The Enquirer exposed!

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Enquirer's new editor-in-chief Dylan Howard. (llustration by Gluekit (photo: SplashNews))
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It was business as usual down in the Financial District on a recent Wednesday afternoon. Wall Street wags were clustered al fresco on their lunch breaks. Ferries docked and departed from their creaky slips at Pier 11. Tourists clogged the cobblestone corridors of South Street Seaport. And on the second floor of an East River office tower, the editors of America’s most notorious tabloid sat around a conference table picking out their next victims.

Matt Lauer was in the crosshairs thanks to a photo, displayed on a flat-screen monitor mounted on the wall, of the embattled “Today Show” anchor boarding his “love boat” with a “mystery woman.” Tom Cruise was the target of new “nightmare rumors,” as The National Enquirer would squawk the following week, “involving same sex love affairs.” Not even Michelle Obama had escaped the scrutiny of the sensational celebrity scourge, which assigned one of its reporters to compile a list of the first lady’s current and former aides. A certain blonde bombshell of yore (you’ll find out who soon enough) was on the story budget, too, having agreed to “strip down to a bikini at age 67,” as the Enquirer’s new editor-in-chief, Dylan Howard, boasted.

An impish grin washed over his face as he turned to features editor Casey Brennan for more details: “Two bikinis or one bikini? I think it should be two bikinis.”

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The cherubic 32 year old was installed in the Enquirer’s top masthead slot when American Media Inc. moved the title back to Manhattan from the company’s flagship Florida headquarters this May. His ambitions are much bigger than bikinis.

“I want to break the next John Edwards story,” Howard told me over lunch before the editors’ meeting, referring to the former presidential candidate’s downfall at the hands of a lengthy Enquirer investigation. The takedown unfolded between 2007 and 2009, revealing that Edwards had cheated on his cancer-stricken wife with a campaign staffer who bore him a child.

Initially dismissed by the mainstream media, it was an exhaustive feat of reporting that transported the weekly scandal sheet from supermarket checkout lines to the ivory tower of American journalism, where the Enquirer emerged as an improbable contender for a 2010 Pulitzer Prize.

Four years later, the brand is covered in mud again. In February, three days after Phillip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose, the Enquirer touted a SHOCKING! interview (to borrow the tabloid parlance) with David Bar Katz, a playwright and close friend of the deceased actor who claimed in the article that he and Hoffman were cocaine-guzzling lovers. Problem was, Katz had not been sleeping with Hoffman, had never so much as seen him use drugs and, above all, had never spoken with a reporter from the Enquirer —though someone pretending to be Katz apparently had. The error, which occurred under the stewardship of soon-be-ousted editor Tony Frost, resulted in a retraction, a libel settlement and a massive serving of crow, putting the publication back in a position it has known all too well over the course of its 88-year history: the opposite side of respectability.

“It was a black eye,” said Howard, looking sharp in his tortoise-shell glasses and dark-blue linen Ludlow suit.

He was sipping a Sprite while waiting for a medium-well New York strip steak at Delmonico’s, a 177-year-old workhorse of a restaurant just a few blocks from the Enquirer’s new offices at 4 New York Plaza and Howard’s one-bedroom apartment at a prominent residential building nearby. “Every media organization has goofed at some point.”

Howard, a charismatic Aussie whose polished looks and cocksure demeanor seem to announce a high-low sensibility that is common at the upper echelons of the tabloid world, believes that his regime won’t be known for goofs, but for the type of shoe-leather sleuthing he says the Enquirer has gotten away from over the past few years. The rowdy band of pirates he’s recruited for the mission range from New York City tabloid alums like Doug Montero, Lachlan Cartwright and Jessica Guzman to Fleet Street staple Mike O’Brien, Hollywood reporter Andrea Simpson and former Maxim executive editor Mike Hammer.

Howard says the Enquirer’s reporting is rigorously fact-checked, despite sourcing that sometimes has a price-tag attached or looks thinner than a supermodel’s waistline. “One of the greatest lies perpetuated about the Enquirer is that the stories are incorrect,” he said.

Still, Enquirer copy will probably always be taken with a grain of salt by members of the establishment press. When I told Columbia Journalism School dean Steve Coll about Howard’s plans to shore up the Enquirer’s investigative chops, he said he’d hold the publication to the same standards as every other news outlet: “You can’t pay for information and you should try to be as transparent and accountable as possible about your investigations.”

The Enquirer would beg to differ on that first point. “Anyone who has information and wants to get paid, call me,” said Howard. “My checkbook is open.”

IN THE FEW MONTHS SINCE HOWARD took the helm, the Enquirer has dispatched a reporter to Arizona to probe the “DEATHBED DIVORCE BOMBSHELL” of ’70s pop icons (and Enquirer regulars) Captain and Tennille; dug into “scandalous claims,” via surveillance video and a polygraph test, that Kendra Wilkinson’s “sleazebag” husband cheated on her with a transsexual while she was pregnant; and exposed the euthanization of 1,200 “hero hounds” that served with the U.S. military in Afghanistan and elsewhere. “If you read the Enquirer of the last 10 years,” said Howard, “you wouldn’t see a story like that.” He promises he has a much bigger trick up his sleeve—a so-called “black-ops” exclusive that will “shake the foundations of Washington D.C.” if it actually comes together. (It hadn’t as of press time.)

If all of this rings a bell, it should. Once the stuff of alien sightings and two-headed cows, the Enquirer’s modern history has been a series of ebbs and flows in terms of its credibility. It had a surge of legitimacy in the early ’90s thanks to its dogged coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial. Several years later, it got props for dialing back some of its more lurid content under the editorship of Steve Coz. During the John Edwards era of editor-in-chief David Perel, which coincided with the Enquirer’s famous Tiger Woods exposé, the publication was a veritable media darling, enjoying generous coverage in esteemed titles from The New York Times and The Washington Post to GQ and Playboy.

“Among supermarket tabloids, the Enquirer definitely has the reputation for being the most credible and for taking on some of the most difficult subjects,” said George Rush, the legendary gossip columnist. Then came the caveat. “Their relevance has definitely slipped,” he said. “They have more competition than they had at their height.” That includes an onslaught of digital competitors like Gawker, TMZ and even the Enquirer’s AMI sister site, Radar Online, of which Howard is editorial director.

Relevance isn’t the only thing that’s slipped. At $4.99 a pop, newsstand sales, which make up the lion’s share of profits, are down to fewer than 500,000 copies from more than a million 10 years ago and a total peak circulation of around 6 million in the late ’70s. AMI, which also publishes checkout rags like Star and Globe as well as a stable of fitness books, says the Enquirer generates $100 million in annual revenue, with major advertisers including ABC, NBC and Turner. A $1 price increase across AMI’s celebrity titles in March helped offset losses within the segment, which saw its advertising and subscription revenues slide $6.4 million during the fiscal year that ended in March 2013, when American media was saddled with $489.1 million in outstanding debt two years after emerging from bankruptcy.

(The company is now being sold to creditors in a deal that will value it at $515 million while providing $10 million worth of investable cash.)

As with news organizations everywhere, the Enquirer’s editorial budget hasn’t exactly been growing, and numerous long-time employees, including newsroom heavyweights like Larry Haley and John Blosser, did not join the Enquirer when it moved back to New York. In the words of one skeptical former Enquirer journalist: “It’s an uphill battle. Good fucking luck!”

Rewind to 2005: Faced with a precipitous audience decline, AMI C.E.O. David Pecker moved the publication from Florida to New York and tapped Paul Field, an energetic 33-year-old executive from the British tabloid circuit, to revamp the Enquirer with the help of a small army of Fleet Street talent. Field promised hard-hitting scoops befitting the cut-throat tactics of the U.K. tabloid press. “The new Enquirer will still be doing a lot of celebrity gossip, but it will also carry a lot more national crime stories,” Field told New York magazine at the time. “The Enquirer needs to brand itself as America’s national newspaper.” A year and a half later, the British invasion came to an end, with Field and most of his troops heading back to Blighty and the Enquirer heading back to Boca Raton amid a $10 million downsizing at its parent company.

At least one old-timer is optimistic that Howard’s reign will yield better results. “It couldn’t have come at a better time. We needed a real jolt, something to freshen us up,” said longtime executive editor Barry Levine, whose office is like a life-sized scrapbook of Enquirer memorabilia. “He’s young and energetic, and on top of that, he has a sense of the mentality of the Enquirer readership and the types of stories that work.”

The youngest of two brothers whose parents own a business that wholesales pop-culture collectibles, Howard grew up in a coastal town about an hour southwest of Melbourne and started working at a Murdoch paper fresh out of high school while attending RMIT and Deakin universities. He later made a name for himself as a sports reporter at Australia’s Seven Network, where he was done in by a controversial 2008 drug-testing scoop that drew criticism because it involved paying for and publishing two footballers’ medical records. Howard then moved to the U.S., landing jobs at Reuters, RadarOnline, Star and Celebuzz before ultimately settling down at AMI, where he now oversees a combined newsroom of 57, across Radar and the Enquirer, in the macro title of vice president of news. He said he prepared himself for the Enquirer editorship by reading books like The Godfather of the Tabloid and buying up hundreds of old back issues on eBay. “The most important thing to me was to become a student of the Enquirer,” he said.

Howard got mixed reviews from sources who have worked with him (and who asked not to be identified), but he says his track record speaks for itself. His LinkedIn profile is a lengthy list of accolades from the L.A. Press Club; his greatest hits include Mel Gibson’s racist rants, Charlie Sheen’s drug test (an autographed copy of which hangs on the wall in Howard’s fastidious office) and an investigation into an A-list poker ring. “I have a desire to want to win every single day,” he said.

Back at the editor’s meeting, Howard and his cohort were discussing a more recent coup. Their July 14 cover (Howard’s third) promoted a “world exclusive” interview with a former drug dealer who has claimed to have pedaled heroin to Angelina Jolie. It was accompanied by screen-grabs from “never-before-seen footage of [the] young actress in a drug den.” On July 8, the story and video were cross-posted to Radar Online, whose 14.5 million monthly visitors (per internal analytics) trump the 375,000 (per comScore, which skews lower) that have been visiting nationalenquirer.com on average over the past 12 months. The following day, a competing outlet dumped a bucket of cold water on the story, with an anonymous “tabloid industry insider” suggesting, “The fact of the matter is that AMI is trying to make a splash right now. They’re moving up from Boca to New York and they want some buzz.”

“The great irony,” said Howard, “is that someone took a cheap shot at us, but they still run the video on their website, because they still want the story.” He smiled, knocking his knuckles on the table. “They’ll suffer the consequences,” he said, jovially, following it up with his newsroom’s unofficial motto: “Defeat is not an option.”

This article appeared in the August issue of Capital magazine.