February 4, 2021

Magazine covers are in the news again. Vogue’s cover of Vice President Kamala Harris is just the latest to capture widespread audience attention. It won’t be the last. The power of the magazine cover in print has always been significant.

The editors I speak with regularly say that when politicians or celebrities are interviewed, they never fail to ask if they’re cover material. They don’t care about being featured on the web, on social media, on an app, on in any kind of digital space. All they care about is whether they will be on the cover of the printed magazine.

High-profile people, it’s clear, know the power of the magazine cover.

The publisher of People en Español, Monique Manso, recently told me that the promise of a print cover was key to getting access to important people. “It’s the print piece that makes them want to give that exclusive,” she said.

The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Armando Correa, described a celebrity exclusive where the person’s child would be photographed publicly for the first time, but being on the printed cover of the magazine was a precondition.

But as I told Scarlet Fu on Bloomberg’s Quicktake, the decision of what goes on the cover is still the editor’s prerogative, though the audience may not like it.

Vogue’s choice of cover photos for its February 2021 edition, with Harris wearing jeans and sneakers, was met by a tsunami of comments on social media accusing the magazine of “whitewashing” the vice president and showing disrespect for her by publishing such a casual, informal image.

In my interview with Fu, she asked why Vogue didn’t do a split cover — publishing different covers for the same issue — with the vice president. (Her question came before Vogue announced it would print a limited edition split cover featuring another photo that they had previously slated only for digital.)

Split covers are not a novel idea. I have a collection of magazines dating back to 1963 with split covers. They were used to test different names, images, cover lines — you name it. In other cases, magazines produced multiple covers as collectible items. For example, TV Guide issued collectors’ covers celebrating Star Trek’s 35th anniversary.

In its heyday, Redbook would have different covers — one for subscribers and one for the newsstands. For the newsstand edition, people would get a cover line with the word “sex” in it. For subscribers, that word would be changed to “love.” Same cover line, but different wording.

A newstand edition of Redbook, left, and a subscriber edition, right.

Men’s Health often did the same, highlighting sex and secrets for building abs on the single-copy sales covers.

A newsstand edition of Men’s Health, left, and a subscriber edition, right.

The thinking in both cases was that the word “sex” would grab the attention of the newsstand buyers and lead them to pick up the magazine. That extra emphasis is not needed for subscribers, who already have a relationship with the magazines.

And the trend continues today. InStyle magazine is a perfect example. Look at its February issue — subscribers get one cover with minimal cover line treatment, a title that you can barely see, and a full-body shot of actress and director Regina King. Newsstands get another cover with a very large and bold cover line and a large, close-up shot of King.

A newsstand edition of InStyle, left, and a subscriber edition, right.

In January, InStyle featured former President Barack Obama on the subscriber cover, while the newsstand featured actress Jodie Comer.

A newsstand edition of InStyle, left, and a subscriber edition, right.

But a new question may be emerging. Does there have to be another cover to tame the social media beast?

Look at former first lady Melania Trump, who certainly knows the power of the magazine cover as she was a professional model for many years. From Vogue to British GQ, Trump graced the covers of many top fashion magazines. But as first lady, she had no such exposure. In her four years in the White House not once did she pose for a cover. Many other first ladies were offered that cover privilege: Michelle Obama and Laura Bush, to name two, but not Trump.

Were editors making a political statement by ignoring her? Or were they afraid of the social media pushback the audience isn’t shy to dole out?

The magazine cover is still a powerful tool. Just look at the Jan. 25 cover of The New Yorker, or the January cover of New York magazine.

Recent covers from The New Yorker, left, and New York Magazine, right.

Or compare the cover of Time magazine and its editorial statements. When they chose former President Donald Trump as Person of the Year in 2016, the cover line read “President of the Divided States of America.” Yet when they chose President Joe Biden and Vice President Harris as the Person of the Year 2020, the cover line read “Changing America’s Story.”

Time Person of the Year covers featuring President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, left, the 2020 selection, and former President Donald Trump, right, the 2016 selection.

One wonders, is the country less divided today than it was four years ago?

Social media is now a battering ram that can force editors to change their minds and produce covers to placate those on social platforms. My question is, are those people commenting on social media actually customers of the magazine?

There is a danger that the power of editing may be surrendered to masses that are not reflective of the magazine audience at all. When everybody is an editor, nobody is an editor.

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Samir "Mr. Magazine™" Husni, Ph.D. is the founder and director of the Magazine Innovation Center at the School of Journalism and New Media at The…
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