Is Controversy Selling for Tina Brown?

Newsstand numbers for attention-grabbing covers revealed

Tina Brown has courted controversy with some of her recent Newsweek cover choices. Now, newly available sales numbers are showing that those covers did not necessarily translate into the kind of spike that she might have been hoping for.

Newsweek had been struggling for years, leading to its sale for just $1 a year ago, and then its merger with Brown's The Daily Beast. The hope was that a high-profile editor like Brown, with her cred from Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, might ignite consumer interest in the publication. But even her controversial covers don't seem to have produced more than average sales. Though to be fair, given the current state of the magazine world, and especially of weekly newsmagazines, just keeping sales from dropping might be seen as a victory (of sorts). 

The most recent example of Brown's attention-grabbing covers, the Aug. 15 issue featuring a glassy-eyed Michele Bachmann and the headline "The Queen of Rage," generated a high degree of media interest, including much fulminating from the right, which saw the portrayal as an example of media bias against conservative women. After all the attention, 47,225 copies of the issue moved off the rack, according to Newsweek's own figures. (Three other industry sources with access to Newsweek’s numbers gave figures ranging from as few as 35,000 up to 48,000 copies.)

Even assuming the highest figure is correct, the issue performed just a little above average; the magazine's single copy sales averaged 46,561 per issue in the first half of 2011. (That number reflects a wide range—from about 29,000 sales before Brown to about 89,000 for her March 28 "Apocalypse Now" issue.)

Brown’s other controversial covers have done similar numbers. The so-called “Diana’s Ghost” cover, which featured a computer-generated image of Princess Diana as she might look at age 50, fared just above average for a double issue, according to Newsweek, which said 70,000 copies were sold. The industry sources put sales at 47,500 to 57,000, however.

Newsweek is projecting another of its double issues, this one featuring a big exclusive—an interview with the hotel maid who accused Dominique Strauss-Kahn of rape—at 50,000 sales, below the double-issue average. 

Another controversial cover, depicting Mitt Romney as a dancing Mormon from the Broadway hit musical Book of Mormon, did well. Another double issue, it sold more than 80,000 copies, according to figures that Newsweek provided to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

For its part, Newsweek points out that since Brown’s March redesign, the magazine has sold 30 percent better on newsstands compared to the three months prior.

"The scoops and global media and consumer interest that Newsweek has attracted since the magazine's March redesign has translated extremely well to both newsstand sales—that are on average performing 30 percent higher—and in subscription renewals—which are up over 5 percent,” Stephen Colvin, CEO for The Newsweek Daily Beast Co., said in an emailed statement. “Our figures reflect a very respectable year-on-year increase in single copy sales."