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Michael Jackson's death catches entertainment journalists unprepared

Celebrity magazines had planned coverage of Farrah Fawcett's death, but the King of Pop's unexpected passing leaves them scrambling to put reporters on the story.

June 27, 2009|Tina Susman

NEW YORK — Janice Min, editor in chief of US Weekly magazine, was on vacation in Colorado when news of the biggest celebrity death since, well, Farrah Fawcett's a few hours earlier, started her cellphone ringing.

And ringing and ringing and ringing. Min, who was driving, didn't pick up, but she glanced at her incoming e-mails.

"Oh my God, I got like 40 e-mails in 60 seconds," said Min, whose holiday evaporated with news of Michael Jackson's death this week. "I haven't been out of my hotel room since."

The two deaths in a single day threw entertainment media into overdrive, demanding quick decisions on whether to publish special editions, how much to increase the weekly press run, and how to cover two very different deaths with the right levels of sentiment and -- in Jackson's case -- scrutiny.

At a time when the publishing business is in a significant slump, the magazines dispatched reporters to find out what precipitated the pop star's death from cardiac arrest Thursday at his rented Holmby Hills house. They grappled with the question of how much attention to give to the darker side of Jackson's life -- his unusual behavior and, more seriously, persistent allegations that he was sexually inappropriate with young boys.

"How much do we want to lionize this guy?" said Greg Mitchell, editor of Editor & Publisher magazine. "You strip away everything else and say he was a weirdo, that's one thing. But if you have this overlay of his personal habits or possible illegal things in the past, that's a whole other thing."

People magazine, the leader in celebrity publications, said its editors were too busy to comment on coverage plans. One thing is for certain, though: Jon and Kate Gosselin, the bickering couple from the reality TV hit "Jon & Kate Plus 8," who announced their split to millions of viewers Monday, won't be dominating the cover of People or other magazines. "We had a great-selling issue with Jon and Kate last week," said Richard Spencer, editor in chief of In Touch Weekly. "So we were really heading in that direction for next week, as I'm sure a lot of other magazines were."

In Touch instead will print extra copies and focus on the King of Pop, a far bigger star than Fawcett. Spencer said In Touch would not ignore allegations of child molestation that clouded Jackson's last years despite his acquittal on all charges in 2005. But he said that the coverage would emphasize the star's music.

As for Fawcett, whose death at age 62 from cancer had been closely followed by the magazine, Spencer admitted to a touch of sadness that the actress was being eclipsed. He paid his own private tribute to her Thursday night by watching a documentary he had missed earlier, in which Fawcett appealed for more attention to be paid to the rare anal cancer that killed her.

OK Weekly also planned to emphasize Jackson's music, not his alleged misdeeds, said its editorial director, Sarah Ivens, calling the planned coverage "a celebration of his life." The magazine will increase its press run "substantially," she said, a decision based on the fact that Jackson's death has all the elements of a compelling story that readers devour, at $3.49 a pop.

There's the mystery of what killed him, the questions of what will become of his children and estate, and the fact that even with his stick-thin frame and awkwardly redesigned face, Jackson, at 50, was not on anyone's short list to die.

"Everyone loved Farrah, and we'd been following her brave battle for so long, but what was missing from her story was this total shock," said Ivens, comparing the stun factor with the death of Princess Diana.

For OK Weekly, which has been publishing in the U.S. for just four years, Ivens said the previous biggest celebrity story had been the news in December 2007 that Britney Spears' teenage sister, Jamie Lynn, was pregnant. Min said US Weekly's previous biggest story was the split of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston in 2005. Spencer cited Anna Nicole Smith's death in February 2007 as a blockbuster event for In Touch.

Those events erupted at a far better time economically in the publishing industry, however, making it easier to devote resources to what is sure to be an exhaustive stretch of coverage, from the autopsy to the questions of what becomes of Jackson's children and estate.

Jackson's status is such, though, that even in these financially strapped times, mainstream news organizations such as the Associated Press were sending extra staffers to Los Angeles to help with round-the-clock coverage.

"We're still all over the White House and Iran and everywhere else we need to be, but this is one of the biggest stories on the face of the Earth," said Lou Ferrara, the news organization's vice president and managing editor for entertainment news. "How did he die? What happened? What were his final days? These are things people want to know."

And then there's coverage of the funeral itself. "This is Michael Jackson," Ferrara said. "He may have left instructions for something so off the wall -- no pun intended -- that it'll become a huge story in itself."

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tina.susman@latimes.com

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