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Next in Kennedy Coverage Blitz: Magazines

Media: Editors say reader demand, not profit, is prompting them to put the late JFK Jr. and wife Carolyn on their covers.

July 27, 1999|DIANE SEO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

After a week of nonstop television coverage, it is the magazine industry's turn to seize on the nation's ongoing mourning of John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette Kennedy.

Publishers regard the couple's death as the biggest event of the year and as an opportunity to sell additional magazines on a scale not seen since Princess Diana's tragic death two years ago.

Kennedy has made the covers of Time and Newsweek the last two weeks, in addition to the current covers of People, TV Guide, U.S. News & World Report, New York and the New Yorker. Meanwhile, Bessette Kennedy will grace Vanity Fair's next cover. The couple died in a plane crash off Martha's Vineyard on July 16.

Handsome and charming, and a member of one of the country's most influential political families, Kennedy has long been a popular magazine cover subject. His 1996 marriage to the equally photogenic Bessette Kennedy only raised interest in his life, which has been public since his birth. Thus, magazine editors and executives say, it was natural for them to go all out now.

"This is the dominant news story of the year," said Steven Reddicliffe, editor of TV Guide. "Last week you couldn't turn on the television and not see something almost 'round the clock. It's all people were watching and all they talked about. This is an incredibly emotional story, and in the past when we've done stories on news of this kind, people responded."

Although publishers and editors insist their coverage results from reader demand rather than a desire to reap financial reward, it's well known that the 1997 death of Britain's Princess Diana dramatically boosted newsstand sales of magazines that featured her on their covers or printed special remembrance issues.

For instance, People's tribute issue to Diana sold 2.2 million copies, and Newsweek sold 1.7 million copies of its special issue after the princess was killed in a car crash in Paris. Newsweek sold 665,000 newsstand copies of its regular issue after her funeral, compared with its average newsstand total of 126,000.

But People Publisher Peter Bauer said the Kennedy coverage is being dictated by reader interest, not financial gain. Besides featuring Kennedy on the cover of its current issue, People rushed to newsstands Monday a special issue on his life.

"We're not doing it for advertising," Bauer said, adding that only 15 pages of ads were sold for the Kennedy tribute issue, which has a print run of 1.6 million. "If we were doing it for that reason, we wouldn't put it on sale as soon as we are, since we could have sold a lot more ads."

Bauer said many advertisers also are uncomfortable using the forum of someone's death to tout themselves.

"We know going in that some of our biggest advertisers are not going to be interested in this," he said. "We're doing this because readers expect us to recap the lives of high-profile people."

Newsweek is going a step further to prove it's not trying to cash in on the Kennedy deaths. A special commemorative issue, which arrived on newsstands Monday, will contain no ads. However, readers will have to shell out $5.95 for the 100-page issue, which is printed on heavier paper.

It's too soon to say whether magazines featuring the Kennedys have sold well at newsstands--definitive figures won't be out for weeks. But there are early indications that readers are responding favorably to the flood of coverage.

Last week's issue of Time sold out at many airports, as well as at numerous newsstands in Los Angeles, Boston, Manhattan and Washington, said Diana Pearson, a magazine spokeswoman.

Both Time and Newsweek, which arrive Monday on newsstands, scrambled to get last week's issues out after Kennedy's plane was reported missing. At Newsweek, 30 additional staff members were called in to work that weekend to put out 29 pages of coverage on Kennedy, founder of the financially troubled George magazine.

Weekly publications could respond quickly to the news. But because deadlines for monthly magazines often fall months ahead of publication, magazines such as Esquire and GQ decided against Kennedy covers.

An exception, however, is Vanity Fair, which will feature Bessette Kennedy on the cover of its next issue, arriving Aug. 4. The magazine was able to change its cover at the last minute because it had black and white photographs in its archives of Bessette Kennedy taken by photographer Bruce Weber last year.

Life magazine also took advantage of what it describes as rare photographs tracing the life of JFK Jr. to create a special issue chronicling his life that hit newsstands Monday. Life said it came across the photos while researching its August cover story about Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, which is currently on newsstands.

"There's a market for this because people have been following JFK Jr.'s life since he was born," said Steven Cohn, editor of Media Industry Newsletter, which covers the magazine industry. "Ever since people saw him salute his father at his funeral, he's been a part of us, so I don't think this is overkill."

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The Times' advertising and marketing news staff can be reached at adbiz@latimes.com or at (213) 237-3341.

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