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Kai Ryssdal: Newspapers, as we know, are having more than their share of problems — falling circulation and ad revenues going the same way. Less well known, but remarkably similar, is how clobbered magazines have been. And while there’s always the supermarket checkout line to keep tabs on what Britney’s doing, People, US Weekly and the rest simply aren’t selling as many copies. That doesn’t only mean thinner magazines and less coverage of B-list celebrities, it means less work for the paparazzi who snap their every move. Marketplace’s Jennifer Collins caught up with the people behind the flashbulbs.
JENNIFER COLLINS: Raul Guerra spends hours staring into the sunglasses of nameless Angelenos.
RAUL Guerra: Those are nobodies. They’re not even important for their moms.
Guerra’s looking for people who’ll sell magazines. Maybe it’s Jennifer Aniston and her ex-boyfriend John Mayer in an embrace. Or better yet, in a screaming match. Or the get of a lifetime, Jen and her ex-husband Brad Pitt in an embrace followed by Brad and Angie in a screaming match.
Today, though, it’s none of those.
GUERRA: That’s the guy from the Rolling Stones. They’re getting out, they’re getting out.
It’s Ron Wood, aging guitarist for the Rolling Stones. Rumor has it he left his wife.
And the woman he’s with is very young.
GUERRA: Hey Ron, some more pictures please. There you go, thank you.
A few years ago, a shot like that might be worth thousands. Today, a couple hundred, if anything. Ron’s not worth what he used to be. But then again neither are the younger stars. In the past few months, Guerra says his income has dropped as much as 40 percent. And he’s never sure what will sell.
Guerra: You’d be surprised sometimes. Like, hey, fine, this is a nice picture. You’re happy at the end of the day. But the next morning, you know, it didn’t sell. So it’s unpredictable to say really what they want right now.
“They” are the celebrity magazines: People, US Weekly, Star. And they’ve upended the paparazzi business. They switched a few years ago from running only shots of celebs doing glamorous things to using shots of stars doing everything — like picking up after the dog or getting the dry cleaning. The market for paparazzi photos exploded.
Ben Evansted runs the agency that sells Raul Guerra’s shots.
BEN Evansted: So after that there was kind of this gold rush period where a ton of people got into the business.
With so many pictures on the market, prices started to drop. Then the recession hit. Fewer people bought magazines. Advertisers cut back. Revenues took a dive.
EVANSTED: A year ago the magazines wouldn’t argue over $50 or $100 difference. Now if you can’t meet their price, they’ll drop the photo.
Meanwhile the price of being a Paparazzo’s still high. You need top-notch cameras, a car that can handle a chase and a Roledex full of informants. You also need a fat travel budget to get the real money shots like Chris Brown and Rihanna making amends at a secluded location.
Bonnie Fuller is the former editor of US Weekly. Her idea to run pictures of celebrities acting just like us — you know, the whole dry cleaning thing — helped double the magazine’s newsstand sales. But these days, she says, it’s the big stories that really sell magazines.
BONNIE Fuller: You know, you get something new. You’re going to excite the audience, and they’re going to run out to the newsstand.
Fuller says experienced paparazzi will stay in the business. Raul Guerra says he already has an exit strategy: he’s taking night classes, working toward a graphic design degree.
I’m Jennifer Collins for Marketplace.
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