When New York Magazine began planning its stunning cover of 35 women who accuse Bill Cosby of assault 30 women had come forward. Now, six months later the number is 46.
The magazine had to navigate a range of ethical, journalistic and design challenges. For instance, is it fair to publicly accuse a person when he/she has not been charged? How would the magazine portray the women in still photographs? Even subtle decisions such as lighting, makeup and framing can affect reader impressions.
Lauren Starke, New York Magazine director of public relations, answered a range of questions I posed via email:
How and Why did you choose to have women wearing black and sitting in the chair with their hands on their laps for the cover photo? What did those colors and that pose mean to you?
We chose black to keep the look uniform, and so the clothes didn’t distract from the women’s faces. The unifying pose and direct staring into the camera demonstrate confidence and a weighty presence. The hands on lap position suggests empowerment.
What message were you sending by having the women wear white (or tan) in their individual stories? They posed with their hands on the table.
As with the black clothes for the cover photos, the white provides a baseline and keeps the women on the same playing field, letting the women’s faces differentiate. The women come from all different places, with different personalities and styles, and were asked to bring one white outfit and one black outfit so the clothes wouldn’t be a distraction. Also for the portraits in the white outfits, they were done in photographer Amanda Demme’s painterly style unique to her, and the clothes complement that palette.
The footer photo (bottom of the page) seemed to show all of the women together in one shot. It is stunning. Were they, in fact together or placed together digitally?
This was done digitally. We had nine total sittings for this project. We thought the panorama would be particularly effective online.
I noticed in your credits you listed more than a dozen stylists and makeup artists. How important was it to the subjects to feel they were being “styled?”
We just wanted basic grooming to enhance the women’s natural beauty.
The video stories included yet another color combination. And the editor used a jump-cut edit style with the subject framed on the edges of the frames. What were you trying to say with that rougher edge style of composition and editing?
The key to this project was bringing a detailed and unflinching eye to the women, who’d been all too often out of view in other coverage.
No doubt you had to confront some ethical issues, namely giving voice to accusers of a man who has not been charged. How did you reason through that decision? Would you have made the same decision if the women had not been willing to be named?
This story was only possible because these 35 women came forward publicly. We made every attempt to reach Cosby’s lawyers and press reps for comment.
What do you hope the long-term effects of this projects will be? Does it have implications beyond Cosby?
We certainly hope that this story will give women the courage to come forward, and that it further opens up the discussion about rape.
You offered tons of online user choices including, the cover photo, individual stories in text, audio (on Instagram), video, individual photos in a slideshow and a still photo thumbnail gallery. What underperformed or outperformed your expectations out of these treatments?
The cover photo has performed extremely well (our initial tweet of the image has more than 13,000 retweets and 9 million impressions), and we’ve had a great response to the “audiograms.” It’s probably too soon to say if anything underperformed, given the site outage yesterday and long tail a story like this will have.
(Note, a hacker took the site down for several hours Monday.)
What did you do especially for social media and mobile/tablet?
We created custom social experiences for Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
For Instagram, we decided to experiment with “audiograms,” which is an entirely new audio-visual experience that you won’t find on nymag.com. The audiograms featured graphics based on our portrait series, with a short quote from our interviews and a layer of audio. Each audiogram has a small “listen” button to encourage people to tap to hear each woman telling their own story in their own words. We also included a paragraph of text in the caption so our audience can learn more about the larger context for the post.
For Twitter and Facebook we created quote cards, and a Twitter GIF promoting the Tumblr post of the story (our site went down for several hours yesterday, so we posted the full Cosby story on Tumblr).
For the iPad edition we did a vertical layout to highlight the individual women and their stories, including the six video interviews
When did you have the first conversations about how this story would be different online than it was in print? Is everything that was in print online? How does this online treatment UNDERCUT the need for anybody to buy the print edition?
We began discussing this when the piece was scheduled, about a month before its publication, but plans really came into focus in the last two weeks. Everything that ran in print is online, but really these are two unique experiences. We don’t worry about the online treatment undercutting the print edition.
The editors made generous use of links to original material including links to other media, a practice that too many media websites shy from out of fear they will lose the reader. When a hacker took the NYMag site down just as the story was starting to spread online, NYMag quickly took the story to Tumblr and pointed users to the audio clips on Instagram.
And then there is the empty chair. That empty chair on the bottom row of the cover in the right corner.
“That chair signifies the 11 other women who have accused Cosby of assault, but weren’t photographed for the magazine. But it also represents the countless other women who have been sexually assaulted, but have been unable or unwilling to come forward.”
The hashtag produced an outpouring:
A DM sent to me: "I can't share my empty chair story bc I signed an NDA. needed the money more than justice, and he knew it" #TheEmptyChair
— Elon James White (@elonjames) July 27, 2015
I am not damaged goods. I am damaged, but I am still good. You are still good. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. #TheEmptyChair
— Ella Cerón (@ellaceron) July 27, 2015
1 in 5 women sit in #TheEmptyChair and yet we have a culture that victim blames
— Mat Douglas (@MatPDouglas) July 27, 2015
More people than you will ever realize are sitting in #TheEmptyChair
— Mirah Atabaki (@mirahwood) July 27, 2015