Us Weekly editor in chief Janice Min could not have known that she would one day sit atop the celebrity magazine world when she first came to New York. But she understood she was coming to a different world. Here's part two of her one on one with Budd Mishkin.
You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but in the world of celebrity weekly magazines, it's all about the cover. There's even a phrase for celebrities who fail to lure fans into buying.
"People who they say they love, are cover death,” says Us Weekly editor in chief Janice Min.
That's right: cover death. But it could be worse.
"It's certainly better to be cover death then to not be considered for the cover at all. That would be an even more severe celebrity death,” says Min.
Welcome to the world of Us Weekly editor in chief Janice Min, a world that revolves around the ability to lure the newsstand browser into buying. The weekly wins and losses play out in simple numbers.
“There are some weeks, if we have a really bad sell, we might sell 850,000 copies on the newsstand,” says Min. “There are some weeks if you have a phenomenal sell we can sell 1.4 million on the newsstand. So, you know, you’re talking about judgments that can cost huge amounts of money to the company."
Min joined the magazine in 2002 as executive editor and moved up to editor in chief the next year. Us weekly claims that overall average circulation is now just under two million, up 67 percent from the six month period before she took over.
One of the early lessons about her audience came when Martha Stewart was sent to prison.
“That just seemed like one of those stories that everyone would care about. Who wouldn't buy a cover with that! But it totally bombed on the newsstand,” says Min. “It was sort of at that moment where I made a conscience decision to keep the magazine pretty young.”
Celebrity magazines are big business, as evidenced by Min's salary, which is reportedly more than a million dollars, and her frequent mentions in stories about the city's most influential young executives.
Min is also credited with changing the culture at the magazine, where people are expected to be serious about their work, if not themselves or the subjects.
"Anyone who works at this magazine who thinks that what Paris Hilton was wearing is a matter of life or death is probably not going to survive at the magazine,” says Min.
Min says she was confident when she took over the top job in 2003, but she worried about how it might affect her.
“Do people who take these jobs eventually become difficult and a little bit crazy or are crazy, difficult people actually attracted to these kinds of jobs?” she wondered. “So you know, I remember thinking in the back of my mind, I would like that to not happen to me."
There are many critics of celebrity news, one of the main charges being that it takes the place of actual public discourse about actual issues. Min makes no apology for Us Weekly and its role in popular culture.
"You can sort of get lost in the stories of these people whether you think their sort of fools, like a Britney Spears or a Lindsay Lohan or an admirable actress like Reese Witherspoon,” says Min. “In the end, you can sort of get caught up in it and have an emotional moment with it and in the end it’s kind of a no consequence to you. It won't add any more stress to your life, it won’t add anymore responsibility to your life. It's just probably the best 30-minute escape you can ever imagine.”
So what does Min do for an escape?
She watches Tim Russert and "Meet the Press."
The first thing you notice in the offices of Us Magazine, and in the magazine itself?
Mishkin: Can you tell me, first of all, who is the oldest person in this magazine? Is there any chance — I’m 48 — is there any chance anybody in here is close?
Min: Um, possibly. There might be a Sharon Stone in here.
Budd: I’d be good with that!
Min says she felt no tension growing up as the only Asian kid in her class in Littleton, Colorado, which she describes as ethnically homogenous — and then she came to Columbia.
"It was just shocking to me to see such diversity,” says Min. “I had never seen that in my life, you know, I grew up not knowing a single Jewish person. I believe we had one black person in my high school and I went to a high school that was 40 percent Mormon. Race was so much more a part of one's identity than it was when I was growing up, I guess, or that I wasn't as aware of it. I became much more conscious of race when I came to New York City, because I think people so closely identified to their ethnic groups."
There was something else Min noticed at her dorm at Columbia.
"The toast would come up and roaches would plop out with the toast, and just the roommate living in our suite had a pigeon as a pet, I mean just like all these things that I felt were just like, ÎOh I got to get out of here!’” says Min.
But she stayed for journalism school, and in the process learned something about her Korean immigrant parents.
"I realized just how atypical my parents were in this Asian upbringing, that there were all these Asian kids whose parents were high pressure, you know, didn't want them to date, wanted them to be lawyers, doctors, just high achievers,” says Min. “At no point did my parents ever say to me, ÎWhy would you ever want to be a journalist? Do you know what a horrible life that is?’"
After graduate school, she got a newspaper job upstate before coming back to New York to work at People and eventually Us Weekly.
In that time, coverage of celebrities has changed. Min says the internet covers celebrities in a "much coarser tone,” even though she admits there's been a benefit to the magazine.
"Concurrent to the rise of the internet and coverage of celebrities on the internet, the sales of the magazine have increased and I think what it’s done is just created more appetite for celebrity news when they get to the newsstand and also an appetite for credible celebrity news when they get to the newsstand," says Min.
Min says there are stories she will pass on, because they create a tone her readers, predominantly young adult women, don't want.
"There's a TV star who — we were approached by the person he's having the affair with, with photos of him with the mistress and we chose not to run it. You know, we just felt like that tone is just not something we would do,” says Min.
She is married with two young kids, so late nights at the magazine are less frequent.
Her rising star is a far cry from her goals and expectations when she graduated from journalism school almost 20 years ago.
"You know, my first job I think I made maybe $24,000 a year and I just never thought this would be a field that I would make a ton of money or was expected to make a ton of money,” says Min. "But at that point I just wanted to have a job that I thought was interesting."
That goal has been accomplished.
— Budd Mishkin