J-14, a tabloid for 'tweens.

How popular culture gets popular.
March 18 2005 12:01 PM

A Tabloid for 'Tweens

J-14 is shoddy, scatological, and wildly successful.

Outrageously successful
Outrageously successful

Unless you're a female seventh grader who considers The O.C. star Rachel Bilson a paragon of earthly perfection, J-14 probably isn't part of your magazine-reading regimen. Nor should it be: There is little to recommend the publication, which revels in candid pictures of movie stars dislodging their wedgies and stories titled "My Crush Caught Me Taking a Dump!"

Nevertheless, J-14 is the No. 1 teen magazine on newsstands, where it sells more than 451,000 copies per month, 84,000 more than the venerable Seventeen. J-14 also beats out the industry's crop of "little sister" magazines, among them Teen People, Teen Vogue, and ELLEgirl. The 6-year-old magazine's success is even more impressive considering that these are otherwise dark days for teen magazines; last year, girls bought 1 million fewer teen magazines at the newsstand than they did in 2000, and longtime standard-bearers YM and Teen have both closed up shop. Why is J-14 flying off magazine racks while its competitors struggle?

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For starters, because J-14 was designed with newsstand customers—not subscribers—in mind. This strategy is a favorite of J-14 publisher Bauer Publications, which is also behind the budget celebrity magazine In Touch Weekly—you know, the one at the checkout line that looks like US Weekly's poor cousin. Single-copy sales are much more lucrative than subscriptions: Customers pay full price at the newsstand, after all, and there are no postage fees to eat into the margin. Plus, advertisers covet single-copy readers. Newsstand consumers pay a lot more attention to their magazines, which means they pay a lot more attention to the ads. According to a Simmons Marketing Research Bureau study that Bauer commissioned last year, newsstand buyers are 15 percent more likely to reread a magazine, and 15 percent more likely to recall specific ads. J-14 hasn't yet made great inroads with advertisers—the current 110-page issue features just 15 paid ads—but it is cannily configured to capture eyeballs at the newsstand.

J-14's covers, for example, are calculated to maximize each issue's appeal. It is the only teen title to feature multiple cover subjects; the March cover features 11 different celebrities, crudely Photoshopped into a veritable Mt. Rushmore of multiracial teen idolhood. Taking a page from the Tiger Beat playbook, J-14 also stuffs the magazine's center with "collectible" posters of teen stars and advertises this bonus on the cover in blaring yellow type. It's a strategy that's not evident in recent issues of Seventeen or Teen Vogue.

The celebrities aren't just in J-14's centerfold, though—they're absolutely everywhere. Bauer boasts that J-14 has more "entertainment edit" pages (read: celebrity photos) than any other teen magazine, with 64 percent of each issue dedicated to snapshots of Orlando Bloom, or scurrilous Paris Hilton rumors. (Teen People, the runner-up, dedicates just 40 percent of its editorial pages to the rich and famous.) Even so, the 64 percent figure is probably low, considering that even the beauty and fashion features (such as March's "Best Jeans for Your Butt") are festooned with pictures of Lindsay Lohan or Mischa Barton.

J-14 is obviously mimicking the adult-magazine trends that have won Us Weekly and Star massive circulation numbers: mean-spirited celebrity coverage interrupted by a minimum of copy. (The magazine has also cribbed its thrifty editorial strategy, for the most part using cheaply acquired photos rather than the expensive shoots you find in, say, Teen Vogue or Vogue.) Regardless of age, Americans seem to have an endless appetite for pictures of Jessica Simpson picking her boogers. But that terrain is still too uncouth for the editors at Seventeen or ELLEgirl. For better or worse, the classier teen magazines seem to have qualms about running endless stories on Ashlee Simpson's fear of public urination; J-14 does not.

But J-14 isn't just a cheap US Weekly imitator, like its sister publication In Touch Weekly. It also cleverly tweaks the celebrity formula for the junior-high set. Some female celebrities (like the ubiquitous Lindsay Lohan) appear in both In Touch Weekly and J-14, but the boys are a different story. J-14's pantheon of male hotness enshrines the sorts of fresh-faced TV stars that have been figuring in 13-year-old girls' dreams since David Cassidy's heyday. You probably couldn't pick blandly handsome Ice Princess co-star Trevor Blumas out of a crowd, but J-14 readers want to hear about his idea of the perfect date. (Surfing followed by a sunset cookout, in case you're wondering.) At the newsstand, a half-page shot of Blumas' hazel eyes is a better attention grabber than a service feature on the season's new lip glosses.

Despite all the focus on celebrity antics, though, J-14 smartly plays it safe with risqué material. The magazine knows that its audience's purchasing power comes direct from mom and dad, who might be a tad uncomfortable if their daughters become too worldly too quickly. So there's lots of bathroom humor, sure, but anyone who wants stories about bisexuality and the health consequences of unprotected fellatio had better turn to the smarter, more sophisticated pages of Seventeen. In J-14, Paris Hilton's sex tape isn't even called a sex tape—it's just an "Internet tape."

The result is that J-14 skews a lot younger than its competitors. According to Mediamark Research, the median age of a J-14 reader is 14.5, nearly two years younger than the median age for Seventeen readers. At 15 or 16 years old, the sector's onetime sweet spot, girls today are ready to transition to adult magazines, which are becoming ever more bite-sized and easily digestible. At those ages, they're definitely mature enough to handle the charticles in Lucky or InStyle, or the captioned photos in Us Weekly. Last year, for example, the median age of an Us Weekly reader dropped 7.7 percent.

'Tweens and their watchful parents, however, still aren't quite ready for grown-up fare, and J-14 has taken advantage of this opening. It has just the right tone to reach them—puerile but non-threatening, lowbrow but chaste. The Pulitzer will have to wait until there's a category for "Best Revelation About Ashlee Simpson's Urinary Habits," but Bauer probably doesn't mind settling for gobs of cash instead.

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