When Oprah Winfrey asked Prince why he still lived in Minnesota, the reclusive rocker gave a brief and somewhat enigmatic response.
“It’s so cold, it keeps the bad people out,” he said in the 1996 interview.
Prince might have been referring to the national news media, which he largely managed to cajole and control from his Paisley Park compound in Chanhassen, far from the usual paparazzi stamping grounds. But in the afterlife, Prince has lost the upper hand.
Celebrity-oriented websites and magazines have feasted off his untimely April 21 death with lurid headlines — “AIDS Killed Prince!” “Found! Prince Suicide Note!” “Prince Crushed Madonna’s Music Video Dream!” — designed to rack up clicks and trigger impulse buys at the supermarket. TMZ.com, which has led the chase from the start, recently drew web users with the tantalizing, and mainly unsubstantiated, lure of “Prince Adopted Me and Left Me $7 Million!”
The accuracy of such reports is often in question; the interest level is not. Sales for the two National Enquirer covers dedicated solely to Prince were up 20 percent from normal, said the tabloid’s editor in chief, Dylan Howard.
“With the exception of the run for the White House, it is the prominent talking point in America right now,” he said by phone. “This was a pop legend who transcended generations.”
Mainstream media have shown equal interest. People, Entertainment Weekly and Billboard magazine published tribute issues. Rolling Stone’s edition didn’t even use his name on the cover photo, a sign of respect and familiarity previously used to eulogize George Harrison and John Lennon.
When it comes to salacious details, no outlet has done more than TMZ, the first to report that Prince’s plane had an emergency landing in Illinois en route to Minneapolis on April 15 due to a health scare. It also broke the news that Prince had been found dead, and that he was taking opiates.
TMZ refuses to explain how it stayed a step ahead of the competition — representatives didn’t respond to interview requests — but the 11-year-old gossip outlet, which has also spawned a successful TV show, has a reputation for paying unnamed sources for tips, a practice considered off-limits by most traditional journalists.
A lengthy piece in the New Yorker in February revealed that employees for limousine services and airlines have tipped off TMZ in exchange for cash.
Howard said the Enquirer had not paid any money to sources for Prince stories, but he wouldn’t rule it out.
“People coming to us know we have an open checkbook,” Howard said. “As long as the information is verified.”
The practice may pain journalists who were schooled never to pay for inside information, but it’s hard to ignore that the tabloids have often led the way in coverage of celebrity deaths.
“I think you still need to be suspicious of their stories being enhanced or made up,” said Scott Libin, a former Twin Cities news director who serves as the ethics committee chairman for the Radio Television Digital News Association.
“But look at social media. Sometimes it’s reliable; sometimes it isn’t. TMZ, on this narrow topic, has had a pretty strong record. I don’t think I would ignore them.”
Money doesn’t always talk.
At least one national media representative has knocked on the door of Heather Hofmeister, hoping to secure the rights to a photo she snapped of her neighbor Prince riding his bicycle the weekend before he died.
“I was never offered a specific amount of money, but one person said they were talking thousands and thousands of dollars,” the local public relations executive said. “She was so surprised when I said no.”
The offers that came Hofmeister’s way were from outside media companies that don’t have a deep bench of local informants or knowledge of the Twin Cities area. That didn’t stop the Enquirer from flying an employee to Minnesota within two hours of initial reports of his death.
Kristell Bernaud, a reporter from New York, had roughly 24 hours in town to collect material for a story she was doing for French television.
“Maybe it’s easier to do here than in a big city,” said Bernaud, who was dismissive of a local reporter’s suggestion that she stop by First Avenue nightclub in downtown Minneapolis. “People here are more friendly to journalists.”
Still, Minnesotans’ instinct to protect the state’s most famous resident, in life and death, may be making it difficult to feed the machine. It wasn’t unusual for Prince to convince locals to restrain from taking pictures of him or to remove snapshots from their cellphones.
“There’s simply not much to work with,” said Rick White, a creative director for IMP Features, a Netherlands-based agency that sells photos to numerous organizations, including Closer Magazine and the Enquirer.
Interest tapering off
While musical tributes continue to roll in, tabloid coverage has tapered off in the past two weeks, and pressure to get “scoops” has been low, at least at IMP.
“There has been interest in Prince, but it has not been as overwhelming as it was with, for example, Michael Jackson,” said White, who said he’d be surprised if anyone was paid more than $15,000 for any “exclusives” related to the story. “When we notice there is not a huge amount of interest, there is even less reason to potentially invade the privacy of a grieving family.”
That could change, however, as details continue to trickle in, most notably those related to the credibility of several people claiming to be relatives, and the content of Prince’s private vault.
“It’s got mystery, reports of drug use, the fact that he had such a fascinating life and so many unanswered questions,” Libin said. “Who could resist this story?”