Is Tabloid Trash a Thing of the Past?

For a while there it was touch-and-go. We as a country would walk past a newsstand in the airport or flip thorough a tabloid in line at the supermarket and collectively breathe a sigh of relief that our crazy country cousin Britney Spears was still alive.

You still hear sighs at the newsstand, but they're no longer sighs of relief. Now they are sighs of resignation.

Spears isn't the only one keeping us bored by staying out of trouble these days. Nearly all of the so-called bad girls who just several months ago graced magazine covers as they sauntered out of rehab, sashayed out of prison and stepped out of cars sans underwear have been bumped off the pages by dime-a-dozen reality show stars and politicians.

Last week, Us Weekly put Barack and Michelle Obama on its cover. And People, the top-selling celebrity magazine, bounced its most eligible bachelors for an elegy to Tim Russert.

When Spears, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan made headlines for their antics and alleged addictions, it wasn't just the tabloids covering them but the mainstream media as well. If The New York Times and The Washington Post could mine gossip from the rags for stories, then, say the magazines, it is equally fair that they tap the mainstream press for political news.

With the likes of Eliot Spitzer, New York's former governor and accused solicitor of prostitutes; Jim McGreevy, New Jersey's former governor and "gay American"; and Larry Craig, the Idaho senator with the "wide stance," the lines between gossip and politics have blurred.

But when politicians and newsmen can steal the spotlight from Hollywood's heavyweights, one has to wonder if gossip is dead and what the future holds for the tabloids.

"If they were a baseball team, celebrity magazines are in their first long hitting slump of the past several seasons," said Keith Kelly, who writes the Media Ink column for the New York Post.

"There are a limited number of celebrities that people really care about, maybe a half dozen, including Britney and Lindsay," Kelly said. "There is a celebrity fatigue setting in. People are bored of the same people doing the same things, and there is no one new on the horizon."

Sales figures for the first half of this year will not be released for another two months, so there is no hard evidence to suggest that several months of slow gossip have taken their toll on the weeklies' bottom lines.

But following 2007's bumper crop of over-the-top celebrity news, industry insiders expect a downturn.

"We won't really have a sense of the market until the data comes out in August," said Steven Cohn, editor in chief of the trade publication Media Industry Newsletter.

"There hasn't been a really juicy story since Heath Ledger died early this year. I think sales are probably going to be down a bit, not just because of a slow cycle but because of the week economy," he said.

Last year, Us Weekly's circulation gained 10 percent over 2006, reaching more than 1.9 million, despite a price increase, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. People continued its lead over the celebrity glossies with a circulation of 3.6 million.

Politics for Us is as much a function of slow gossip as it is a response to a genuine interest in the presidential election, said Bradley Jacobs, the magazine's senior editor, who said that focusing on Michelle Obama was a natural move, given the magazine's young female readership.

"We're expanding the definition of celebrity to include politics," he said.

"The girls have gone from wild to mild. Britney Spears is pulling her act together. Lindsay is quieter. Paris is out of the spotlight. Nicole Ritchie has gone from a woman with a heroin arrest to a soccer mom. Even if Britney was at her height, we'd still be covering politics," he said.

Jacobs said the magazine has covered politics throughout the primaries and published features by Hillary Clinton critiquing photos of herself, and articles written by former President Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama in support of their spouses.

In March, an interview with Barack Obama on Us Weekly's Web site received 253 percent more page views than an average story, according to a magazine spokesperson.

"I think it's a natural cycle that when you have a presidential year there is a rise in looking at politicians as celebrities," said Elizabeth Bird, an anthropologist at the University of South Florida who specializes in pop culture and the media.

"The public reached a breaking point," she said. "I think there was this sense of exhaustion with Britney and Lindsay and the others. It just became distasteful. People weren't curious anymore because there was nothing new to find out."

With the bad girls on the sidelines, editors are looking for new stories and new celebs to highlight.

"Editors are looking for different kinds of stories. They're looking for features and trying to spot trends," said Tia Brown, senior editor at In Touch Weekly. "People are interested in every aspect of the celebrity lifestyle, not just the craziness of their lives but the fashions they're wearing and the places they're traveling."

The paparazzi, who both filmed and fueled some of the crazier moments in last year's celebrity meltdowns, are also feeling the pinch of more a sedate culture in Hollywood.

"Certainly, sales of photos and videos of Britney have gone down since last year and the beginning of this year," said Brandy Navarre, vice president of the paparazzi photo agency X-17 Online. "She's just not out doing wild and unexpected things anymore."

"There is still a market for the weird and wacky, it's just other people doing it," Navarre said. "We've got shocking photos of Colin Farrell on the beach looking really skinny."

Colin Farrell? Really? That's it? Sigh.