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.

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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