PEOPLE Magazine -- Why Robots Can't Curate

Why Dick Stolley Got it Right

If you deconstruct it, PEOPLE Magazine is little more than ink on paper. A glossy weekly book of celebrities and the human drama that surrounds them. And yet that analysis is so clearly wrong. PEOPLE magazine is a wildly successful magazine that threaded the needle between celebrity and humanity... bringing a unique perspective that remained distinctive even as the world of celebrity media was increasingly competitive with Star magazine on the supermarket checkout lines, and TMZ filled TV with salacious paparazzi stalker video.

What made PEOPLE distinctive was essentially one man -- Dick Stolley.


PEOPLE is entertainment -- it's not rocket science. But Stolley wanted PEOPLE to be more than that. He has said he wanted it to be informative, educational, touching.

Said Stolley, PEOPLE should "bring ballet to businessmen, rock music to Mozart lovers, tales of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to the sophisticated and blasé."

He called the subject of his magazine "that most fragile of merchandise, the facts about another human being."

Stolley launched PEOPLE in March 1974. It went on to become the most profitable magazine at the company. But his importance to Time Inc began long before that -- when he convinced Abraham Zapruder to sell the only known film of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to Life magazine for what was then the lofty sum of $150,000.

PEOPLE magazine is a unique voice, and a changing one -- driven not by algorithms or trending topics, but by humans who balance the public's interest in celebrity with the dramatic and often deeply human stories of "people" both famous and not.

Stolley's editorial style has taken what could have been a formulaic downscale tabloid book, and instead made it a chronicle of our times -- with the faces and stories that have driven popular culture, and on occasion, terrible tragedies as well.

Now, that isn't to say that Stolley's editorial rulebook is one you'd agree with. In fact, his 'rules' around what makes a good cover are probably accurate to sell magazines, but still kind of shocking to read. Here's his take:

  1. Young is better than old.
  2. Pretty is better than ugly.
  3. Rich is better than poor.
  4. Movies are better than television.
  5. Movies and television are better than music.
  6. Movies, TV, and music are all better than sports.
  7. Anything is better than politics.
  8. Nothing is better than the celebrity dead.

Stolley once wrote about rule #8: "I did not understand this when Elvis died in 1977, a blunder not repeated when John Lennon was murdered in 1980. That cover was People's best-seller until Princess Diana's death in 1997." Dead celebrities may not be something you'd think you'd care about -- but when for example Robin Williams died, I have to say it was something that I couldn't put out of my mind for days. Celebrities play a big place in our lives, and the truly talented ones take sometime from all of us when they leave this earth. Says Stolley: "The top 10 People sellers of all time also include the unexpected deaths of Princess Grace and John F. Kennedy, Jr. For any magazine, cover success with this grim but fascinating subject is as inevitable as ... well, you know."

Since 1953, Stolley had been a reporter, writer, bureau chief, senior editor and managing editor at Time Inc. He was a managing editor of Life magazine, and founding managing editor of PEOPLE. In 1996, Stolley was named to the American Society of Magazine Editors Hall of Fame in 1996.

So, now that Stolley is out at Time Inc -- at the age of 80 they let him go last week -- the question of the future of PEOPLE and frankly all magazine brands is worth a moments thought.

We live in an always on world of information abundance, where a basic algorithm can -- and will -- gather up almost every celebrity news event, and drop them into automatically formatted pages for instant publication. In that world of robotic editors, do we really need Dick Stolley?

For me, the answer is easy. We need him more than ever. We need a singular vision, a strong editorial hand, and the ability to balance fame with humility, tragedy with the human condition. Yes the facts remain the same. Robin Williams died. But his career, his magic, his human frailty isn't something a robot could ever understand.

A bit of code couldn't have put together One Hour Photo and Patch Adams and Mrs. Doubfire and understood the remarkable depth and beauty of Williams' life and his work. For that, you need someone like Stolley... and you always will.