By: SI LIBERMAN
IAIN CALDER, THE Scotland-born king of supermarket tabloid journalism in America, has stepped down but not out of the tabloid picture.
At 57, his new title is editor emeritus of the Enquirer, the nation’s second largest circulating publication. The change halved his $600,000-a-year salary as editor, he says. However, he’s still president of the Enquirer company, executive vice president and a director of its corporate parent, American Media, and holds 2.2% of American Media stock, valued at about $2.1 million.
A product of London’s tabloid wars in the ’60s, with no more than a high school education, Calder has been the legendary driving force behind the Enquirer since 1973 when owner Generoso Pope Jr. tapped him as executive editor.
His relentless pursuit and exposure of celebrity trivia, scandal and dirt, with an annual newsroom budget of $16 million and highly paid editorial staff of 70 to 100, has positioned his paper well ahead of the tabloid pack.
Mainstream editors may turn up their noses at that genre of news and the Enquirer’s use of big bucks to reel it in, but there’s no denying the impact.
Evidence is in the number of copycat tabloids, proliferation of newspaper gossipy people columns and TV shows (i.e. Hard Copy, A Current Affair, etc.).
To co-workers, present and past, the 6-foot-2, round-faced man with the fading Scottish burr and combed-to-the-side silvery hair is “the icepick.” Talk to them and you get the picture.
This is a results-driven, tough taskmaster, part ogre and part genius who fired some of his closest, longtime newsroom colleagues in the interest of economy, arrogant and conceited at times, and a walking, talking thinker always pushing the envelope on family matters.
As Joseph Mullins, a ’95 downsized Enquirer editor now at the competing Globe, put it, “He’s a guy who’d probably toss his granny off the trolley for a scoop.”
Mullins said he heard Calder once tell an infuriated, shouting Donald Trump on the phone “to shut up.”
“Donald was very agitated about a story linking him to LaToya Jackson and was threatening to sue. ‘If you’re going to a lawyer, Donald,’ Iain calmly said, ‘there’s no use our talking.'”
Calder ultimately pacified Trump by assigning a reporter to interview him in New York for another story.
Through the years, he’s been the Enquirer’s motivator and Page One architect, who has nervously watched weekly copy sales fluctuate between 3,200,000 (today’s average) and 6,000,000, one week in 1977 when the Enquirer ran the cover picture of Elvis Presley in his coffin.
Widely praised for saturation coverage and breaking more O.J. Simpson stories than any other publication, Calder and his crew no longer see themselves as the Rodney Dangerfields of the news business.
Still, Enquirer circulation and advertising revenues have continued to drop despite the respect gleaned from mainstream newspaper stories and a Ted Koppel ABC-TV Nightline report, focusing on the Enquirer’s O.J. and other exclusives.
Seated behind his desk, now in a smaller office in the paper’s palm tree-shrouded, one-story, Lantana, Fla., headquarters building, the editor emeritus quickly dispensed with the obvious question and rumor.
No, he declared between bites on a sandwich and potato chips during a lunch break. He was not downsized as part of a 30% reduction in editorial staff in recent years.
American Media’s latest 12-month figures show revenues at $295 million, down $30 million, and a 2? per share loss compared with a 28? per share profit in 1995.
In addition to its flagship Enquirer property, the company publishes four other tabloids ? the Star, Weekly World News, Country Weekly and Soap Opera Magazine ? and is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
“I’d been having dizzy spells over a period of time, and last year I developed shingles. You can imagine what that’s like,” Calder said.
“There was a lot of pressure ? not unusual to be awakened in the middle of the night or called while on vacation to deal with something unexpected.
“I was going to the same doctor who attended Pope before he dropped dead at 61. The doctor couldn’t tell what was causing chronic dizzy spells. Pressure, maybe.
” ‘Better listen to your body,’ the doctor said. I took a 10-week leave, went back to my hometown in Scotland with my wife, Jane, and the dizziness stopped. I decided I had better slow down.”
For Michael J. Boylan, 49, American Media’s vice chairman in charge of publishing and a former New York Times editor, Calder’s decision was a big disappointment.
“I tried my best to get him to reconsider,” Boylan said. “He’s a wonderful man and has probably forgotten more than most editors know. One can really get chewed up in this business.”
Calder figures his daily working hours today are less than half of the 18 to 20 he often put in on deadline days, and it’s no big deal now to take off those hectic Mondays and Tuesdays when the weekly is being put to bed.
There’s more family time (he has a wife and two grown sons) and time for a game of squash and occasional show, and next month he and his wife will become U.S. citizens.
In his new role, he plans to develop two new magazines and lead American Media into the world of cyberspace. Hopefully, he says, the new publications
Scottish-born Iain Calder takes emeritus title at the Enquirer; discusses the impact of his years on mainstream journalism will equal the success of Country Weekly, the 400,000-circulation country music and entertainment magazine he designed and launched two years ago.
Meantime, Steve Coz, a 38-year-old Harvard cum laude English major graduate who joined the Enquirer in 1981, is Calder’s heir apparent. He’s editor in chief now, a notch below the editor title. His wife, Valerie Virga, is assistant editor in chief.
Coz was a key player in the Enquirer’s O.J. Simpson coverage. The New York Times referred to the tabloid’s saturation coverage as “the bible of the O.J. Simpson case” because of its aggressiveness and accuracy.
Calder spreads out and offers copies of similar back-patting Enquirer stories that appeared in Time magazine, the Miami Herald, Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times.
“At times, we had 20 staffers working on leads,” he reminisced. “We checked out and didn’t use a number of stories other papers and TV stations fell for.”
Equally gratifying has been praise from national health organizations like the Heart Association and American Cancer Society for his paper’s record of accuracy covering medical topics.
Under a Calder policy, the Enquirer routinely faxes medical stories and their headlines to authorities so they can be checked for accuracy before publication.
His biggest coup, Calder says, was the acquisition and publication of the 1987 “Monkey Business” picture story that ended Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and political career. The senator had denied having an extramarital affair, but the picture seemed to say otherwise.
On his knee was his apparent playmate, a smiling, young Donna Rice.
“We paid less than $100,000 for that picture. Got all that and more back selling rights for its use to other papers and agencies.”
O.J. sources reportedly collected $150,000 from the Enquirer, and the tabloid shelled out $200,000 for Vanna White’s first baby pictures.
The former editor shies away from discussing other prices paid subjects for their stories, but confirms Jackie Kennedy Onassis once spurned his million-dollar offer for her life story.
Libel and invasion of privacy suits are another topic he would just as well avoid. “I’ll bet some major mainstream papers have been sued more often than us,” Calder said. “To avoid very costly trials, suits have been settled.”
The $1.6 million verdict in the 1981 Carol Burnett suit may have been the most publicized but wasn’t the costliest by far. In 1991, the tabloid reportedly gave Elizabeth Taylor $3.4 million and an apology to settle a $20 million libel action. More recently it was hit by a $150,000 verdict in a Clint Eastwood $10 million suit. “We’re appealing that one, though,” he said.
“Maybe four out of every five stories we get aren’t used. Yes, sources may not be identified, but reporters are required to tell a top editor and our lawyer who they are. And they’re carefully checked out.”
Copy is routinely reviewed by the high profile Washington law firm of Williams and Connolly, which was co-founded by the late Edward Bennett Williams. Occasionally, firm partner David Kendall, who is President Clinton’s personal attorney, has gotten the pre-publication reading assignment.
“Really,” Calder continued, “if Woodward and Bernstein had been covering the Watergate break-in for us, they couldn’t have gotten away quoting Deep Throat like they did at the Washington Post without identifying him to an editor.”
“Not exactly true,” Woodward reacted when reached for comment at the Post. “It was tricky and very sensitive, but editors we worked with were given Deep Throat’s name and/or his position.”
Editors of a dozen major newspapers were asked to assess Calder’s and the Enquirer’s impact on journalism today and their own news-gathering practices in connection with this story.
Most opted not to respond.
Said a reluctant Gene Roberts, New York Times managing editor, “I don’t know enough about them to comment. We buy from stringers and news agencies ? not from paparazzi. It’s not my kind of journalism.”
“I don’t see much impact,” said Saundra Keyes, Miami Herald managing editor. However, she acknowledged that a Herald editor subscribes to the Enquirer at home “to get leads for Florida stories.”
Pleading a conflict of interest because “in my early ’70s days I took a walk on the wild side and worked there,” Stuart Wilk, managing editor of the Dallas Morning News, asked his boss, executive editor Ralph Langer, to reply.
“They’ve had no effect on us,” Langer said. “I don’t believe in checkbook journalism.” Mark Jerkowitz, Boston Globe ombudsman, sees the distance between tabloid and mainstream journalism narrowing. “Editors may view the tabloid like a strange cousin and not want to sit next to him at the table, but more and more they’re walking the same line.”
“There’s certainly an explosion of that type of journalism,” said Bob Dubill, USA Today executive editor. “We read them, but it’s not a close monitoring. I think they’re pretty aggressive and go the extra mile to be accurate. I applaud them for that.
“We don’t pay any $100,000 for a picture. I think the most we’ve paid was $10,000 for the first color shot of a plane crash ? But you never say never.”
?(To co-workers, present and past, the 6-foot-2, round-faced man with the fading Scottish burr and combed-to-the-side silvery hair is “the icepick.” This is a results-driven, tough taskmaster, part ogre and part genius who fired some of his closest, longtime newsroom colleagues in the interest of economy.) [Caption & Photo]
?(His biggest coup, Calder says, was the acquisition and publication of the 1987 “Monkey Business” picture story that ended Colorado Sen. Gary Hart’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and political career. “We paid less than $100,000 for that picture. Got all that and more back selling rights for its use to other papers and agencies.”) [Caption]
?(Liberman is a retired editor of the Asbury Park (N.J.) Sunday Press) [Caption]