When coverage of vital affairs of state is so contaminated by disinformation and lies, it might sound pompous to identify trust as a crucial component of modern celebrity news.
It’s a genre that has been buffeted like no other by the rise of social media, which has undermined its business model and challenged the need for its very existence.
Today’s celebrities can go straight to their millions of fans with unfiltered messaging on Instagram. The Kardashians are bona fide media moguls who have set new standards in dictating their own news agendas. The Duchess of Sussex has shown a new intolerance of negative press coverage by taking publishers to court.
Yet there could still be a viable way back for celebrity journalism. As much as social media has been empowering for those famous people who desire an even louder voice and an even greater selling capacity, so it has brought new problems. Trolls and bots conspire to poison a space where audiences are unsettled by intrusive data capture and relentless influencer marketing.
Charlotte Seligman believes there is a sweet spot for trusted celebrity journalism somewhere at the intersection of three media formats: glossy print magazines, daytime television and digital. Seligman was recently recruited as the new editor of OK, having been lured by publisher Reach from ITV’s This Morning, where she worked for more than eight years and was head of news.
Seligman acknowledges to The Drum that OK is a magazine that is prepared to contemplate product placement, the payment of money to interviewees and, in some cases, copy approval; things that would be anathema to some news organisations. Yet she takes the view that such arrangements are part of a process of building trust between the celebrities, their agents, the magazine and its readers.
“Nearly all my negotiations are done verbally over the phone – I deal with people that I know, they know me and trust me, I have got a very good reputation. If I say something I don’t go back on it. We get to the point where we are mutually happy,” she says.
Caroline Waterston, Reach’s group editor-in-chief for OK and New magazines, endorses the point. “Trust is huge,” she says. “We know we are trusted because not only are [celebrities] coming to us once but they are coming back time and again.”
Hiring the new editor was a coup for Waterston. Seligman was instrumental in changing the reputation of This Morning to a show that broke news with its candid interviews on the sofa. Instead of turning up only for promotional opportunities, celebrity guests found themselves in confessional mood. “That was what I changed and that is what I want to aspire to in this magazine,” she says. “I have fantastic contacts across the board and even in the 11 weeks I have been here I have brought some really good exclusive content.”
For the bumper Christmas edition, she has landed an ‘at home’ exclusive with her former This Morning colleagues Eamonn Holmes and Ruth Langsford, including an interview where Langsford talks for the first time about the recent death of her sister. “She broke down during the interview which we make quite a big point of when we come to write it,” says Seligman. “I can categorically say that had I not had the relationship with Eamonn and Ruth they would not be on the cover of this magazine for this Christmas issue.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship. “I have contacts all across daytime TV,” says Seligman. When ITV’s Loose Women presenter Saira Khan gave OK a daring photo-spread and talked about her lack of body confidence, she went on the TV show to discuss the experience. Actress Beverley Callard revealed to Seligman that she was leaving ITV’s Coronation Street after 30 years. “When I knew that information she had not even told the executive producer on the (soap).” OK photographed Callard as “The Queen of the Street” and gave the follow-up story to Loose Women.
Interviewing Seligman’s old colleagues and friends at ITV will only take OK so far, no matter how extensive her contacts book. She has plans to reshape the magazine, introducing new columnists ( “Somebody who has a bit of life experience, not a 21-year-old reality TV star.”) Having hired a videographer to record “behind-the-scenes” films of OK photoshoots, she hopes to create a new digital format where magazine interviewees do a filmed Q&A with an OK presenter. “We would take our own sofa and host and get a new interview out of it that we can sell on and brand, so it becomes very much like This Morning online if you like.”
Landing these big interviews will be the ongoing challenge. Seligman, who wanted to be a journalist from the age of 10 and has worked on Sunday tabloids as well as in television, believes in traditional contacts journalism. Scrolling Instagram 24-7 is not the route to celebrity scoops. “You do not get stories from sitting at your desk every day, you have to go out and you have to make those relationships your own.”
Although she thinks OK can land stories “because we are trustworthy and people believe in us to do it well” she says that subjects are not guaranteed that they won’t get awkward questions.
“If they are coming to us off the back of a story that has broken they are going to have to discuss it because it’s no secret that sometimes we pay for our interviews and if we are paying money for somebody to sit down and be very open and honest then they are going to have to talk about all those things,” she says.
“It’s about having an understanding on both sides that we will be firm but fair. We might offer copy approval, for example, if it makes a celebrity feel more at ease. But they won’t have us wrapped round their fingers. If you want to change certain things because perhaps it wasn’t written exactly as they liked it or it’s a little unfair perhaps, we can word it in a different way. We will always try and get the best line but it’s about working with those people to get that.”
Restoring OK to its former glories won’t be easy. The magazine, founded by Richard Desmond’s Northern & Shell in 1993, was selling up to 650,000 copies in its heyday. By early this year circulation had dropped to 126,017. The OK audience skews 89% female and the magazine is still overwhelmingly dependent on newsstand sales.
OK has found an audience on the digital magazine platform Readly, where it is the fourth most popular among more than 4,500 titles. Its old rival Hello is at number one.
Waterston acknowledges that the market has become harder, not just because of the wider decline of print media, but because celebrities opened up their own channels. “That’s the reality that they can do their own media now through social, through Instagram and Twitter. They perhaps felt that they perhaps didn’t need traditional print as much,” she says. “I think the reality is that actually they are now realising that while social is super it’s not suited to everybody and so therefore there is a place for traditional media.”
She was encouraged by Meghan Markle’s decision to give an interview to Vogue. “It’s a different type of magazine to OK but even royalty believes there is still a place for traditional print.” She has challenged Seligman to land a similar royal scoop, as well as a cover story with her former This Morning colleague Holly Willoughby.
But she is also conscious that recent covers with reality TV star Billie Faiers (172,553 circulation) and a wedding shoot with Rio Ferdinand and Kate Wright (128,432) proved bigger sellers than the issue highlighting the royal christening of baby Archie (125,341). “We have got to remember that we have a great royal following but we need to extend from that and have other content that is as attractive if not more attractive to our readership.”
She seeks “unpretentious elegance” from the magazine and wants it to be “aspirational. inspirational but attainable”. Above all, “it’s about our product being seen as a luxury product within the market”.
OK claims to be making new progress with advertising clients since Reach acquired it in 2018 and Waterston says it met its commercial targets last year.
Seligman says she can “woo celebrity” in a diﬀerent way from her time in television, which is subject to strict compliance rules. “Gosh, I could tell you the number of times I was approached to have a celebrity who was promoting something or other and you have to turn it down no matter how good it is,” she says.
Celebrity photoshoots can unlock partnership opportunities which other media owners cannot offer, she thinks. “I had a conversation the other day about some product placement and somebody in advertising came to me and said, ‘What celebrities are you thinking about doing at home next year?’ This person was interested in doing some sort of collaboration where if we do a fabulous ‘at home’ [shoot] perhaps we do some product placement. I think that is where we can really benefit perhaps where other people don’t have the access.”
Seligman says nothing must be allowed to compromise OK’s “luxury magazine” status. “That’s why readers are coming to you,” she says. “This is the only magazine I would have left This Morning for because it retains that exclusivity as a glamorous magazine.”
She is convinced that if she can persuade the right celebrities to take a break from promotional media and speak about what really matters to them then the audience will be there, in print and online. “We live in a very celebrity obsessed culture,” she says. “Everybody is nosey aren’t they?”