“Cover stories are crown jewels that are coveted by celebrities,” said Vanessa K. De Luca, editor of Essence. “Our covers are usually influential and are a way to say that certain celebrities are relevant, of the moment and attention-getters.”
“For The Hollywood Reporter, the cover is everything. It’s more important than being on the home page of our website. It reflects back on our brand, and we want to be first, cutting edge and insightful,” noted Janice Min, president and chief creative officer of The Hollywood Reporter-Billboard Media Group, which is affiliated with Adweek.*
“We create magazines that break through. Covers have a tangible aspect, and they’re about what we can say to fans that’s timely and generates conversations,” added Chad Millman, vp editorial director of domestic digital content at ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine.
All three editors participated in a panel at the recent AMMC (American Magazine Media) Next Up Conference in New York, moderated by Jess Cagle, editorial director at People and Entertainment Weekly. They tackled the topics of cover stories and photo shoots as well as the dynamics involved in magazine-celebrity relationships and how they’ve shifted over time.
“Hollywood doesn’t mint as many big stars anymore. Most stars are just at the C level now. As editors we have more leverage as celebrities get needier. We had 20 years of writing vanilla profiles. But now celebrities know they need to bring it to get traction and make news,” Min observed.
“Athlete celebrities have more outlets now,” said Millman. (example: The Players’ Tribune) “It’s still important for ESPN to have access and report on athletes and why they matter. Sometimes ESPN writes critical stories and athletes threaten no further access but eventually they return.”
Editor-driven celebrity content holds more sway than stars’ social media postings
Cagle posed the key dilemma: “Now we have to offer something in print that readers can’t get for free on our website. But celebrities often control their own messaging.”
“What celebrities announce on their Facebook page doesn’t have the same heft,” Min replied. “Most celebrities like having an editor write about their careers versus bragging about it themselves.” (With the possible exception of Donald Trump or Kanye West.)
De Luca agreed: “Celebrities still want their content to be associated with a trusted brand that they can’t create on their own.”
“It’s a mutually beneficial partnership. Celebrities need editors’ help to find ways to frame things and establish context in magazine stories,” added Millman.
“Sometimes celebrities behave badly during cover shoots so that becomes the story,” said Min. She explained that it’s in both parties’ interest to cooperate, since there are only a few agencies that control A-listers, so they all hear about it if issues arise.
“If celebrity athletes don’t give enough time for a cover interview or shoot, then we may just use a stock photo or walk away,” Millman cautioned.
Cover stories promote other vested interests
“Aside from getting readers excited, we use our covers as leverage for our live events and festivals to keep the conversations going,” De Luca explained.
Millman said that athletes can take their cover issues to potential sponsors or put them on their walls. Min offered a prime example, noting that when THR interviewed Donald Trump, his office walls were covered with all his magazine covers.
“We pick stars that deserve to be on our cover. Billboard’s Justin Bieber cover became the trending topic of the day, and he began as a YouTube star,” said Min. “So far The Hollywood Reporter hasn’t put a social media star on the cover, but I’m open to the idea.”
Time Magazine’s highly-anticipated Person of The Year issue was discussed during a lunchtime session at AMMC about politics. Late night host Seth Meyers moderated and Time’s editor Nancy Gibbs was a panelist. When the topic of Donald Trump surfaced, she reported that he wasn’t happy about Time’s choice of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“We discussed the choice politely with Trump. We told him that Time never jumps the line by selecting a presidential candidate. But we said that if he wins the race, he’ll be in a sweet position next year to be named,” Gibbs reported.
In the past few days a couple notable controversies surrounding magazine covers have occurred. One involved Kanye West lobbying for the cover spot on Rolling Stone, and the other entailed internal strains and reader backlash over the presence of the Kardashians on the cover of AD/Architectural Digest’s “Celebrities at Home” issue.
These both underscore the tradeoff of risks and rewards for media brands, as characterized by Min: “When a magazine promises a great story but doesn’t deliver, it reflects badly on the brand. So you don’t want to put yourself in that position.”
*I once worked for Nielsen Business Media, which at the time owned The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard.
(Justin Bieber Cover Courtesy of Billboard)
(Architectural Digest Cover Photography Courtesy of Roger Davies)