Surprise Hits: Us Weekly scores by showing stars are 'just like us'

When publisher Jann Wenner first revealed his plan to take Us, a middling monthly entertainment magazine, and put it into head-to-head competition with People, the world's most profitable weekly, it had the makings of a colossal error. In time, it even looked like an error to Wenner, who, panicked by the millions he was losing, sold a 50 percent interest in Us to Disney (DIS) for a reported $40 million in 2001.

Then along came Bonnie Fuller, former editor of Cosmopolitan and Glamour. Fuller used her uncanny instinct for what sells on the newsstand to devise a new formula for Us, heavy on paparazzi photos, celebrity babies, and tell-all quotes from suspiciously unnamed "friends." At the core of Fuller's vision was the idea that stars are "just like us": prone to bad hair days, lousy at managing their love lives, and just as eager for gossip about each other as we are for news about them.

Fuller's formula was an instant hit with readers. Newsstand sales quickly doubled, to more than 600,000 per week. Competitors took notice, too, and in July 2003 American Media hired Fuller away to work her charms on its supermarket tabloids, beginning with Star. That endeavor was somewhat less successful, in part because by then every newsstand in America was cluttered with low-priced Us Weekly knockoffs. Before long, the algae-like growth of the category she created was being credited with singlehandedly propping up the magazine industry's sagging retail sales.

Fuller left American Media last year, vowing to translate her brand of fizzy voyeurism to the web under her own shingle. And Wenner? He's still raking in profits from Us Weekly -- but his moment of doubt cost him dearly. That 50 percent stake he sold to Disney for $40 million cost him $300 million to buy back.

Jeff Bercovici is the media columnist for DailyFinance.

Be sure to check out all 20 recent products that became Surprise Hits.


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