ELVIS LIVES!

And South Florida's Tabloid Valley vanishes.

In late 1988, the Enquirer was put up for sale. At the time, the newspaper circulated about 4.2 million copies per week at 75 cents each -- its primary revenue stream.

When news broke that the Enquirerwas on the block, the Palm Beach Post published a cartoon of Elvis coming down from space to buy the tabloid.

In reality, the newspaper had as many as six earthly suitors, including Globepublisher Mike Rosenbloom of Boca Raton and French media giant Hachette-Filipacchi, which published Elle and the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s now-defunct George.

Ultimately, a joint venture between investment firm Boston Ventures and Macfadden Publishing, a New York company that sells true-crime books and special-interest magazines, purchased the Enquirerfor $412 million. Under Boston Ventures and Macfadden, the tabloid focused more on the bottom line. In 1990, the joint venture bought the competing Star from Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch for $400 million and renamed the combined companies American Media Inc. (AMI).

Pope's extravagances, including a huge Christmas tree erected outside the office every year, were quickly eliminated. Outrageous editorial expenses were curtailed. The company launched two new titles, Country Weeklyand Soap Opera News, that piggybacked on the Enquirer's supermarket distribution. In three years, Boston Ventures and Macfadden increased profits from $17 million to $120 million.

Despite the cutbacks, the company oversaw the Enquirer's golden moment: O.J. Simpson's trial for murdering his ex-wife Nicole and her friend Ron Goldman in 1994. "Nothing has all the ingredients [of a perfect tabloid story]," Calder admits. "But that one had the most you could ever dream about." Using paid sources, including one inside O.J. Simpson's legal circle, the Enquirer repeatedly beat the venerable dailies on the big story.

The newspaper's tactics weren't always ethical -- one reporter, for instance, romanced Nicole Brown Simpson's two sisters to get a photograph of Nicole on a beach with another man -- but its reporting was so good that the New York Times in December 1994 sparked outrage when it attributed information in two news stories to the Enquirer. In fact, one of the tabloid's reporters, Larry Haley, received the 1996 National Association of Chiefs of Police's J. Edgar Hoover Award for uncovering the infamous photograph showing Simpson wearing Bruno Maglis. The picture contradicted Simpson's assertion under oath that he "would have never worn those ugly-ass shoes."

Despite the publicity surrounding the O.J. trial, the tabloid foundered. Seven years after the joint venture bought the Enquirer, circulation had dipped by nearly half to 2.75 million. Mainstream media's coverage of celebrity news, coupled with the paparazzi's alleged role in Princess Diana's 1997 death in a traffic tunnel in Paris, hurt the Enquirer and Star. In October 1997, Calder was fired. That didn't help. Two years later, Boston Ventures and Macfadden put AMI back on the block.

This time, the buyer was Evercore Partners, a New York investment firm headed by Roger Altman, Bill Clinton's former undersecretary of the Treasury, who had resigned after the Whitewater scandal. In May 1999, Evercore paid $766 million and tapped David Pecker, the Hachette-Filipacchi executive who failed in his first bid to buy the Enquirer, to be president of AMI.

Pecker, a 53-year-old Bronx native who once sold used cars and had experience squeezing hefty profits out of such magazines as Car and Driver and Elle, came to the deal with a sordid reputation. In 1996, he had killed an investigative story in Premieremagazine about Planet Hollywood restaurants. One of Premiere's stakeholders had a financial interest in the chain. "[That incident] will probably be on my tombstone," Pecker told Fortunemagazine last year. He declined to comment for this article.

In November 1999, six months after taking the lead job at AMI, Pecker orchestrated a deal to buy the Globe, the Enquirer's only remaining competitor, for $105 million, effectively cornering the supermarket tabloid industry. Pecker then moved the combined operation from its Lantana office to the Globe's newer, 60,000-square-foot facility at 5401 NW Broken Sound Blvd. in Boca Raton.

In December 1999, Pecker announced that the Star, which was based in New York, would also move to the old Globebuilding. Pecker increased paper and print quality at all the tabloids. He also mandated an end to salacious stories. In short, Pecker wanted to make the tabloids respectable.

His plans were ambitious and expensive. During the first nine months of fiscal 2000, AMI lost $12 million. Still, the company controlled 65 percent of supermarket tabloid shelves nationwide. Pecker, who had purchased a $2.2 million house in Boca Raton in November 2000, figured the bloodletting was temporary. He was wrong.

PHOTOGRAPHER BUYS SUBMARINE!

On a breezy February evening, Jim Leggett sits at a tiki bar along the Caloosahatchee River in Fort Myers. Dressed in jeans and a safari jacket, Leggett sips slowly from a glass of whiskey.

"Let me tell you something about a good journalist," Leggett says in his Glaswegian accent, opening the right side of his coat to reveal two leather pouches strapped to his belt. "You always carry two cell phones." Leggett unbuttons the strap on one, revealing a shiny silver flask of single-malt whiskey. "This one," he says with a smile, "is for emergencies only."

Following a brief stint as a photographer for the now-defunct Fort Lauderdale News, Leggett joined the Enquirer in 1978. Journalism was his second career; his first had been racing motorcycles in Toronto. "I'm probably the only guy that ever immigrated to the United States on a motorcycle," Leggett says. "Later, while in Florida, I'd heard Iain Calder was prone to hiring Scotsmen. I convinced him to give me a tryout."

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