Invasion of the Brits

British red-top staff are leading the 'National Enquirer' relaunch
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The Independent Online

It is the ear of one of Hollywood's most famous celebrities, and it is not looking too healthy. Plastered across the cover of America's new-look National Enquirer, which officially relaunches this week, is a graphic close-up of Michael Douglas's plastic surgery.

It is the ear of one of Hollywood's most famous celebrities, and it is not looking too healthy. Plastered across the cover of America's new-look National Enquirer, which officially relaunches this week, is a graphic close-up of Michael Douglas's plastic surgery.

The fact that Douglas is one half of an image-obsessed couple and that the magazine looks significantly different is intentional. This once famous (or infamous) American national institution - whose heyday included exclusive pictures of Elvis Presley in his coffin and revelations that Judy Garland was not properly buried more than a year after her death - has had its own facelift. According to the new strapline, the Enquirer will be: "Bigger, Bolder, Better".

If there is an air of familiarity for British readers - a version is sold in the UK - it is not surprising. Its new editor is Paul Field, a 33-year-old prodigy of British tabloids who was poached last year from a job as associate editor of The Sun to mastermind the Enquirer's relaunch for its owner, American Media.

Field, who has also worked at The People, Sunday Mirror and The Mail on Sunday, has brought with him a handful of Fleet Street veterans including Paul Henderson, the former Mail on Sunday investigations editor who will oversee news and investigations at the Enquirer. Another recruit is Steve Dennis, who, according to the Daily Mirror's former editor Piers Morgan, pulled off "one of the greatest coups by a journalist in Fleet Street history" when he broke a string of revelations from Princess Diana's butler Paul Burrell.

More than 20 British journalists who were hand selected by Field have crossed the Atlantic to be part of the new Enquirer, which has just moved its headquarters from sunny Boca Raton in Florida to New York. There are rumours that more are coming.

Among the old American staff, including some with 20 years' service, there has been something of a bloodbath. A total of 23 journalists have left (of whom eight have been moved on to other American Media titles).

The new team's task is to inject some British tabloid pizzazz into a magazine which traces its history back to the 1950s but has, in recent years, run out of steam. Field says the revamped Enquirer will "go back to stories about celebrities, crime, lots of stories about real life and real people". Somewhere between the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, it will "know how to write a headline, have great pictures and change pace".

If successful, the relaunch will recall the Enquirer's glory days in the 1970s, when it was run by another Brit, Iain Calder, a Scot who learned his trade at the Daily Record.

While there have always been far-fetched tales of UFOs, psychic dogs and headlines such as "I cut out her heart and stomped on it", the Enquirer has also notched up stories which have gone down in the annals of enduring celebrity and crime scoops.

The magazine registered its largest circulation ever - six million - in August 1977 when it ran the pictures of Elvis in his coffin, taken surreptitiously by a Presley cousin recruited by the Enquirer. More recently it broke the story that Jesse Jackson, the prominent black rights activist and a Baptist minister, had an affair and fathered a child with his mistress.

Field says during the past decade the Enquirer has "established itself as a very legitimate source of serious hard-hitting news". One of its most significant stories was about O J Simpson. The magazine unearthed pictures of Simpson wearing an unusual pair of Italian Bruno Magli shoes, which matched bloody footprints found at the scene of the murder.

In the past couple of years, he adds, the magazine "has really frustrated the reader" and "stopped talking to its core audience of women who have busy lives and hold down jobs and have families".

Its mistake was to offer too many anodyne stories about stars, and to try to compete in the shark-infested market of celebrity magazines. The Enquirer lost out badly, and its circulation recently slumped below 1.5 million. On the key measure in the US of magazines sold off the shelf, as opposed to subscription copies, the Enquirer has sunk to the low 900,000s.

Field believes that the magazine has underplayed many of its recent scoops. "When it had an exclusive interview with Bill Cosby, the headline was 'Bill Cosby tells all'. There was nothing inventive about that headline."

He promises that things will be different from now on. The front page of the new issue teases readers with the contents of Britney Spears's will - "we reveal who gets MILLIONS and who gets NOTHING" - and it poses the question: "Jacko: did he abuse Macaulay Culkin?" Field says he is not interested, at least at first, in trying to attract new readers. He wants to get back the typical reader - a 41-year-old woman living in America's heartland - who has deserted the Enquirer for glossier rivals such as In Touch Weekly.

The type of plastic surgery disaster story the Enquirer is splashing on always attracts readers in their droves, says Field. The magazine also has a list of celebrities who seem to pump up sales, including James Gandolfini and Edie Falco, stars of The Sopranos.

One major way Field plans to boost circulation is to get out the chequebook and pay for big stories. While the practice is common at British tabloids, in the US even the practice is seen as taboo. "We are going to be completely upfront about it," says Field, who is running an advert in this week's edition saying readers who call in with interesting tip-offs will receive rewards.

He believes his reporters' British accents are a "calling card" which will help to persuade people to talk to them. There is also an advantage in the fact that even the largest US papers have only a limited interest in national stories. Apparently the Enquirer's new foot soldiers recently sent on assignments by Field have wondered "where is everybody else?".

Indeed, such is the current lack of competition on national stories that Field and American Media have been worried that a rival news magazine might be launched. Field stresses that any competitors would face a "massive risk" from their advertisers. In the US advertisers are more snobbish, and do not like it if publishers of upmarket magazines also have the likes of the National Enquirer in their stable.

As for the success of the reinvigorated Enquirer, there are certainly people back in the UK who would not be sorry to see Field stumble. Perhaps inevitably for someone who has pole-vaulted over many more experienced journalists in his career, some say Field is not likeable, while others say he is extremely confident but also very able.

With the deadline for the first issue of the new Enquirer just hours away, he is affable and chatty, and wants to know what The Independent's Media Weekly thinks of the front cover. As for his success, that will depend on what busy Midwest women think of the lurid pictures of Michael Douglas.