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Soft-gossip magazine wants to play hardball

May 12, 2003|Tara Weiss | Hartford Courant

ENGLEWOOD CLIFFS, N.J. — It doesn't have swanky, security-guarded midtown offices like People. And it doesn't have a big-name editor and publisher like Us Weekly's Bonnie Fuller and Jann Wenner.

What newcomer In Touch Weekly does have, though, is an insatiable desire to topple those two celebrity bibles.

Launched six months ago by the German giant Bauer Publishing, In Touch is, their editors like to think, the softer alternative. You won't find exposes on Hollywood extramarital affairs or behind-the-scene power plays on its pages. You will find touchy-feely features, such as the cutest celebrity offspring, and stars doing good deeds.

While People and Us Weekly have publicly battled it out in the business pages and gossip columns, In Touch is quietly gaining speed, gushing over the lives of America's rich and famous.

It was recently named the most notable launch of 2002 by Samir Husni, a magazine expert at the University of Mississippi. It increased its rate base from 250,000 to 350,000 last month. And Us Weekly has copied more than one of its regular features.

"This is the best place to be in publishing," says Richard Spencer, In Touch's editor in chief. "We're taking on the most successful magazine in the world, and our sales are climbing up."

They have a long way to go. With a circulation of more than 3 million and the backing of Time Inc., People is still far from their grasp. At 1 million, Us Weekly won't be easy to catch either.

"We know we've got a lot of work to do to catch up to People," Spencer says. "But we're going to do it, without a doubt."

So why is Spencer so confident?

One reason is In Touch's price advantage. At $1.99, it's $1.30 less than People and Us Weekly and still delivers the same celebrity photos and gossip items. They can afford the price cut because Bauer Publishing isn't interested in subscriptions. They want to dominate newsstand sales and save money on postage, a huge expense.

"They will hit 1 million; I have no doubt," Husni says. "If you want that gossip, why pay more if you can get it for less?"

With nearly 50 staffers, In Touch is even more photo-driven than its competitors. There's barely any copy -- cover stories are no more than a few short columns. It strives to emulate the cheeky feel of its British counterparts such as Heat magazine.

"Is It True?" answers questions about rumors swirling throughout Hollywood, and it's one of the features that Us Weekly copied. It answers questions like: "Is Matt LeBlanc planning a secret wedding?" "Does 'Sex and the City's' Kim Cattrall have a new man?"

A-listers like Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt don't grant them interviews, so they work around the stars. To get a story updating readers on the Pitts' new house, they send reporters from their Los Angeles office to the site and talk to the architects. Plus, they've got a reporter out there who's been "talking to Brad and Jen's hairdresser for years," says Dan Wakeford, In Touch's news editor.

So is the competition worried about losing readers to In Touch?

People magazine declined to comment for this story.

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