How provocative covers sell magazines (even when they don’t sell magazines)

The New York Times | Adweek

Time’s “breastfeeding” and Newsweek’s “first gay president” covers goosed newsstand sales, but that’s not really the point, a number of magazine editors say: “In a nonstop news cycle, it’s their best vehicle to say ‘Hey wait a minute. Look at me,’ ” Bloomberg Businessweek Editor Josh Tyrangiel tells Christine Haughney. Roger Black tells Haughney the cover is a vehicle to “represent the magazine in a powerful way.” Tina Brown: “The question is how you cut through.”

Time’s cover caused a little conversation on the magazine’s business end: “A Time spokeswoman said the breast-feeding cover was its best-selling issue this year, and Time doubled the number of subscriptions typically ordered in a week,” Haughney writes. Emma Bazilian reports “Time’s ‘Mom Enough’ performed 82 percent higher than the mag’s prior issue and 43 percent over the previous 26 weeks on average, while Newsweek’s ‘Gay President’ was up nearly 78 percent over the previous issue and 53 percent over the last 26 weeks’ average.” But Newsweek’s “crazy eyes” Michele Bachmann cover didn’t make a splash on the newsstand, Bazilian writes. Also important to note: “Although both issues did perform significantly below their year-ago issues, there’s a good reason: at the time, Time and Newsweek’s covers were dedicated to the hugely newsworthy death of Osama bin Laden.”

A quick glance at both magazines’ most recent publisher’s statements reveals some grim math: Time’s average single copy sales at the end of 2011 were 76,555. In 2007 the average was 105,361. That’s a 27 percent drop. Newsweek closed out 2011 with an average of 40,342, down from 96,334 in 2007, or about 58 percent. Newsweek’s subscriptions went from 3,027,725 in 2007 to 1,404,989 at the end of last year, a nearly 54 percent drop. Time’s held the line on its figure, going from 3,269,144 to 3,221,835. Conversation-starting covers can’t reverse that tide, but they may hint at a way magazines can fight it — Newsweek’s Obama cover “was mentioned nearly 20,000 times on Twitter,” Haughney writes.

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  • Anonymous

    if all this is TRUE, then why did TIME and NEWSWEEK use these covers for their overseas editions? fear of censors? fear of WHAT? big story here for someone to explain: why TIME and NEWSWEEk use
    different covers for overseas editioons, sometimes, depending on topic or issue and WHY?

  • Anonymous

    Europe, Middle East and Africa
    View Large CoverVol. 179, No. 20 Asia
    View Large CoverVol. 179, No. 20 South PacificRead more:,9263,7601120521,00.html#ixzz1vZC6r8vo

  • Anonymous

    that was dan bloom asking that qusetion re Asia covers…..danbloom AT gmail DOT com if anyone knows the answers. i have emailed Time and newsweek and gotten no replies at all.

  • Anonymous

    Andrew and others reading here: I must tell you something IMPORTANT in a minor way and I hope you will report this news item too as a sidebar one day: Here in Asian, where both Time and Newsweek
    have Asian editions, with contents almost 90 percent same at USA edition inside text, the covers are often DIFFERENT. In Asia, re the recent breastfeeding cover for Newsweek USA and the Gay Obama cover for TIME USE, the TIME ASIA and NEWSWEEK ASIA editions did not use those covers!  Time ran a photo of some world politician as did Newsweek. What I mean and want to ask is this: why did neither of those eyepopping covers appear in the TIME or NEWSWEEK editions used and sold in ASIA, including
    magazines sold  and by subscritpuion in Japan, Taiwan, China, Thailand, India? Why do the editors
    of TIME and NEWSWEEK treat Asian readers, many of whom are Americans, this way? ANSWER ME!

  • Reykjavik

    Newsstand sales are less than 5% of the total circulation of these publications and their importance is way overblown. Gimmicky covers don’t usually translate into higher subscription sales (Time’s comment in the story notwithstanding). Tina Brown’s repeated emphasis to “cut through the media clutter” just shows her publication to be erratic and desperate. Contrast this with clever graphical covers from New York, The New Yorker, and the Economist, and that’s how to leverage covers to increase over sales — show something that indicates your publications intelligence, not insipidness. And even these folks occasionally stoop to a lowbrow cover. Seems like Time was slumming here due to their deteriorating economic condition, regardless of the awards they receive (which, incidentally, are about as useless as Steve Hills proclaims them to be).