2009’s Best- and Worst-Selling Covers: The Jackson ‘Five’


Michael Jackson is the Newest Chapter in Sudden Celeb Death Sells Best…

The “king of pop’s” passing on June 25, 2009, from an apparent overdose of prescription drugs fulfilled the A-list-celebrity-who-dies-unexpectedly prerequisite for newsstand immortality. Happened to Princess Diana in 1997 and John F. Kennedy, Jr., in 1999, and like them, Jackson’s post-mortem will be newsstand fodder with the “How did he really die?” curiosity. The involuntary manslaughter indictment of Jackson physician Dr. Conrad Murray (who pled not guilty) should keep the story on the front-burner just as did the inquests that followed the deaths of Diana and Kennedy.

By contrast, the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Patrick Swayze lacked the shock value, and that of Brittany Murphy lacked the celebrity A-list value.

Yet, Jackson’s death did not have the newsstand impact of the 2008 election of Barack Obama. The two were best-sellers for Newsweek / People / Time, but second-half-2009 sales were -41.3%/-10.0%/-34.9%, respectively. Us Weekly, which had a best for Jackson but not for Obama, was +1.9%.

…But It’s Not Easy Selling Green–Or Jay Leno

Newsweek’s worst-seller last year was The Greenest Big Companies in America (September 28), which reflects the environment being of minor interest to money and jobs in a bad economy. In a good economic year, green would typically produce more green.

Time newsstand buyers’ September 14 rejection of Leno coincided with the premiere of his prime-time NBC talk show. Had the network honchos read Time’s tea leaves, the ugliness that followed over the next six months–with Leno’s prime-time cancellation accompanied by his displacement of Conan O’Brien at The Tonight Show –might have been avoided.

Were it not for the Michael Jackson tragedy, the hottest celebrity story of 2009 would very well have been the Jon & Kate Plus 8 phenomenon, as the heretofore private lives of Jon & Kate Gosselin and their twins/sextuplets became very public thanks to The Learning Channel’s reality series. Soap opera was peaking last spring, pre-Jackson, with the We Might Split Up rumor in People (May 25), which proved to be its best-seller aside from Jackson and several perennials (see chart). Cover line also proved to be fact.

President Obama’s popularity took a post-inauguration dive, and The Economist’s acerbic, second-best-selling This Is Going to Hurt (June 27) is no compliment when there is a syringe in his hand. Nor was The Economist’s worst-selling Vandalism (September 19) on the trade imbalance with China. The President remained best-selling popular in Canada with Maclean’s (February 2) and L’actualité (February), but after the Vancouver Olympics, Sydney Crosby and Joannie Rochette are easily more popular up north now.

Don’t “blame Canada” for People’s Jessica Simpson worst-seller (February 16). Instead, blame last winter’s distribution fiasco. And blame Bernie Madoff’s greed and selfishness for turning him into New York magazine’s best-selling Monster (March 2).

Serena Williams’ Body was ESPN’s 2009 best-seller, but Shakira’s body was worst for Rolling Stone, where newsstand buyers were American Idol-ized by Adam Lambert. Tiger Woods “girlfriend” Rachel Uchitel was OK!’s worst, while tabloid “veterans” Jennifer Aniston/Brad Pitt were Together Again! as InTouch’s best. George Washington–who never told a lie–was NYM’s worst. Read more best-worst-selling coverage in min.