Newsweekly Conceptual Covers on the Rise—Again

Where some see controversy, others see ideas

Times may be tough for newsweeklies on the advertising and circulation fronts, but they’re having a bit of fun lately. While Time and Bloomberg Businessweek collected top honors from their journalistic peers, Time and Newsweek reveled in the attention they got for their controversial covers.

While some were quick to point to these and other sensational covers as a sign of a desperation for magazines, others see a resurgence of conceptual and other experimental cover treatments, and with it, reason for optimism about the medium. Notably, in the Society for Publication Designers’ just-named 2012 awards, all 15 of the cover award finalists were idea covers.

The concept cover—whose current enthusiasm is driven by a handful of weeklies, like the Richard Turley-designed Businessweek and Tina Brown’s Newsweek—was made famous by George Lois, who artfully blended images, words and ideas to produce covers for Esquire like the one of Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian. It gave way to the celebrity cover, though, longtime magazine designer Roger Black lamented, and “it pretty much became accepted wisdom that idea covers don’t sell because it takes too long to figure out what the idea is in that half-second it takes to grab [the newsstand buyer].”

Now, with the newsstand shrinking relative to overall circulation, why not embrace the idea cover? “For many magazines, the newsstand has become less important,” said Adam Moss, the editor of New York. “It’s always been true for us, but now it’s true for others as well. When you don’t have to reach the widest possible audience, you’re allowed to use the audience for different purposes, and one of those is to make a statement, do something people will talk about, create excitement.”

Clearly, Businessweek, which has raised the bar for design overall under Turley, has been a big influence here. (It doesn't hurt that Businessweek's single-copy sales are relatively small, so it isn't beholden to the newsstand.) His graphic-heavy and often risqué covers are much admired in their own right, but all the more so because the innovation is coming from a genre not known for risk taking. Businessweek editor Josh Tyrangiel doesn’t do bland, though. “Our goal with the cover is to stop the story in a way that gets people’s attention,” he said. “The attention economy is so crowded. You absolutely need to put everything you have in your arsenal.”

Newsweeklies may not be big newsstand sellers, but that’s not to say concept covers can’t be blockbusters. Moss said his famous Eliot Spitzer cover was the best-selling of his tenure. Tina Brown, who championed the idea cover at The New Yorker in the ’90s, has used that trick plenty at Newsweek, helping lift newsstand sales 30 percent since she became editor a little over a year ago. “[Concept] covers give us the opportunity to visually deconstruct a topic and then direct our readers to the stories inside,” emailed Brown. The New Yorker’s David Remnick points out that his drawn concept covers stand out on the newsstand for the very reason that they’re “the ones without abdominal muscles.”

As newsstand volume has shrunk, social media have become a new way for magazines to disseminate and gauge the popularity of their content. By that measure, Newsweek's "gay president" cover was a big success: the original @Newsweek tweet debuting the cover was retweeted over 250 times, versus the magazine's average retweet of about 13, according to a spokesman. The cover was mentioned nearly 20,000 times on Twitter, and on tumblr, the cover debut got over 1,000 notes (which are likes or reblogs). 

Similarly, Time's breastfeeding cover received 43,000 Facebook likes and was mentioned 50,000 times on Twitter over eight days, starting when the cover first appeared, according to a spokesperson.

But for all the appeal, there are still reasons to shy away from conceptual covers.

“It’s very hard to get them simple enough to work,” Moss said. “A cover has to be clear; you have to understand what the magazine is trying to say to you.”

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