them the way a
It's also remarkably accurate. Gone are the days when the tabloid was getting
sued every other week; today the paper rarely ends up in court, and when it
does it almost never loses. Every issue is vetted by lawyers from the
Washington firm Williams & Connolly, the same firm in which Clinton
attorney David Kendall is a partner. (During the filming of the Roseanne
special, when an Enquirer reporter told Roseanne details about Janet
Jackson's husband's drug problems, a Williams & Connolly lawyer shuddered.
"I hope they cleared that," he murmured through clenched teeth.)
To Emily Yoffe, the Enquirer's approach represents "a corrective to
the huge entertainment publicity machine."
That may sound counterintuitive; indeed, viewing the Enquirer as
necessary in any way feels a little bizarre. But Coz, despite his slightly
smarmy, publicity-conscious proclamations, has a point, and so does Yoffe:
without the tabloids, a whole nation of media-obsessed junkies would go to bed
every night convinced that in mythical lands named Manhattan and Los Angeles
there are perfect breeds of people who are all young, rich, beautiful, and
great in bed. The Enquirer, meanwhile, takes the people we obsess over
and knocks them down a peg (or three), and for that it sells more copies per
issue than any daily newspaper in the country.
And in a certain way, the system works for the celebrities, too. "Look, being
a celebrity, I know how this works,'' Roseanne says. "A lot of times, the
celebs are in cahoots. They give the scoops to try and preempt negative
stories. You end up in collusion with [the tabloids], and then when it hits the
street you act like you're shocked."
"But I think they're pretty fair," Roseanne says. "Or at least they're not
wrong. The other tabloids seem to still be making stuff up."
The next day, as Roseanne chats on the air with Enquirer staffers,
surrounded by blown-up covers she has graced, she tells Coz, "I hope there're
no more secrets in my closet. Because I know you'll find them."
"Our whole promise," says Coz, "is that we'll dish the real dirt.
"People know that if you read something in the Enquirer, it's the
Seth Mnookin is a reporter for the Palm Beach Post.