People's Way with People

Nieman Reports, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

People's Way with People


This discussion of how People magazine handles articles and pictures on personalities was held at the Unity conference of minority journalists in Atlanta in July.

LANDON Y. JONES JR.

Managing Editor of People magazine

Personality journalism, to me, is the journalism of compelling human interest. It is often thought of as synonymous with celebrity journalism, but I see it slightly different because, at People, we don't simply cover celebrities, we cover people who are not famous. And we tend to cover them more or less the same way as we cover the celebrities.

But certainly it's true in 1994 that personality journalism and some aspects of personality journalism, tabloid journalism, have become the most dominant and most controversial aspect of journalism today.

We started People in 1974, and we like to think that we more or less invented or legitimized the notion that we could apply professional journalistic scrutiny to the personal, if not private, lives of well known people. Prior to that, the only well known people who were subjected to intense and professional journalistic scrutiny were movie stars. That was typically done in fan magazines.

At People we applied the human interest techniques inlearning about where people lived and what they thought and about their families, their houses, their backgrounds and parents. All of which now seems ordinary feature journalism was new and we expanded it beyond movie stars into politics, into sports and then -- certainly as we've all seen very lately -- it's expanded into crime.

Two things have happened since 1974 and largely because of People's success. People, today, has a circulation of 3.15 million. We have about 33 million readers. And our success has made us the most profitable magazine in the world. It has not gone unnoticed by other journalists.

Now almost every magazine you can think of practices some form of personality journalism. Movie stars sell. Magazines I never thought I would ever see put a star on the cover--all of them do it now.

And the other thing that has happened is that the definition of celebrityhood has broadened further. No longer do we think that only movie stars are celebrities. All forms of journalism are covering it and expressing an intense interest in the private lives of well known people.

The most recent trend has been the truly amazing entry of television into this field. Not too long ago, the only TV shows that were practicing anything close to the form of personality journalism that People practices were shows like Good Morning America or The Today Show. You heard variations of it in the afternoon talk shows. In the last five years -- beginning prior to that with shows like Entertainment Tonight -- all of these news magazines and prime time reality programming have essentially made that a dominant form of television entertainment. It's one that's very cheap to produce.

The unfortunate result has been sort of a decline of standards. My main concern is that journalists are finding it increasingly difficult to define our standards of acceptable behavior: What is right to cover? What is wrong to cover? And how do we make that distinction? Who is talking about how we make that distinction? You don't hear too many people talking about it and that's a great concern to me.

Because of all the outlets, because of all the television shows chasing celebrities, because of all the magazines chasing celebrities, essentially it's a supply and demand situation. There are more and more people chasing fewer and fewer stories. When that happens the price of the story goes up. When the price goes up, the dollar value goes up and so has checkbook journalism. You pay for access to a star or you pay for access to photos. That also drives down standards. If you compromise on standards, you have a better chance of getting the story.

The internal debate about People is how to find and practice high quality journalism. …

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