Argh! Pecker the Pirate

It wasn’t long ago that David Pecker, the 51-year-old who was catapulted to national attention when the Boca Raton, Fla., offices of his tabloid empire, American Media Inc., was targeted for an anthrax attack in 2001, found himself trying to persuade Columbia University students to work for him in a recruiting jag.

After one young man grilled him about what it was like to work at the parent company of supermarket tabloids like The National Enquirer , the Globe and the Star , he asked where the job was located. Mr. Pecker told him it was in Boca Raton, Fla., not New York City.

“I’ll never forget this student asking, ‘Isn’t Boca Raton where you end your career and not begin your career?’ At first I thought, ‘This guy’s a real wiseguy,'” Mr. Pecker said, relating the story in a borough-boy, he-said-she-said patois that fit perfectly with his Bronx accent, his voice both gravelly and nasal. “And as I’m driving back to my office, I thought: ‘He’s right.'”

But Mr. Pecker now has jobs open in New York City, and his career is far from over. With the help of a $3-million-a-year salary offer, he’s managed to lure Bonnie Fuller, the former editor in chief of Us Weekly (named the 2002 editor of the year by Advertising Age ) to become his editorial director, leaving her boss, Jann Wenner, without ever signing her contract with him. Rumors-which Mr. Pecker said made him feel “very good”-also put the ousted GQ publisher Ron Galotti in his camp. (The rumors were false.) He’s moving his most upmarket celebrity tabloid, the Star , to New York in the hopes of burnishing its image in the more upscale target market of People magazine and Us Weekly . He’s angling for a public offering that would make the media corporation he’s cobbled together from supermarket tabloids and small acquisitions into the only major magazine-only player in the publishing business. And in the process, Mr. Pecker-whom some acquaintances have likened to a modern P.T. Barnum-has made himself, and by extension his Boca Raton–based company, the unlikely topic of media lunchers at the Four Seasons and Michael’s, an actual talking point for the city’s cultural elite.

It feels good. “There was always an issue of respectability for me,” Mr. Pecker told Off the Record at his Park Avenue office on a recent afternoon. His new digs are sparsely decorated. There’s a picture of him with Hillary Clinton (in a pink suit) that sits on his window ledge, from before his tenure at American Media, where President Bill Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky was its stock-in-trade; nearby, is a framed cover of The National Enquirer featuring the doe eyes of murdered child-beauty-pageant star Jon Benet Ramsey.

“I didn’t come up through the sales and marketing side; I didn’t go to an Ivy League college,” he said, reflecting further on his pedigree as an ambitious and scrappy New Yorker. “I grew up in New York. It was a lot different for me.”

Mr. Pecker is no stranger to the New York magazine world. As head of the Hachette Filipacchi media group, he thriftily oversaw the operations of Elle and Premiere before leaving the company in 1999 to take over American Media.

But to many in New York’s editorial and publishing elites, that exit was, in the words of the Columbia student, a “career-ender.” Now he’s back, and as a man with the resources to shake the foundations of the business.

In many ways, Mr. Pecker’s first mission-to place the Star at the center of New York’s glossy-magazine trade-reflects his ambitions for himself.

A lot of it, he will admit, is buzz. The proposition-that a supermarket tabloid would need to ratchet itself up only a level or two to meet magazines like Vanity Fair or the New York Post , with their cover stories about the Kennedys’ marital strife, high-profile crimes and celebrity gossip-is still a titillating one in New York publishing circles.

That doesn’t make it an easy sell. In Mr. Pecker’s worldview, these tabloids, along with the Star , can exist side by side with a group of consumer magazines he hopes to grow. After acquiring Weider Publications’ group of muscle and fitness magazines last year (and raising American Media’s total debt to $1 billion), Mr. Pecker thinks he can use American Media’s distribution system, which controls 70 percent of the supermarket “pockets” in the United States, to build brands like Men’s Fitness and Natural Health as rivals to Men’s Health and Real Simple . He plans relaunches of the magazines later this fall, though he admits the added newsstand presence will take 200,000 more pockets and may cost up to $4 million. In addition, he said, the company has been developing plans for a cable fitness channel. He calls this combination “mass and class.”

Mr. Pecker has managed to sell this model as a distribution play. But how good is his distribution-system realm if the tabloids, with the best placement of any publication in the country, continue to lose circulation? And now he’s chasing magazines that make their money from advertising, not circulation, with the idea that the same distribution system that’s lost readership for his flagship publications will prop up and even propel revamped magazines against more established brands.

According to sources familiar with the situation, Mr. Pecker has spoken openly of his interest in acquiring Men’s Health parent Rodale, in addition to individual titles like Premiere (owned by Hachette) and New York (owned by Primedia). While Mr. Pecker declined to speak on any specific targets, he said all of those were on American Media’s radar, and that he is interested in more big acquisitions down the road, all with an eye toward an eventual I.P.O.

But no maneuver, and certainly not the hiring of gossip princess Victoria Gotti, could have bought the kind of boldface publicity that Ms. Fuller’s entrance brought to American Media.

“Everyone’s been waiting to see what’s Bonnie’s going to do with the tabloids,” said Mr. Pecker. “It’s almost like one of our tabloids’ stories. It’s become a story within itself.”

“David’s much smarter and more competent than people give him credit for,” said Martin S. Walker, a New York–based magazine consultant.

And the buzz-seeking hasn’t always served Mr. Pecker as well as it seems to right now, Mr. Walker said.

“His big problem is that he’s never seen a reporter he didn’t want to speak to or a story about his own company that he didn’t want to be the primary source for,” he said.

Ms. Fuller’s first-and, some who know her have forecasted, only-project with American Media: the Star . The three-decade-old tabloid, founded by Rupert Murdoch, received little if any notice when Mr. Pecker announced it was moving its editorial operations to New York last spring, and even less attention when Mr. Pecker and Steve Coz, formerly the editorial director for the American Media tabloids, began looking for a new editor for the Star , which American Media will “test” as a glossy magazine in January.

American Media interviewed or approached an impressive assortment of media professionals in the past several months, including former New York Post editor in chief Xana Antunes, Us Weekly news director Michael Lewittes, People assistant managing editor Larry Hackett (whom Jann Wenner had offered the editorship of Rolling Stone in 2002) and Vanity Fair contributing editor Vicky Ward.

He was looking for someone who could recoup the losses he’d suffered to Ms.Fuller. There was only one thing to do: hire her.

“Three months ago, I announced I was going to move the Star to New York, and then … we were interviewing [prospective editors in chief] and nothing was really coming out of it. A friend of mine who was an executive in the media industry-I was complaining to him about not being able to find someone-he asked me who I thought my biggest competitor was,” Mr. Pecker recalled. “And I said, ‘Right now, I’m losing all my circulation to Bonnie Fuller.’ I said, ‘I read in the Post that she has a long-term contract,’ and he said, ‘Do believe everything you read?’ And I said yes. And he said, ‘No, you should give her a call.'”

After he approached Ms. Fuller (who, it turned out, never actually signed her three-year, seven-figure contract with Wenner), Mr. Pecker said, it took less than 10 days to come to terms.

With 30 slots to fill in New York for the revamped company, Mr. Pecker said he’d received only 40 or 50 résumés before Bonnie Fuller came on; since then, the number has tripled.

“So there’s like a buzz now, with Bonnie coming in and the talent of the people coming in from glossy magazines and newspapers …. It’s always been difficult to get people from these places, because once you got over the issue of working for a tabloid, it was always the issue of moving to Florida. So … I think New York makes a huge difference.”

Speaking to Off the Record via telephone about her new job, Ms. Fuller called it a “most fabulous opportunity,” and said Mr. Pecker is “very engaging to work for. He’s very on top of everything going on. He’s got both a great vision and an understanding for detail about the business. We have a terrific dialogue. It’s open and very honest.”

However, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, there have already been a series of “ferocious fights” between the two. Among the issues of contention, according to the source, have been Ms. Fuller’s push to use outside headhunters to fill the Star ‘s masthead; Mr. Pecker’s more economical approach would have relied upon the in-house, Boca Raton–based human-resources office.

Mr. Pecker said that American Media had employed an outside recruiting firm at Ms. Fuller’s insistence, and that any hiring and firing on the editorial level would be left to Ms. Fuller without his interference.

Still, one can’t help but see Ms. Fuller as a bit of a show pony in all of this. While, at Ms. Fuller’s insistence, Mr. Pecker said the Star would stop paying for stories and sources, The Enquirer and the Globe will not.

And because Ms. Fuller’s name’s attached to American Media now, their brand of “journalism” becomes a reflection of her in turn. Indeed, when the Globe put a partially-disguised photo of Kobe Bryant’s accuser on its cover recently, it was Ms. Fuller’s name that was put in with the accompanying item in the New York Post .

That won’t stop Mr. Pecker from running the Globe and The Enquirer the way he wants to.

” The Enquirer is the news gathering machine. From all the stories they broke, From O.J. Simpson to Clinton’s Pardongate to the Jesse Jackson love-child story, those are the stories they’ve become known for and they’ve always paid for sources.”

“The Globe readers are totally different” than the Star ‘s, Mr. Pecker explained. “They’re the same people who read the British tabloids. Very hard. Very aggressive. The Globe is going to stay exactly the way it is. They’re not going to change.”

Sitting in his New York office, Mr. Pecker was trying to make sense of where he is today. Florida, it turns out, can be lonely.

“I live on the grounds of the Boca Raton Hotel, so I live in a townhouse. … It’s a very quiet, transient kind of community off-season. For example, I live on a street with 15 townhouses. I’m the only person there for five months [out of the year]. If I’m walking the dog, I don’t see any kids. I’m the only person there. That’s the best way to describe what it’s like living in Florida. It’s also very hot.”

Still, for now at least, the majority of American Media’s editorial offices will remain there. But there’s no doubt what having Ms. Fuller driving her troops to dawn deadlines means for the company. Just think back a year and a half ago, when Ms. Fuller jumped from her status as magazine consultant back into the ranks of the fully employed. As hard as it is to remember, there actually was a time when every 26-year-old woman was not reading Us Weekly on the F train, when groups of people could not be seen sharing a single copy and fiendishly feeding off a caption about Calista Flockhart managing her baby’s tantrum.

But making Us Weekly -which benefited from sharing the Wenner media tent with Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal -cool is one thing. Turning the Star , shackled with the downscale image of the gap-toothed, harried supermarket shopper with a taste for celebrity foibles thumbing its pages at the checkout counter, is another.

One former American Media executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, scoffed at the Star ‘s upmarket aspirations.

“There’s no evidence, in my mind, that you take something upscale partially and then have advertisers come running to it,” the executive said. “People don’t forget you have a tabloid company. They are what they are, and probably shouldn’t change.”

And the Star is entering a crowded field, one where In Touch and Us Weekly continue to give focus groups déjà vu and where People has introduced sassier takes, bullets and multiple-entry points to crush all comers.

“It’s a difficult competitive set,” Mr. Pecker acknowledged. “So what we’re looking to do-and this is one of the things Bonnie and I talked about since the beginning-is making the Star friendlier …. What we’re trying to do is differentiate the three tabloids. The Star ‘s going to be much softer, more packed with photos, friendlier and have relationships will all the major P.R. executives-which, before, the tabloids didn’t have.”

Indeed, the celebrity magazines depend on that particular kind of “respectability,” one that’s measured in callbacks from the powerful publicists who run so much of New York and Los Angeles these days.

Chalk it up to Mr. Pecker’s enthusiasm for the genre in which he’s become America’s biggest player.

“Tabloids are an institution in the United States,” he said. “The exposure of the hypocrisy of the rich and famous-these are all the kinds of things that people read, and it’s an hour of entertainment for $2. And I think that’ll always be there. For stuff like the Kobe Bryant story or the Laci Peterson true story, people buy the tabloids because they feel-honestly, other than the entertainment-they feel like they’re not going to read a press release from a P.R. company.”

Born in the East Tremont section of the Bronx, the son of a Jewish bricklayer who worked with Italians from the other side of Arthur Avenue (and spoke Italian fluently), Mr. Pecker began as far from the boardrooms of New York’s most powerful media conglomerates as one could be in New York. Like many Bronx families, his family moved to the middle-class Westchester enclave of New Rochelle when he was a boy. (His accent remains.) He attended the public schools in New Rochelle. At the age of 16, his father died. His mother saw him graduate from high school and study finance at Pace University, after which Mr. Pecker spent his early career as an auditor for Price Waterhouse.

“I was in the publishing business, but I was in the financial side,” he said of his 31st year, when his mother died. “I had just become the controller. She thought I was going to stay in finance. She would be very surprised with what I’m doing today.”

By 1988, Mr. Pecker was at the top of CBS, and when those magazines were sold to Hachette Filipacchi in 1988, he went with them. After becoming president and chief executive, he oversaw the American version of Elle as well as Premiere and launched George .

“God, I was president for nine years and I stayed there for 12, and my contract was coming up, and I wanted to own something,” he said. “Once I sold out my equity, I didn’t own anything anymore. I was 46 years old and I wanted to do something else, and I felt I had one more big deal in me. And I had looked at The National Enquirer in 1989 on the behalf of Hachette. We bid on it and I was there as the president of the company.”

That’s when he led a buyout of American Media with the investment firm Evercore Partners, with him holding a minority stake. It was the beginning of Mr. Pecker’s signature vision for magazines.

“I saw there was a huge opportunity to take the tabloids more mainstream, turn them around and use the distribution company to grow the commercial magazine business,” Mr. Pecker said. “I thought there was an opportunity, with the tabloids, to add consumer magazines and eventually take the company public.

“Everybody thought I had lost my mind,” Mr. Pecker continued. “They couldn’t understand why I would leave and go do this. Now, those same people-who before thought I was insane-are telling me how the picture looks much clearer.”