Newsstand scion James Cohen is taking over the legendarily scurrilous Ur-Tabloid. But is David Pecker really gone?
Over the course of its 93-year history, The National Enquirer has ping-ponged between New York and Florida, broadsheet and tabloid, disrepute and semi-respectability, scandal chaser and scandal subject. On that note, it will be a while before America’s supermarket-checkout-rag of record can dig out of all the mud that resulted from its recent scandals involving a hush-money payout for Donald Trump and the alleged extortion of Jeff Bezos, the latter of which the Enquirer denies. Nevertheless, the legendarily scurrilous tabloid is indeed trying to dig itself out.
On Thursday, parent company American Media, Inc., whose C.E.O. is longtime Trump pal David Pecker, announced it is selling the Enquirer and its two sister titles, The Globe and The National Examiner, to James Cohen, heir to the Hudson News fortune, and the owner of an offshoot company called Hudson Media. The Washington Post, which first reported the sale, pegged the price tag at $100 million, a staggering sum for a publication with a virtually nonexistent online footprint and a print circulation that has plummeted from several million at the Enquirer’s peak to around 218,000 today. (Pecker said Thursday that the Enquirer, the Globe, and the Examiner “generate nearly $30 million in profit annually.”) As the Post also reported, debt-ridden A.M.I.’s main financial backer, the New Jersey-based hedge fund Chatham Asset Management, had become “disillusioned with the reporting tactics of the Enquirer and the legal and political pressure that resulted from them,” pushing Pecker to extricate the Enquirer from the rest of the company, which also publishes Us Weekly, In Touch, Radar Online, Men’s Journal, and various other gossip- and fitness-oriented titles.
A.M.I. didn’t disclose the terms of the deal other than to say it will bring the company’s debt load down to $355 million, and that it is expected to close “as soon as possible once the necessary regulatory approvals have been obtained.” The company also said that A.M.I. and Hudson Media will enter into a “multi-year service contract” in which A.M.I. will provide “publishing, financial, and distribution services,” which is not unheard of in media M&A. Still, that arrangement, combined with Cohen’s past business dealings and friendship with Pecker, and the fact that Enquirer employees are reportedly not moving from A.M.I.’s Lower Manhattan headquarters, will undoubtedly lead to curiosity about whether Pecker might retain at least a dash of influence over the embattled scandal sheet. (“The titles included in the sale will no longer be a part of American Media and will report to the new owner,” said an A.M.I. spokesman.)
The Enquirer’s current editor in chief, Dylan Howard, is expected to remain with A.M.I., where he also holds the title of chief content officer. Pecker and Howard struck a deal with the feds last year to avoid prosecution for their so-called “catch-and-kill” tactics, with which they bought, and then buried, the story of a former Playboy model who claimed, in the run-up to the 2016 election, that she’d had an affair with Trump.
Cohen, who retained Hudson Group’s wholesale distribution business after the company was sold to Swiss travel retailer Dufry in 2008, didn’t return a call or e-mails. In A.M.I.’s announcement, however, he touted the Enquirer’s broadcast and documentary collaborations with Investigation Discovery and Reelz, as well as its nascent theme-park business—who knew?—and the potential for “exponential growth and engagement through weekly series podcasts from the tabloid’s archives,” like its recent 12-part podcast, Fatal Voyage: The Mysterious Death of Natalie Wood. Cohen also told the New York Post, “It’s a great brand in a declining industry. We have to figure out ways to leverage the brand for the future. None of the details are there yet for circulation, production, and editorial.” Cohen’s competitive edge? “I’m the biggest and last independent [print-media distribution] wholesaler in the United States. I do the East Coast down to the Carolinas.”
Cohen is an under-the-radar media figure who will now surely invite more scrutiny as his plans for the Enquirer take shape. In addition to Hudson News, which his grandfather founded under a different name in 1918, Cohen was one of the initial backers of Jason Binn’s DuJour in 2012. The previous year, he partnered with Pecker to fund a $22 million buyout of the American edition of OK! from Richard Desmond. (Additionally, Hudson News distributes A.M.I.’s publications to newsstands.) Cohen and his wife, Lisa Fayne Cohen, are big art collectors who appear to have residences in the Hamptons and southeastern Bergen County, N.J.—close to Kellyanne Conway’s Alpine manse—where Hudson News is headquartered. As The New York Times noted, they created a quarterly art magazine in 2016 that has featured their own Hamptons “dream house” in its coverage.
Aside from Hudson News’s tabloid clients and his pending Enquirer ownership, Cohen has other connections to that world. His sister, Claudia Cohen, who died of cancer in 2007 and was married to billionaire tycoon Ronald Perelman, had been a gossip reporter for both the New York Post and the Daily News, where she wrote the memorable “I, Claudia” column in the 1980s. Cohen himself became a subject of tabloid coverage when his niece, Samantha Perelman, took him to court in a dispute over the estate of Cohen’s father, Robert B. Cohen, who died of a neurological disorder in 2012. The New York Post captured Cohen’s teary trial testimony in March 2014 , as he recalled the last time that he’d heard his father laugh: “He obviously loved his own joke, even though it was 40 years old.” (Samantha lost, by the way.)
At this point, can the Enquirer really recover from its massive audience decline, let alone the damage that was inflicted by the Trump and Bezos scandals? “The direction the paper was heading in had my father turning over in his grave,” said Paul David Pope, son of late, legendary National Enquirer creator Generoso “Gene” Pope Jr., who died in 1988, leading to the tabloid’s sale in 1989 to the company that would become A.M.I. “The paper represented no-holds-barred journalism”—including the journalistically frowned-upon practice of paying for stories—“but it was open: no agenda, no politics, no supporting any particular party or candidate. If it’s going to return to its original purpose, I’m happy. If it goes back to the kind of journalism my father created, I will feel more relieved.”
Martin Dunn, a veteran tabloid editor who wrote for the Enquirer under Gene Pope Jr. in the late 70s and early 80s, thinks that’s highly doubtful. Dunn remembers when the Enquirer was influential enough to recruit ferocious tabloid hounds from New York to Fleet Street to Australia. There were big salaries, company cars, first-class flights. Every Friday night, Dunn recalled, Pope Jr. treated employees to a veritable feast in the Enquirer’s newsroom, which was stationed in Palm Beach County, Florida, at the time.
“The glory days of the Enquirer are absolutely impossible to replicate,” Dunn told me. “First of all, Generoso Pope was very, very clear in who his audience was and what they wanted. There were three things that really got his attention, and these sound absolutely bizarre, but they were: arthritis, air conditioning, and autos. He loved stories about those things because they totally appealed to this sort of Middle American, supermarket-shopping-type crowd. All the celebrity stuff, that simply added to the frothy mix. Now, if you’re in the game primarily on the celebrity front, there are so many people who are also doing what you’re doing, and probably doing it better. If you’re the Enquirer, I just don’t know how you compete.”