If there's ever a tough time to be the editor of a women's magazine, now is it. Recession, falling circulation and reader- ship, and less money with which to clinch exclusive cover deals.

But that's not the end of it. Darn it all, celebrities are no longer the private domain of the women's mags. Instead they're loudly and liberally splashed everywhere, available instantly on the net or on Sky's E! channel, and in Sunday newspapers.

"Look at Susan Boyle on YouTube," says one former editor. "Years ago she would have been someone the magazines had to themselves."

And, shock horror, even the network news or daily papers are likely to muscle in on Brangelina's new bambino or William's new girlfriend before the three main women's mags, Woman's Day, New Zealand Woman's Weekly and New Idea, have reached their Friday deadline.

Increasingly in these tough times that glossy $4 worth of escapism is a think-twice buy. Instead of tossing a couple of women's mags into the trolley at the end of the supermarket shop, shoppers are hesitating about spending that extra $8.

For the past few years circulation and readership has been steadily dropping for the weekly women's magazines. But despite the gloomy figures, women's magazine editors are a cheerful bunch, well used to working in one of the most competitive markets around and, since 1997, without the help of Diana, "the patron saint of circulation".

At 31, Woman's Day editor Sarah Henry is too young to have been around in magazines during the "Diana era". But, she says, she fully understands the legacy left by a Royal whose face alone on the cover was enough to make people buy.

Jenny Lynch, editor of the Woman's Weekly from 1987 to 1994, well remembers the pulling power of the then Princess of Wales. Just her picture on the cover, with a weakish story about her work with Aids victims or her anti-landmine campaign, would be enough to give circulation a healthy boost. An accompanying story about Diana's overspending, bulimia or relationship problems would make sales soar.

Scandal sells. The trouble is, editors, say, these days some stars, including local ones, can be a little bit - no-one wanted to be quoted on this - "boring".

Paul Dykzeul, chief executive of ACP Media which owns a stable of celebrity magazines including Woman's Day, puts it more delicately. He's noticed a shortage of local "heroes". Where, he asks, have all the "personalities" gone? And, only half-joking, "could some of them start behaving badly?".

To illustrate the point, the Duchess of York's 1992 toe-sucking incident was Woman's Day's biggest seller ever.

Brad Pitt splitting with Jennifer Aniston and going off with his beautiful co-star Angelina Jolie brought some light relief.

But there's a risk of "celebrity fatigue" particularly if the same faces keep appearing and they're not doing anything particularly remarkable, those in the industry say.

Adding to the problem of good behaviour is an alarming tendency (from the magazines' viewpoint) towards privacy. Increasingly local stars are wary about allowing camera lenses to capture exclusive photos of their new loves, weddings and baby joy for all to see.

And, says one former magazine editor, international stars are finding it fashionable to be more discreet. Exclusive pictures of Brad and Angelina's natural-born twins would be worth more than $100,000 to a magazine, she says, but increasingly those must-have pictures are no longer offered up in a bidding war.

"Celebrities are more gun-shy, more nervous, more private."

Instead, paparazzi lurk around the favourite haunts of Hollywood stars, capturing celebrities doing ordinary stuff - drinking coffee, pushing their kids in pushchairs, filling their cars with petrol. "All they are doing is collecting children," the editor says.

An exclusive deal for a local celebrity wedding can go up to $50,000 and $60,000, the former editor says - too pricey for the current market.

And when they're paying that sort of money, the stakes are high. New Idea is currently locked in a dispute with Dancing with the Stars couple Shane and Nerida Cortese over their "exclusive" wedding photos.

Magazine editors second guess what will work on their covers. One week a cover with Angelina or Oprah on the front will do well; the next it will bomb if the star has become over-exposed or the story is weak.

And there's every editor's worst nightmare, that the same star appears on all three covers in the same week. When that happen, readers buy one magazine and everyone's sales suffer.

Acting editor for the Woman's Weekly, Fiona Fraser, 34, says Kiwi stars with "big news" - engagements, weddings, babies, breakups, are "gold" for the magazine. The births of the babies of Bernadine Oliver-Kerby and Adine Wilson did well, as did Brendon Pongia's wedding, an exclusive with John and Bronagh Key shortly after the election, and Susan Wood's marriage split.

New Idea editor Hayley McLarin, 43, says the magazine's Steve Irwin tribute was a sell-out and the death of John Travolta's son Jett did almost as well.

Joost de Bruin, Victoria University medialecturer, says overseas research shows women enjoy "the activity of reading", viewing a magazine as a treat, a chance to withdraw from a busy family life.

David Henderson, of advertising company Hendo Communications, describes a woman's relationship with her favourite magazine as a "love affair". "It's very personal, very tactile and intimate."