As usual, when the National Enquirer breaks a big story, the tabloid becomes a big story itself.
Last month, the Enquirer interviewed a masseuse who says Al Gore sexually assaulted her in 2006. Molly Hagerty alleges the former vice president groped her while she gave him a massage at the Hotel Lucia in downtown Portland, Oregon.
Since then, the story has exploded -- and not only because the accused is the otherwise mundane Al Gore. There are so many questions still unanswered three weeks later...
- Why did Hagerty wait four years to go public?
- Did the timing have to do with Gore recently splitting from his wife of 40 years?
- Why did Hagerty at first refuse to talk to cops, then cooperate, then refuse to pursue charges?
But the story also intrigues because of the publication that broke the story. The questions about the Enquirer's conduct are just as juicy as the ones about Gore's conduct...
- Did the Enquirer really pay Hagerty $1 million? (The Enquirer editor told The Washington Post he paid nothing.)
- Did the Enquirer really get the story second? (Yes, The Portland Tribune investigated the charges in 2007 and 2008 but held the story.)
- How does a trashy supermarket tabloid like the National Enquirer get these scoops, anyway?
I can answer that last question because I've worked for the National Enquirer. And Star magazine. And Globe. And the National Examiner.
All four tabloids are owned by the same company, American Media, Inc., which is based in Boca Raton, Florida.
I freelanced as a copyeditor for AMI from 2002 till 2009, working as often as three days a week and as little as one. Here's what I learned...
ENOUGH GOSSIP TO GO AROUND
Why would one company own four celebrity tabloids with four separate staffs? Wouldn't it make sense to merge them all into one mega-tab?
No. Each tabloid has its own audience. Star appeals to hip women in their 20s, which is why a recent cover photo featured a shirtless Jake Pavelka, star of The Bachelor.
The National Enquirer's readership is older, more affluent, and more political. That explains not only the Gore story, but exposes on John Edwards' love child and Rush Limbaugh's painkiller addiction.
Globe and the National Examiner are geared to middle-aged conservative women. Hence, this recent Globe cover story: "Bombshell New Evidence -- Obama was NOT born in the U.S." Both weeklies are famous in the AMI office for their "Brave Last Days" headlines: "Brave Last Days of Patrick Swayze," "Brave Last Days of Marlon Brando," etc. And the Examiner is perhaps the largest national publication in the country without its own website.
EVEN TABLOIDS HATE THE TABLOIDS
Believe it or not, there's a pecking order in the AMI offices. Star magazine is considered top of the tabs. It has the highest circulation, prints on the glossiest paper, and possesses the most coveted demographic: young women. Nipping at its heels is the National Enquirer, next in circulation and the most journalistic of the bunch. (Remember the spring's Pulitzer Prize nomination angst?)
Tied for last place are Globe and Examiner -- which is where I spent most of my time.
Don't get me wrong, everyone is pleasant in the office. But there's an obvious hierarchy that each staff acknowledges.
I remember the day I moved from Globe to Enquirer to design a photo spread (on female celebrities who had nude pictures taken during their youth). One of the Globe editors walked by on his way to the bathroom and said, "Moving on up, aren't you? Still gonna talk to us little people?"
EDITORS VS. ATTORNEYS
As a daily newspaper reporter in Georgia and Florida in the late '80s and early '90s, I can't recall ever having a lawyer look over a story. But at the tabloids, two lawyers review every story.
I asked one of AMI's attorneys why it works this way, and he told me about comedienne Carol Burnett suing the Enquirer for $10 million in the early 1980s. The Enquirer had printed that Burnett was drunk in an upscale restaurant and argued with, of all people, Henry Kissinger. Burnett won $1.6 million, which was cut in half on appeal and then settled for God knows how much.
But the Enquirer had learned its lesson: Hiring a few attorneys in the newsroom now is cheaper than hiring those same attorneys in the courtroom later.
And these attorneys don't advise. They decide. I've witnessed top editors arguing with the attorneys to keep a sentence or a fact in a story. No dice. The attorneys always win.
LOTS OF DEAD TREES
As a copyeditor, I was required to print out three copies of each page I was working on -- in full color on 11x17 paper. One sheet went to the editor, one to a fact-checker, and one to an attorney.
Each of those people would jot down their corrections on their piece of paper, and I'd transfer those corrections to the screen and initial each page, signifying I made the changes.
So much for the paperless society.
In a single day, I might print out 50 color pages for us all to draw on. But in this way, we had a hardcopy record of how the facts were checked and rechecked. So if anyone sued our particular tabloid, we could show a judge and a jury just how much care we put into the process.
COPYEDITORS ARE KING
The writing in the tabloids sucks. You know it and I know it -- and so do the people who work there.
Well, at least the copydesk knows it. I've never seen a media outlet so dependent on its copyeditors. The writers turn in real crap, their editors fix only some of it, and the copyeditors do the rest. That's standard operating procedure.
At daily newspapers, the copyeditors are often an afterthought. Reporters and editors don't really talk to them. But at the tabloids, the best journalists work the copydesk -- and the editors and reporters are almost as afraid of them as they are of the attorneys.
HOW THEY DO IT
So how can the National Enquirer score such major scoops with lazy writers, porous editors, and hyper-vigilant attorneys? They have a secret and a system.
Most of what you read in the tabloids came from somewhere else. A staff of writers never leave the newsroom. They scour every other celebrity publication in existence -- AMI has assistants walking around all day long, dropping copies of these publications on the writers' desks. If the writers can't verify these stories on their own, they just quote from them.
That fills most of the pages in your typical tabloid -- which leaves more time and resources for pursuing the big stories. And the Enquirer does this especially well. The system is simple: Attack celebrity stories with all the vigor of The Washington Post uncovering Watergate.
And it is good reporting. The Enquirer follows the paper trail -- I bet it requests more public documents on a monthly basis than most "respectable" newspapers in this country.
You don't have to like the National Enquirer. But if you're a journalist, you should appreciate the way it does things. Because it's very similar to the way you do things.