Covering All the Bases  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April 2003

Covering All the Bases   

Magazines have discovered an effective sales tool in swapping out covers.

By Kevin Skaggs
Skaggs is a San Francisco-based writer whose work has appeared in Wired and Harvard Review.     


When Ann Getty's Pacific Heights home in San Francisco appeared on the cover of Architectural Digest's March issue, she was probably excited to have friends pick up a copy. Those who tried at newsstands, however, found something different than what subscribers got in their mailboxes. Instead of the socialite's home on the cover, newsstand shoppers saw Michael Imperioli, a young actor from "The Sopranos."

It's common now for magazine editors to do what are called "cover splits," choosing different covers for the same issue. Newsstands get one, subscribers another. Sometimes editors also choose different covers for an issue to go to different regions of the country. They'll even test a variety of covers for an issue to see which image sells best.

Though what's behind the cover stays the same, using cover splits means that more and more, a magazine cover is primarily a sales tool. More interestingly, the cover-splitting trend shows that these days, there's more than one target audience for a single magazine issue. With newsstand customers, as opposed to the subscriber who's already plunked down cash for the magazine, the cover's all about getting attention. And when it comes to attention-getting, Architectural Digest and other publications know that the cult of celebrity beats home design every time.

"We find that our subscribers are more interested in and receptive of design," says James Humphrey, Architectural Digest's senior manager of media relations. "Having the celebrity on the cover at the newsstands sells more issues."

"The cover split is one of those areas where you're walking a fine line, because the cover is part of the editorial package but also seen as something that sells the magazine on a newsstand," says Jeffrey Seglin, a former executive editor at Inc. magazine who's now director of the graduate program in writing and publishing at Boston's Emerson College. "Though you like to think it's driven by editors, and it should be because it's part of the editorial package, this is a case where covers have pressure from both sides."

Though Humphrey can't say exactly how much celebrity covers jump-start sales, he says tests have shown that famous faces do the trick. "It just makes sense," he says. "You can see a picture of a living room, but if you know that it's Cher's living room, you're more apt to pick it up and take a look."

This drive for newsstand sales has led magazines like Vanity Fair to lean on celebrities for covers. And it's why TV Guide published 35 different "collector" covers for the 35th anniversary of "Star Trek" in April 2002. Maxim even created 13 different regional versions of its "Greatest City on Earth" issue in March 2002--which caused readers from Boston to San Francisco to mistakenly believe that their hometown stood alone as "the greatest."

It's generally publishers with big bucks that are able to go to such lengths to drive sales. Companies like Time Inc. and Condé Nast have the resources and money to frequently create separate covers for a given issue and test-market them.

Not everyone's happy about these marketing tactics.

"It's a bit like cross-dressing," says Orville Schell, dean of the University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "It's something that grows out of bottom-line concerns rather than the concern with fashioning an identity that is coherent and well-established as a magazine. I think it speaks of a certain ingenuity but also a certain desperation that you can be everything to all people."

Others feel that the practice is fine as long as a publication doesn't promote something on the cover that's misleading or different from the actual contents of the magazine. In the case of Architectural Digest, Michael Imperioli was featured in the issue that Ann Getty received in her mailbox and the photo spread of Getty's house was included in the issue sold on newsstands. "With Architectural Digest, I don't think they've crossed the line," says Seglin. "The inside is essentially the same."

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