Jess Cagle: People and EW’s Future Lies in Digital, Video and TV

The roster of media mavens, moguls and bold face names spotted today at Michael's.

lunch at michaels It was Hollywood on the Hudson at Michael’s today, with Uma Thurman and Brian Grazer dining and dishing among the power lunch crowd. It seemed only fitting that I was joined by People and Entertainment Weekly’s editorial director Jess Cagle and group publisher Karen Kovacs, to chew over the current state of celebrity reporting and how digital is upping the ante for both brands.

Diane Clehane, Karen Kovacs and Jess Cagle
Diane Clehane, Karen Kovacs and Jess Cagle
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Fresh off this morning’s appearance on Good Morning America, where Jess revealed People had bestowed this year’s title of the World’s Most Beautiful Woman to Sandra Bullock, he explained the reasons behind selecting the 50 year-old Oscar-winning actress this way: “She just seemed like the right person to do right now. She is a woman who gets better and better over time and checks all the boxes. She’s got inner and outer beauty.” Jess told me he “couldn’t believe how many people asked him” if People was going to tap newlywed Amal Clooney for the title. (My two cents: I might give her Best Dressed, but Most Beautiful is another story.) He was quick to note that Sandra agreed to do a sit-down for the cover, despite having no current project to promote. Her only concern, he said, was that she didn’t want any photos of her son Louis used in the story, which was a non-issue for the magazine. “People does not run photos of celebrities’ kids unless they are at expected venues like red carpets.”

The days leading up to publication of the issue were a bit of a nail-biter since another perennial People favorite, Kate Middleton (that’s the Duchess of Cambridge to you), is about to give birth any day now. “I had the Duggars praying that she didn’t deliver early,” joked Jess, who, I suspect was only half-kidding. Karen told me that advertisers “want to be in the issue with the royal birth,” and her team had “a plan for every day of the week,” should the arrival of the British bouncing bundle of joy happen to coincide with the close of the Most Beautiful issue.

When Uma Thurman sailed by, the conversation turned to the fine art of finessing the celebrity interview. I asked Jess what he thought set People apart from the sea of virtually indistinguishable titles covering the same territory. “Access and trust,” he said. “I can’t parse the difference between Us Weekly and In Touch. With People, it’s trust.” Which is why advertisers have helped make People the largest and most profitable Time Inc. magazine media brand “delivering product to one in four women,” said Karen.

While the 41-year-old publishing behemoth is hardly showing its age, the future isn’t in print, explained Jess. With People.com racking up 72 million uniques last month, “our growth is in digital and video. People.com is poised for enormous growth.” Feeding the beast requires generating more content and video on demand, while leveraging People’s most popular franchises. Editorial director Will Lee has brought a much more dynamic and engaging look and feel to the site. Right now, the site is “teasing out” various pieces in the World’s Most Beautiful issue and will be doing more of those kinds of stories in the future. “We should be doing Sexiest Man content every day.” Veteran entertainment exec Richard Battista, the new evp of Time Inc. and president of People and Entertainment Weekly, is broadening the scope of prospective brand extensions into video production, television and licensing. People is in the “preliminary stages” of “making deals with well-known talent” to host new video projects, too. As for bringing back last year’s kudocast, neither Jess nor Karen would say the People Magazine Awards will be back next year. “An awards show might make more sense for EW,” said Jess.