Maybe it should have been obvious that the celebrity weeklies were going to politicize as soon as Hillary Clinton and her supporters showed strong resistance, during the primary season, to acquiescing to Barack Obama, thus highlighting the importance of women voters in 2008. But the heightened political importance of the magazines, whose readers are overwhelmingly female, wasn't in anyone's face until this week, when Us Weekly made waves with its controversial "Babies, Lies & Scandal" Sarah Palin cover. The issue, unflattering to Palin, has so far resulted in 5,000-10,000 cancelled subscriptions, MSNBC.com's gossip column is reporting. (Though MSNBC's Courtney Hazlett is close to Us Weekly's rivals; and-see below-the magazine's Janice Min says the losses are overstated.)
"(Us publisher) Jann Wenner supports Obama, Wenner media decided to follow the buzz around Palin before her speech, and now subscribers feel like a vote has been cast on their behalf," says another magazine editor. "It's going to be tough to bounce back from this one. Especially if the advertisers get involved. If they get nervous, that can hurt all of us."
It's easy to imagine the other shoe dropping in this publishing psychodrama: Wenner rival Kent Brownridge, newly installed at Us competitor and celebrity-servile OK!, makes a play for access to Palin, a (sigh) rising political star whose Republican convention speech drew 37 million TV viewers, nearly as many as tuned in to watch Barack Obama. If that happens — Presto! You've got MSNBC (Us) and Fox News (OK!) recreated among the celebrity weeklies.
(I'm pretty sure someone else floated the Brownridge/Palin scenario elsewhere yesterday, but can't find the post anymore.)
More likely, Us Weekly wises up and backs off the risky business of political coverage. One of MSNBC's sources characterized the Palin cover — which allegedly had nothing to do with Wenner — as nothing so much as a miscalculation:
"When Us went to print Monday night, it looked like the ticket was falling apart," says one magazine editor. "They went to print thinking Palin was dead in the water, and their mistake was thinking everyone who reads Us is a Democrat, when they're not. Readers are loyal, but the base of a political party is more loyal."
Update: a friend at Us Weekly looked up the numbers. "We got about 1,000 cancellations over the issue, but remarkably, about 1,000 bonus subscriptions from supporters which I was not expecting. Who knew there was a motivated left? It also drove the third highest day ever on our website in terms of visits. Basically...the whole thing mirrors the McCain-Obama race. The two sides see everything in completely different terms. So the impact is a wash at the moment, which is shocking."