It was 10 minutes past 5 p.m. on Monday and everyone agreed it had been a slow news day. No nannies or strippers alleging affairs with married movie stars. No sightings of celebrity cat fights. No wardrobe malfunctions.
The editors were just about to close the upcoming issue of Us Weekly when Peter Grossman, the magazine's liaison to the paparazzi, raced in.
He was excitedly waving a printout of an image that had been snapped just minutes earlier. It had been taken from the back and at a weird angle -- but the subject was unmistakable.
It was Brad Pitt. And he was carrying Angelina Jolie's adopted Ethiopian daughter, Zahara, who was sporting a pink knit cap, and holding hands with her adopted Cambodian son, Maddox, who was in camouflage. A baby bottle was tucked into Pitt's back jeans pocket.
"Oh!" said Janice Min, 36, the magazine's editor in chief, mobilizing her staff. "Get it, get it!"
The latest angle in the movie-star love triangle of Jolie, Pitt and Pitt's not-yet-ex-wife, Jennifer Aniston, qualified as a major event in celebrity journalism, a type of news once relegated to cheap tabloids but now reshaping the media industry. Over the past year, Us Weekly and its competitors have soared in popularity even as the circulations of newspapers, business weeklies and practically every other print publication have been falling.
In the first half of this year, the total circulation of Wenner Media LLC's Us Weekly rose nearly 24 percent, to 1.67 million. Competitors Bauer Publishing USA's In Touch and American Media Inc.'s Star also enjoyed spectacular circulation gains. Time Inc.'s People, widely considered to be America's most profitable magazine, posted a modest increase, to 3.8 million.
The September cover of Conde Nast Publications Inc.'s Vanity Fair, featuring an exclusive interview with a tearful Aniston, was its highest selling issue ever.
With Americans confronting grim news every day about war and natural disasters, "celebrities have become a sort of national distraction," Min said. "They are hired entertainers," she added, and the public demands to be entertained almost constantly.
At the same time, there has been a growing backlash against the tactics some celebrity news organizations use to gather information on stars. The Los Angeles County district attorney has launched an investigation into whether aggressive paparazzi are purposely creating confrontations to get more interesting photos.
The outcry from Hollywood has increased in recent months after a photographer was accused of hitting Lindsay Lohan's car as he was trying to get her picture and when Scarlett Johansson said part of the cause of an accident she got into in the Disneyland parking lot was her effort to duck photographers chasing her.
Like other glossies about celebrities, Us Weekly fills the bulk of its pages with photos. Each week it reviews more than 50,000 submitted by photo agencies and freelancers and narrows them down to a couple of hundred to publish.
Executive Editor Michael Steele said the magazine holds to traditional journalistic standards: It does not pay for information and it does not dig through people's trash. You will not find stories about alien abductions and allegations of botched plastic surgery.
If the magazine gets things wrong -- like the mistaken report that Pitt joined Jolie in adopting a boy from Africa when it was really only Jolie on the adoption papers for a girl -- it corrects them. When Us Weekly is scooped, it credits its competitor.
"We want to be the paper of record when it comes to celebrity news," Steele said.
The magazine says that it purchases only photos that were taken legally and professionally and that staffers check the story behind each shot. It typically pays anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a snapshot of celebrities at a party to six figures for an exclusive set like the ones of Jolie and Pitt playing with the children on the beach in Kenya that ran in the May 9 issue. Recently, the magazine declined to run photos of Brooke Shields at a bakery shop with her daughter after learning that the photographer had been overly aggressive and made other children in the store cry. The editors say they regularly turn away photos that appear to be manipulated by computer.
Us Weekly considers its core reader to be the "cool girl" -- as Min put it, the one who "has the right outfits first and had all the information first." The magazine is aiming for someone who is 31, well-educated, and makes $85,000 or more a year.
Min, a petite, 5-foot-2 fashionista with endless energy, personifies the "cool girl." Educated at Columbia University with a history concentration, she held her first job as a reporter at a Gannett Co. suburban paper, then rose through the ranks of People before being tapped as magazine legend Bonnie Fuller's deputy at Us Weekly. When Fuller left for Star in 2003, Min was promoted to top editor.
Min is one of the highest-paid magazine editors, with a reported salary of $1.2 million a year, and has filled 90 staff positions at the publication with editors from "serious" titles such as Newsweek, New York Magazine and Harper's Magazine.
Her goal is to break news.
Coverage of the MTV Video Music Awards last month was run like a military operation. Eight reporters went to Miami, and they were scheduled to work in shifts to provide 24-hour coverage from Thursday to Monday of the preparations, the show, the pre-parties, after-parties and ad-hoc parties.
Each reporter was given a Sony Treo "smart phone" to coordinate with the others. In all, they exchanged more than 1,000 messages that weekend, ranging from "This party is so lame" to 3,000-word files describing the gowns, the flowers, the rumors.
News director Lara Cohen, who led the team on the ground, said her instructions to reporters were simple: Get as many details as possible. If Mischa Barton picks up an hors d'oeuvre of shrimp on toast, did she eat the shrimp and toast or just the shrimp?
"We strive for pinpoint accuracy," said Cohen, a veteran of defunct media magazine Brill's Content and a former stringer for In Style.
While the weekend event produced fabulous pictures, sadly there were only a few tidbits of news: Nicky Hilton (you know, Paris's sister) trading in her dark locks to go blond. Orlando Bloom (who is supposedly dating Kate Bosworth) hot and heavy with Kirsten Dunst. And Jessica Simpson sporting a scandalous version of a French maid's outfit -- torn out in the back.
The awards show was one of two major topics for the issue for the week of Friday, Sept. 1, through Thursday, Sept. 7 -- along with this year's fashion "winners" (Simpson, Nicole Richie, Oprah Winfrey) and "sinners" (Mary-Kate Olsen).
In addition, writer Mara Reinstein was preparing an article quoting witnesses who saw Aniston and Vince Vaughn making out at the House of Blues in Chicago, and Joey Bartolomeo had a piece reporting that Jolie recently attended a benefit for Haiti in the Hamptons and that Pitt was going to rent a house in the Hamptons.
The photos of Pitt and the children, however, threatened to throw the plans awry.
Around 7:15 p.m., Grossman, 30, a music education graduate student turned photo editor, came in bringing more shots -- including one that showed Pitt's and Zahara's faces, but extremely blurred. The room of editors erupted into a rapid-fire free-for-all.
"It's a setup!"
"He's really buff."
"But he seems to have a careless hold on said baby."
For a few hopeful seconds the editors wondered whether it was possible to turn the photo into the cover shot, but they concluded with great disappointment that the resolution was too poor. They tested out a cover with Aniston and Vince but concluded there had been too much "white noise" about their relationship already and that a fashion cover -- with some reference to the whole Pitt-Aniston-Jolie -- was still the way to go.
Plus, Us Weekly had already put the evolving story on its cover many times that year. Aniston had been the lead photo 13 times, Jolie twice. (The formula seems to have worked, though, because the top-selling issue was "Jen's Revenge" and the second-best-selling issue was "Angelina & The Kids Move in With Brad.")
Officially, Us Weekly has no editorial position on the Pitt-Aniston-Jolie affair, but any staffer will tell you it is difficult to stay neutral.
When Leslie Bruce, a 23-year-old who recently got her graduate degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, saw the picture of Pitt and the children, she shook her head disapprovingly.
"He's parading this -- wait until his divorce is final," she said. "He's still technically married."
Grossman begged to differ. "No matter what anyone says about how sick they are of the story, you see this and it's like, 'Ah!' " he said. "You can't not like this guy."