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July 8, 2021updated 30 Sep 2022 10:24am

People magazine editor Dan Wakeford: Instagram is our ‘biggest rival’… but celebrities still clamber to be on our cover

By William Turvill

Circulations of celebrity magazines like Heat have plummeted in the UK in recent years in the face of digital competition – but US entertainment weekly People tells a very different circulation story.

In 2000 it had 2.1m subscribers. By the end of last year, that figure had risen to 2.7m.

Although the title’s overall circulation has dipped over the same period – from 3.55m to 3.46m – its sales figures are impressive, and buck wider industry trends.

So who, in the age of breaking news gossip websites and social media, still pays to read a weekly showbiz magazine?

“Everyone,” says Dan Wakeford, the UK-born editor-in-chief of People, over a video call interview. “We reach so many American women. We’re a demography breaker.”

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Clearly, “everyone” is a slight exaggeration. But People – across print, its (market-leading) Apple News+ edition, its website, its daily podcast and its digital channel, PeopleTV – does reach many millions of people across the United States and beyond. According to Comscore data, has a print and digital audience of 88m adults a month. 

“They are predominantly women,” Wakeford adds, when asked to narrow down his audience. “They’re very busy women. Many of them are mothers. They’re looking for escapism that makes you smarter.”

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Low-key? ‘I sometimes take the subway’

People magazine has been published weekly in the US since 1974. Its founding editor, Richard “Dick” Stolley – who recently died aged 92 – set out with a mission to “tell stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things and extraordinary people doing ordinary things”.

In an obituary of Stolley, the New York Times said that People magazine had “changed the course of American publishing with its personality-driven approach to journalism”.

Wakeford, who previously edited In Touch and Life & Style magazines, joined People as deputy editor in 2015.

In April 2019, just over a year after People’s publisher, Time Inc, was sold to media giant Meredith, Wakeford stepped up to replace Jess Cagle as editor-in-chief.

At the time, the New York Post claimed Cagle’s exit was “proof the age of the celebrity magazine editor is over”. The Post suggested that Cagle had chosen to leave at the end of his contract because he was feeling “crimped” by Meredith, “a Midwestern company known for penny-pinching”. Meredith dismissed the suggestion at the time.

The Post went on to describe Wakeford as “low-key”. The newspaper quoted an anonymous “Wakeford friend” describing him as “the kind of guy who will take a subway to a restaurant… he’s not flying across the country and sending a limo to get you”.

Wakeford laughs when asked about this story. “That article was amusing,” he says. “And I kind of liked it because it made me seem very down-home and relatable.

“But it wasn’t really true, and it wasn’t a friend who said that. I sometimes take the subway – I haven’t for a very long time – but I also take cars.”

Wakeford adds that, while the “glamour of entertainment journalism has certainly been lost over the last year-and-a-half because we’re all at home”, working at People is “still a lot of fun” for its more than 200 employees. 

Celebrity journalism must ‘deliver what you can’t get on the internet’

So how has People been able to retain a 3m-plus circulation in an era when there is an abundance of celebrity-based information available on the internet for free?

“We are the experts in celebrity, human interest and entertainment stories,” says Wakeford. “We’ve proved that over many, many years.

“And now, at a time when there’s so much distrust in the media, our journalistic rigour and our brand equity [bring] a sense of authority to the content that we produce.

“When you talk to people about People, they always say to us… ‘Oh, I know it’s true when I know it’s in People.’”

Wakeford suggests that many other celebrity-focused magazines “haven’t adapted” to the digital world.

“They don’t provide anything you can’t get anywhere else,” he says. “The internet provides rumours, speculation and fun. You have to invest in journalism and magazine craft and reporting [to] deliver what you can’t get on the internet.”

Supermarket tabloid magazines have struggled in recent years. National Enquirer, for example, has seen its circulation plummet from 2.1m in 2000 to 150,000 at the end of last year, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. Globe has fallen from 740,000 to just over 80,000 in the same period.

“I’m not going to talk about specific magazines,” says Wakeford. “What many of those entertainment magazines have done is not provide something that is distinct from what you could get for free anywhere else.”

‘I have empathy for Meghan and Harry’

Before moving to the US in the early 2000s, Wakeford trained as a journalist in the UK and worked for Heat magazine in London.

Asked to identify the differences between UK and US celebrity journalism, he says: “The American audience is a lot more puritanical.

“The British press is much more monitored by [the Independent Press Standards Authority regulator]. The American press is monitored by the appetites of the audience.

“We have the freedom of the press and the constitution, so we’re not restricted by any governing body in that way. But we’re possibly more restricted by what our audience wants.”

Earlier this year, British journalism was heavily criticised by Harry and Meghan, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Prince Harry described the UK press as “bigoted, specifically the tabloids”.

Although Winfrey’s production company was accused of misrepresenting the UK press coverage of the royals, a majority of Press Gazette’s readers (including many UK journalists) agreed with Prince Harry.

Wakeford appears to be among those concerned. “I think, after watching it, and being here and being involved in both, I can totally understand and have empathy for them [Harry and Meghan].”

Is this a view shared by others in the US? “I don’t think the US has that strong a perspective on what the British press are doing,” says Wakeford.

“They’re aware we should be fact-checking a lot of the stuff that comes out of Britain, and that’s what we do every day. That’s really my perspective. I have empathy for Meghan and Harry.”

‘Instagram is our biggest competitor in the whole world’

In 2021, when a celebrity wants to make an announcement to their fans, they can do so on any number of social media platforms, bypassing the traditional media. This creates a major challenge for any publication that writes about famous people.

“Certainly,” Wakeford agrees. “Instagram is our biggest competitor in the whole world.” But he believes People has an edge.

“We talk to a bigger audience,” says Wakeford. “So a celebrity can talk to their own audience on their social channels. But they’re already preaching to the choir. These are the people who follow them, their fans.

“We reach a larger audience of people who aren’t necessarily engaging with that celebrity. And the celebrities also recognise our expert storytelling. We are the people who are the best in the business at telling these stories.”

The cover of People magazine, Wakeford says, “dictates what the whole of America is talking about for the next week. We set the cultural conversation.

“That’s why celebrities are desperate to be on the cover of People. That’s why they clamber to get there.”

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