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.