In my career I’ve gone from “let’s see which of the stories we have this month will make a good cover” to “we’re going to call every single A list celebrity that has a movie this month till someone says yes” and then of course, task some writer with throwing a story together in a week or less. The cover of the magazine was the single source of more anxiety, stress and nightmares than anything else I’ve ever worked on. There was always a deadline looming and unreturned phone calls to publicists, a photographer to figure out, location, wardrobe and then what will he be doing on the cover, it was always just hanging out there for weeks on end waiting for a date, time and place to land so the rest of the pieces could be jammed in.

I’m sure it’s quite a different experience working at GQ, VF or Time where the celebrities and politicians have heard of your publication and are actually interested in appearing on the cover. I’ve always been in the hapless position of pitching a publicist and providing material to actually prove we’re worthy enough for a celebrity to grace us with their presence.

The importance of the cover image, coverlines, background, expression, wardrobe is at an all time high these days because advertisers need some sign of the health of a magazine and newsstand sales are a decent indicator because consumers are free to decide what purchase to make that month. Except everyone is trying to game the system so the coverlines, subjects and many times the photography have turned into such predictable garbage, because everyone is using the same handful of words and subjects that have proven effective at capturing eyeballs.

Who should we put on the cover? How about someone who actually wants to be there and that the audience cares about. How about someone we can spend some time with a write a meaningful story and take interesting pictures of. I look forward to the day when magazines can return to serving their audience and not the newsstand. Until then you’re stuck with 109, free, biggest, hot, ultimate, travel, toys, secrets, great, perfect, best, sex, abs, weight-loss, getaway, new, insider, easy, delicious, shortcuts, paired with a celebrity you keep seeing over and over on the covers of magazines.

Recommended Posts


  1. >How about someone who actually wants to be there
    >and that the audience cares about

    How about someone that actually uses the product – after all, many famous photographers have proved time and again that “John/Jane Doe” in his/her natural state can have just as much impact as a Hollywood silicone special. We also work cheaper ;-)

  2. Ohdearlordinheavendeliverme – I can’t tell you how relieved I am to hear about the crap you go through for your covers, Rob!

    Not that I don’t want (yours and my) covershoots to go smoothly – I really do and, though it wouldn’t get back the years I’ve already docked from the end of my life, a smooth-running covershoot production would at least slow down the blood-letting.

    What’s the secret to getting those A-listers interested in your book? I find that there’s a certain sweet-spot of celebs we can work with and it’s all borne of a complicated and mysterious bone-reading that publicists are privy to. It all seems to come down to these publicists, now that I think about it. Is there some tea leaf-reading I can do on my end to make these creatures start nodding their heads? Is there a “Force” I can use to make these stormtroopers wave me through the security checkpoint at the edge of their town so I can go hang out in the creature cantina?

    See, that’s how much this topic vexes me – I’m using freakin’ Star Wars to make a point…

  3. When it gets to the point that you are seeing the same celeb on the cover of different magazines in such a short period of time there is a certain negative resonance to the sort of flavor of the month method that many magazines use to pick their cover stories. That is when it really starts to bother me, when I cant go anywhere without seeing a certain a-lister for a few months. Their faces are everywhere.

  4. George Lois.

    How about putting some celebrity thinking on the cover instead of just a celebrity. Why doesn’t someone give George a call and ask him to design the covers of a publication for the next year?

  5. A few years ago, I was working at a national sports mag, and our editor made the mistake of deciding that because we had a good story on older MLB pitchers, Greg Maddux would make a good cover.

    Greg Maddux is one of the most boring people, and he is one of the most disinterested people when it comes to doing photo shoots.

    You couldn’t have put together a worse cover if you had tried.

  6. Does Angelina look like she was separated at birth from JonBenet Ramsey on that VF cover? Was it supposed to turn out that way?

  7. How are you discerning the line between serving the newsstand and serving the audience? Sales figures are based on what the audience responds to. It’s true; image-control is more of a celebrity status-symbol than ever. Considering the cost of producing a modern-day mainstream film, and the possible windfall for the gross-receipts participants, that hyper-management is understandable.

    Sadly, there is a ton of quantifiable data suggesting that advertising and magazine covers that feature recognizable celebrities do actually sell more, which means that the clients who underwrite the cost of editorial staff salaries and the paper the magazines they create is printed on, achieve higher value for their (vast) investment. Tough business, but I don’t get how that has changed.

    I know of no golden-era when sales weren’t the primary objective of our favorite magazines (I subscribe to the New Yorker, but that hasn’t been profitable … maybe ever). George Lois was influential, but that was during an era when Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe were ubiquitous voices in popular culture. Magazines were competing with three television stations, not four hundred-plus stations and a vast and evolving internet.

    This is a weird moment in popular culture; no rap or grunge or electronica exploding from beneath the radar into the mass market. Athletics; kind of. Really, no breathtaking entertainment visionaries uniting us in a simple way as an audience “See you next week, same time same place.”

    The internet is maturing. The Simpsons are twenty-years-old. The Sopranos and Six Feet Under are gone. For some reason, the press can’t make Friday Night Lights catch fire. The most interesting cultural shifts are occurring in genetic and computer sciences, in business, maybe in politics. Lots of good or maybe great entertainment, but nothing gluing the electorate together like, say … Obama.

    In the glory days of New Journalism, those writers were trailblazers, and America was tapped-in to their mindset. But honestly, for the past twenty-five years or so, the major titles have taken a more responsive posture than ever to what’s going on in the world: When we’ve been excited about a cover or story, it’s simply because the celebrity on that cover has done something that has galvanized our preoccupations. These days, magazine companies are committing more dollars to paparazzi auctions than to original content, but I think that could change if .. their audience — the ones actually buying the magazines not complaining about them — wanted it to.

    My guess (or hope) is, that when the next big wave rolls in and an unexpected original talent emerges with a new and timely vocabulary that snaps and crackles, all the media outlets that cover what’s going on in the world will begin to snap and crackle again too. By then who knows, maybe it won’t be in the form of CYMK on paper, but it will be exciting.

    Meanwhile, I am frustrated by how you voice dismay or disgust about the state of an industry that hasn’t changed it’s paradigm in fifty years. Especially the week after posting a feature about a creative director at Wired who appears to be energized and free to push magazine design and content forward in positive ways.

  8. The audience is the core group of subscribers and newsstand buyers who read the magazine because the content is solid not because some glossy surface sheen has been applied to attract as many lookers as possible. I rarely care about the cover image or lines of magazine’s I buy on the newsstand when flying because I know the content is consistently good so I buy it no matter what.

    Much has changed in this industry in the last 50 years. Most notably the circulation and newsstand draw of mainstream magazines has escalated to the point where the audience can no longer be served without 562 tips of some sort and lose your gut service stories.

    Magazines will shortly be returning to smaller audiences of consumers who are interested in all of the content including the advertising and not people snagged on the newsstand because of a coverline.

  9. well, whatever you do, you can always put Angelina Jolie on the cover. you cant go wrong with her. :)

  10. How about an extraordinary everyday person ??? I always loved the older editions of COLORS magazine when Oliver Tosconi and Tibor Kalman were at the helm; sure would have liked to have been a fly on the wall during their pow wows!

    Here’s who I would love to see on a cover of a magazine :)

    The Cleaning lady in the airport bathroom who came from
    far away to follow her dream of America and has a story to tell.

    A Bontonist who knows all the edible plants in the Sonorean Desert and gardens the invasive species out of Grand Canyon
    so native plants and species can thrive.

    Everyday people who do the work but are somehow invisible.

    A photographer Like Seamus, or Natchaway.

    A field worker who grows the food we eat.

    A teacher.

    A poet.

    Someone Brown, black, multi ethnic, full bodied, and not airbrushed but real.

  11. APE,

    I share your woes, but don’t see evidence of any transition to a new breed of “boutique” paper magazines that have business models up their sleeves that would insure the kind of research, literary expertise, and production values we’ve come to expect from the big guns. A big part of the fun of “event” issues is how they create an instant community of thousands who’ve all seen the same cover and feature. Esquire or Vanity Fair’s worst is usually better than most, and no — the splashy glossies have never pretended to be a replacement for Harper’s or The New Yorker. Also this didn’t just HAPpen to the magazine industry; its insiders are culpable, too.

    I’m surprised by your seeming disowning of cover art. I am a huge fan of covers, their history, their potential, and I really do believe that if mainstream culture at this particular moment was producing more inspiring content, the struggling but still high-quality titles would reflect that, and it wouldn’t feel quite so … canned.

  12. Where can I get a cake made, like the one for PDN’s party, just like the Angelina cover of Vanity Fair?

  13. @ warmdriver: I’m not disowning cover art per se just the amount of time, effort and money that goes into producing packages and front-of-book junk so you can make a coverline out of it and the worthless cover story to go with whichever celebrity is pitching a movie at that moment. All for an extra 10 or 20 thousand readers who care very little about your product and all so you can show advertisers a line on a graph that’s not flat or headed down.

    All that stuff now lives on the internet so we can stop with all the smoke and mirrors on the cover.

    Actually, after I put that cover collage together I found quite a few I liked… just without all the coverlines.

  14. Always put the most provocative pic on the cover. (one with room for all the coverlines, upc code, etc.) ha!

  15. Take a look at the cover of Outside magazine. Andy Roddick. Outdoorsy? Perhaps on a grass court in a suburb.
    I grew up in the Canadian wilderness and was an Outside subscriber for years. I dropped the subscription this year.
    Over the years, there was less and less in Outside for me. Once Outside was listed as a publisher of some great articles of literary narrative non fiction. (and had some great photos as well)
    It told stories about the wilderness and adventure that spoke to my lifestyle and experience.
    Not any more. It now seems to be aimed at the super elite athlete and extreme adventurer. Lots and lots of product placement of equipment I don’t need and don’t want.
    (In fact I now get better info on the type of outdoor gear–not photo gear– I’m interested in Outdoor Photographer than Outside). It’s obviously found a marketing niche the advertisers love, but I bet like other magazines, it’s saying F O and Die to the rest of us who don’t fit the desired demographic.

  16. It would be interesting to see stats on how many magazines are bought off the rack, comparing New York City to the entire rest of the country. (Also, too, to see “airports in the rest of the country”). Since the rest of the country is so car-specific rather than pedestrian/sidewalk/subway, I just wonder how important these cover lines are to the rest of the country. I’d bet that everywhere except NYC would be heavily subscription-only yearly, whereas NYC would be heavy on newsstand sales and subscription. I remember a few magazines in years past, where the mailed subscription copy would have the cover line mess deleted, leaving only maybe a main headline and the photo.

    In my non-NYC world, I see magazine stands in VERY few places. Even my grocery store has demoted the magazine stand to a back corner. So that means that I’ve got to make the effort to drive to something like a Borders or B/N in order to purchase a magazine off the rack. Other than that, maybe the airport is rare occurence of seeing a magazine rack. Whereas in NYC, they’re everywhere you turn: in the subways; in those great magazine stores where they run all the way to the ceiling; on the sidewalks.

    Would be interesting to see the sales data. Not being a NYC resident, I subscribe to the magazines that I do solely based on gut feeling of good content; I could care less about cover lines. But usually what turns me off is the incessive badgering, by mail, to resubscribe, once the term is near the end. That marketing is their own worst enemy; it’s simply too much and too desperate; like a bad date that is frantic that you’re going to leave.

  17. @15

    I hear you, and I do get it; that from within the ranks all that hyper-managed pasteurization can suck the guts and glory out of participating in the enterprise, even if in the end you’re able to create a positive diversion for a big audience.

    Thanks for your response.

  18. Haven’t read the other responses here but I imagine this one is going to sound similar.

    Multiple magazines using the same people on their covers, the same words, the same stories are ultimately devaluing themselves.

    It takes something special to get me to add to my to-do list and already heavy reading load by making an impulse purchase on a newstand. The only magazine it happens with regularly is Esquire. If you read Esquire you already know why.

    More and more magazines seem to have abdicated editorial oversight and seem to exist only to provide free publicity for movie studios and celebrities. Every month I can look at the magazine rack and figure out who has a movie coming out soon. WHO CARES. What does that have to do with anything in my life? Nothing. To top it off, every year fewer and fewer people are actually going to the movies but magazine editors seem unconcerned about linking their product with a dying glamour machine.

    To even exist, a magazine should have a purpose. What is that purpose? Esquire is the man about town. Men’s Health is about men’s health. Vogue is about fashion. Some magazines, to be honest with you, I have no idea what their purpose is. But understanding purpose and audience are important when it comes to the cover. Yes, put people on the cover who want to be there, people that the audience cares about (or SHOULD care about), someone people would want to spend some time with. Explain THIS PERSON ISNT FAMOUS BUT MAYBE THEY SHOULD BE. Stop chasing celebrities unless they have some connection to the magazine audience or something extraordinary to say. Focus on people, ideas, groups related to the subject matter. Be relevant. Be meaningful. Your value will be apparent.

    Vogue should put more designers on their cover. Or just a dress. Or the same dress and 10 women in it. Men’s Health should put the team that’s researching prostrate cancer from the National Institues of Health on their cover. And dont line them up and put the cutest one in front like he’s the hot lead singer in a band. For God’s sake trust that your audience is smart enough to understand that sex appeal is irrelevant when THE SCIENTISTS ARE TRYING TO SAVE YOUR LIFE. (As a photographer, I think it would be a lot of fun figuring out how to make that a fun, interesting cover photo.) I like Mark Wahlberg fine but I can think of 100 people off the top of my head who affect men’s health more than he does.

    I wish magazines would stop trying to get me to buy one issue and start trying to provide me with the context and analysis of information that is really important to my life. The magazines that provide that, like the New Yorker, are always renewed and dont get thrown out until they get read because I can’t afford to miss what they have to say.

    Sorry this is so long. This one struck a nerve.

  19. I liked Wired’s gas-can front cover a few issues back.

  20. Arguing with the marketing people about the cover and cover lines is like banging your head against a brick wall. They all have the same market research that tells them THIS color works and THAT language works and it has to be BIGGER so it can be read from 20ft away. They believe it like it’s Gospel and that’s why all magazine covers look the same.

    Trying to convince them that maybe, maybe if you did something different to everyone else the cover would stand out more is pointless because being different means taking a chance and ignoring the reams of “evidence” they have even though their guts tells them it’s actually bullshit (I’ve had several tell me this).

  21. How funny to read this article when I woke up this morning-just yesterday when I was stuck in the airport perusing the newstand, scanning through the usual barrage of mediocre covers with disposable headlines, when I noticed this month’s Rolling Stone. Amazing, a clean beautiful photograph with none of the usual seductive “Blurbs”, just a good photo and the logo for the magazine. Clean and simple- other magazines should take note.

  22. Negativity™…

    Wow, good to see that much of the newsstand hates Republican women. I can only imagine how this would’ve been if a Democrat had been selected instead.

    Stay classy, y’all.

    I’ve got a memo for all of these magazines: Go back to being unoriginal…

Comments are closed for this article!