The Power of a Magazine Cover

by Andrea Barbalich


Anyone who thinks magazines have become irrelevant hasn't been following the firestorm over Rolling Stone's latest cover, featuring Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the 19-year-old Boston bombing suspect who pleaded not guilty to 30 criminal charges last week.

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As soon as Rolling Stone posted the cover on its Facebook page, the outcry began. 

 

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Twitter exploded with thousands of angry responses and a #BoycottRollingStone hashtag: 

 

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The similarities to the iconic Jim Morrison cover from 1991 were duly noted: 

 

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It wasn’t just the image people objected to. It was the overall effect. As I noted on my Facebook page, the coverline—“How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam…”—reads as overly sympathetic and seems to absolve him of responsibility. “The 'Bomber' headline alone—in that Apple-like reductionist way and groovy font—gives an air of coolness that isn't appropriate,” added Kathleen Tripp, my former colleague from Child magazine. In his blog post titled "Why the picture's not the problem," former Rolling Stone art director Andy Cowles agreed with us.

 

There was no response from Rolling Stone for hours—and then, finally, this:

 

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For followers who were expecting an apology, that didn't help much. 

 

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Thousands complained that the editors' note failed to address the most objectionable point—that Tsarnaev was being accorded rock-star status. 

 

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As loud as the outcry was, though, there were those who called the response an overreaction.

 

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As USA Today's Rem Rieder and many others pointed out. the photo had previously appeared in other news outlets, including on Page One of the New York Times, with no complaint. "And, speaking of mass murderers," Rieder wrote, "Charles Manson was once on the cover of Rolling Stone." 

 

Indeed he was, in 1970: 

 

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But that was long before Facebook and Twitter. Undoubtedly that cover prompted canceled subscriptions and angry letters to the editor, but the responses were, relatively speaking, quiet.  

The thousands who are canceling their subscriptions now are doing so publicly:

 

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In addition, CVS, Walgreens, Tedeschi Food Shops, Cumberland Farms, Roche Bros., Rite Aid, Shaw's,  Stop & Shop, and Kmart announced that they will not sell the August issue in their stores. Walmart won't sell it in New England but will carry it elsewhere. 

But that's just one issue not being sold on newsstands in a handful of stores. And Rolling Stone doesn't make much money from subscriptions. So will there be any larger repercussions? Most likely, not unless advertisers start to pull out. As crisis communications guru Glenn Selig said in an article on foxnews.com, "As we saw with Paula Deen, advertisers tend to run at the first sign of trouble, which may prove to be problematic for Rolling Stone and perhaps did not play heavy enough in their initial calculus.” 

What was Rolling Stone's initial calculus? I've been in dozens of cover meetings in my career, and I know how they go. You have the editors and art directors ... the publisher  ... the marketing and circulation people ... the lawyers. In this case, owner and founder Jann Wenner undoubtedly signed off. Did they understand how the cover would be perceived? Did they foresee the firestorm and determine it was worth the risk? Or did they not think it would be quite this bad? 

So far, Rolling Stone isn't budging. Managing editor Will Dana told NPR's Melissa Block, "I am completely comfortable with the decision that we made." Senior editor Christian Hoard was less diplomatic: "I guess we should have drawn a d**k on Dzhokhar's face or something?" he tweeted (and then deleted) yesterday. 

The issue hits newsstands tomorrow. The cover story has already been published on Rolling Stone's website, where people can access it for free. We'll see how many do. We’ll see what the advertisers say. Meanwhile, the Boycott Rolling Stone Facebook page, created on Tuesday, is at 156,000 likes and counting.

If nothing else, we've learned that a magazine cover has power—to inform, to entertain, to inspire, and to infuriate ... perhaps more than we realized. 

 


Mother's Day Messages

by Andrea Barbalich


Every year at this time, we're inundated with pressure-packed messages about how to show love and appreciation for the mothers of America—and this year is no exception. As always, there's no shortage of opportunities to purchase floral bouquets and spa days for Mom. And you'd better hurry, because Mother's Day is three days away!

But this year, I'm also sensing a backlash. Holly Pevzner, a writer friend and mother of two, complained on her Facebook page about the Mother's Day balloons for sale at her local CVS. "Not one mom in the entire world wants a balloon. Not one," she pointed out—accurately. 

Even some of the largest advertisers seem to be focusing more on substance than direct sales pitches—most prominently in the video featuring Eunice and Maria Shriver, the latest installation in Procter & Gamble's "Thank You, Mom" campaign.

"The gift my mother gave me was the gift of possibility—the gift that I could do anything I wanted to do," Maria says in the video that has gone viral. "You can, you must, you will," she heard from her mother. "Just go do it." Eunice didn't just pass that message along to her own five children, of course; she was also the mother of the Special Olympics, which started as 100 kids attending Camp Shriver in their backyard. And with that, Maria says, "she changed the world." Watch her tribute here:

The parenting websites also got it right this year, with HuffPost Parents clarifying "What Moms Really Want": "handwritten cards or letters, uninterrupted showers, naps, silence, and—yes—a day off." 

Ellen Seidman, who writes the Love That Max blog about being the mother of a child with special needs, took that advice and wrote a letter to her own mother for babble.com titled "Thanks, Mom, for Teaching Me How to Be a Special Needs Mom." "Thank you for showing me that perfection isn't the point—but encouraging your child's strengths and always cheering him on is," she wrote. Eunice Kennedy Shriver would surely agree.

Mary Carpenter, a Philadelphia mother of two, wrote a letter, too—to her sons, ages 15 and 13, clarifying exactly what she wants for Mother's Day.  She spoke for so many other mothers that when she posted it on Facebook, more than 180,000 people  shared it.

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So here's to giving (and receiving) the perfect gifts on Mother's Day: kindness, strength, meaningful words....and breakfast in bed. 


Media Winners and Losers

by Andrea Barbalich


I found out about the bombings at the Boston Marathon finish line from a friend's Facebook page. I quickly went to several online news sites, but not much had been published yet. So I switched to Twitter and got everything I wanted/needed to know—and, as it turned out, much more. I didn't turn on the TV until the end of the week, during the manhunt for the second bombing suspect. I sat there, riveted, while simultaneously checking Facebook and Twitter, along with the entire world, it seemed. I tweeted:

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And I hadn't. When had we ever been able to watch a real-life minute-by-minute search for a terrorist? 

That had its upsides: None of us had to wonder what was going on. It also had its downsides: mistakes...lots of mistakes...made by journalists as well as people pretending to be journalists. As Michael Moynihan noted on the Daily Beast, it was nearly impossible to keep track of who was wrong about what—though the reporters at CNN were more wrong than most. Jon Stewart spoke for many when he slammed the network once ... 

and then once more, along with the New York Post ...

Beyond the mistakes and laughable reporting, there were just plain dumb moves, like these tweets from Epicurious the morning after the bombings:

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Unlike Rupert Murdoch, the editors at Epicurious did apologize:

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So which journalists escaped criticism during that week of chaos? The Boston Globe and New York Times were lauded for their coverage. But it was Pete Williams, NBC's national security reporter, who received the most praise, with Politico, the Huffington Post, and the Atlantic Wire all calling him a hero. 

And there was one more heroic journalist who didn't receive as much attention: Ed Fitzpatrick of the Providence Journal. On April 15, he ran the Boston Marathon (not for the first time) and finished in 3:49 (not his best time). After picking up his medal, he heard a blast and then another one. He ran to find his wife, Ellen, at the finish line—and, once he'd reunited with her, immediately began reporting from the scene:

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I attended journalism school at Syracuse University with Ed, and he was intrepid even then, so it didn't surprise me that this is what he would do. I knew he would be running the marathon that day—and that his wife's entire family would be watching the marathon in Boston, as they do every Patriots' Day—so I was relieved when I saw his tweets appear in my feed...and even more relieved when Ellen contacted me two hours later to say they were on their way home to Providence "to hug the kids." 

Ed resumed his news coverage that evening, and the next day he wrote this column

Great work, Ed.



It Really Is About the Content

by Andrea Barbalich


Three high-profile women in media (Maureen Dowd, Anna Wintour, and Tina Brown) have recently been quoted stating what should be the obvious...but unfortunately isn’t.

First, amid widespread speculation about the fate of the Time Inc. magazines (which wound up staying with Time Inc. rather than being bought by Meredith, as was heavily rumored), New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote a valentine to the flagship, in which she reminisced about working there in the 1980s—her “salad days in Time’s glory days,” as she described them. I enjoyed her recollections of “whisky, cigarettes, four-hour sodden lunches and illicit liaisons.” (I never worked at Time Inc., but I’ve been told upper management also sent a bar cart around to the staff on Friday afternoons. And I have vivid memories of journalism professors who gave their best advice over a cocktail through a haze of smoke.)

But what thrilled me was the ending of Dowd's column: “Many content providers and managers — formerly known as reporters and editors — have stopped believing in their own value and necessity. But the gatekeepers in the content class have to understand the world in which we’re living and wield their judgment.        

“Digital platforms are worthless without content. They’re shiny sacks with bells and whistles, but without content, they’re empty sacks.

“It is not about pixels versus print. It is not about how you’re reading. It is about what you’re reading.”     

Then came the announcement that Anna Wintour would get an even bigger job at Conde Nast.

In addition to being editor in chief of Vogue, she’s now artistic director for the company, advising other editors on their brands and bringing in new talent. Of her efforts to attract the best, she said, “It isn’t about a machine or an iPhone or an iPad. It’s about people.” 

Then,  last week, Tina Brown was interviewed on Bloomberg TV. The former editor in chief of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker and current head of Newsweek and the Daily Beast had the harshest condemnation yet for the devaluation of quality content: "We're living in a time when everybody is so obsessed with delivery systems and gaming the system," she said. "And it's actually very, very soul-destroying."

"We don't have enough respect for content anymore. In the end, without great content, there are no numbers. You see again and again in the media this obsession with the numbers, this obsession with the audience, this obsession with the demo. But without the talent, without the people who do it, your company is worth nothing." Watch her here: 

Yes, it really is about the content, and it really is about the people who create it. The media industry has been in such flux—driven in part by fear—for the last several years that these concepts have gotten lost. Ideas matter. Writers and editors matter. Photography and design matter. Quality matters. Spread the word.