Appear for an interview with Matt Lauer on the NBC "Today" show. Give the photos to the tabloids, which will run them in full color on their front pages. Then, on Friday, release the pictures in glossy form to the world on newsstands everywhere, for an increased cover price of $3.99.
Instead, days before their official publication, the pictures of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt cuddling their days-old infant first appeared on Gawker, PerezHilton.com and about two dozen other gossip blogs and Web sites. Some photos were taken from a bootleg copy of Hello magazine, which had obtained the rights in Britain to the photos for a reported $3.5 million. Others that appeared later were from copies of People that the magazine says may have been stolen before official distribution. Within an hour of the first postings, lawyers for the magazine began unleashing cease-and-desist letters to the offending Web sites.
But did the Internet publication of the pictures really undermine People's publicity plan?
Magazine analysts say the blogs may have actually done the magazine a favor by drumming up even more interest that may translate into higher newsstand sales. But the episode does show that it is no longer business as usual for celebrity magazines, as gossip blogs take on an ever-larger role.
People magazine has been there before--most memorably when it planned to publish the exclusive pictures of Britney Spears's newborn son, only to see them reproduced prematurely on Web sites--but never with pictures worth so much and illegally posted so widely.
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People's editors, who had just lived through an intense all-night bidding war that lasted by some accounts into Sunday morning, were livid when the photos were first leaked on Tuesday.
"As a guy who went through all the efforts to get these pictures, my initial reaction was anger," Larry Hackett, the managing editor of People, said in an interview on Friday. "Someone's taking your stuff."
The photos, after all, had come at a price: The New York Post reported that People had paid $4.1 million for the exclusive North American rights to the photos. Hackett said the number was inaccurate, but declined to name the real figure. "It was a substantial amount of money" was all he would say.
"Pics of the Messiah!" trumpeted the gossip blog DListed, with pictures that contained the tell-tale fold down the middle that are produced when a magazine is pressed onto a photo scanner. At PerezHilton.com, the pictures were enhanced with white handwriting over them. ("Hot Pop" on a picture of Pitt; "The Little Ladies" was written over a photo of Jolie, Shiloh and her other daughter, Zahara.)
A post on Gawker said the first letter from Nicholas Jollymore, a lawyer for People's parent company, Time Inc., came within an hour of the photo's appearance on the blog.
Then Gawker reprinted an e-mail exchange between its managing editor, Lockhart Steele, and Jollymore.
Meanwhile, Hackett was interviewed by Lauer on the "Today" show on Thursday morning, the same day the pictures appeared--free of charge--on the covers of The New York Post and The New York Daily News.
By late Friday afternoon, Gawker had cried uncle. "This time, turns out that posting the pics actually is illegal," a post read. "Or so we're told. Our lawyer could just be drunk and not wanting to deal. Whatever."
But magazine analysts say the widespread posting of exclusive photos on Web sites could feed sales on the newsstand, where People will make extra revenue by raising the price of the magazine to $3.99 from its usual $3.49.
"I think it gins up the publicity machine," said Martin Walker, a magazine consultant and the chairman of Walker Communications in New York. "It just creates more buzz, more noise, so more people will buy the magazine."
Hackett conceded that all of the reproductions of the photographs might increase interest in the magazine. "I must confess, I think it helps," he said. "Clearly, the blogs have betrayed a huge amount of interest in these photographs and people want to see them."
But Gawker, for one, had a different interpretation. Jessica Coen, the blog's co-editor, told USA Today on Thursday that "a few less people are going to buy it if they can see it online." On Friday, Steele, Gawker's managing editor, declined an interview, saying only that he is letting the posts on Gawker speak for themselves.
Despite the steep price, acquiring the photos is both a short-term and long-term strategy, Hackett said. In the short term, publicity surrounding the newsstand sales could lift sales and generate positive publicity for the magazine.
But in the long term, People wants to reaffirm that it is the place where these kinds of high-profile photos will appear. "I would not want to give Us Weekly or any other magazine the kind of traction in this arena," Hackett said.
Analysts say that People should expect enormous sales of the issue, possibly as many as 5 million copies in a week. People is by far the leader in the weekly celebrity magazine category, with an average circulation of 3.7 million in the last six months of 2005, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Wenner Media's Us Weekly has a circulation of 1.7 million, while American Media's Star has 1.4 million.
But as large as People's reach is, it is a mainstream audience and may not overlap with readers of blogs with a sardonic edge, said Robert S. Boynton, the director of the magazine program at New York University and the author of "The New New Journalism."
"The blogosphere is so self-important, do you really think the same people who read blogs are going to be buying People magazine?" Boynton said. "I just can't see that the blogosphere is really as important an economic factor as something like this when it comes to a mass-marketed commercial magazine."
Even if the audience overlaps, the glossy pictures printed in People have their own appeal, said Samir Husni, a magazine analyst and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi.
"The blogs are whetting the appetite of the public, but they want to see the real thing," Husni said. "To this addicted public, it is not real unless it is in their hands, on their laps, in their bath tub."
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