In some ways, the Julia Louis-Dreyfus Rolling Stone cover is a sign of how far we’ve come: A 53-year-old woman is naked on the cover of a major American magazine and the ensuing controversy isn’t about bare skin, but historical accuracy—the US Constitution is printed on her back with “John Hancock” scribbled atop her butt, but his famous signature actually graces the Declaration of Independence. The cover also elicited flutterings of important feminist analysis, almost universally arguing that Dreyfus looks great and is within her rights to pose however she wants, but that it’s a damn shame comedy remains so male-dominated and, to paraphrase Tina Fey, no one wants to hear from women if they keep talking after men stop wanting to screw them.
Notably, all of these critiques and analyses of a print magazine cover are leveled online. This makes sense: Today, online content proliferates far wider than print, and the single-issue sales covers are designed to attract of many major magazines are down by 43 percent since 2008. So all the tweeting and posting and analyses are about an art form that, at least in economic terms, is on its last legs.
Two decades ago, newsstands across the country wrapped Vanity Fair in paper to conceal a pregnant and nude Demi Moore. Mention the imminently talented Janet Jackson, and you’re likely to evoke three major cultural reference points: Miss Janet (if you’re nasty), wardrobe malfunction, and that Rolling Stone cover turned album art of Jackson in those high-rise, stone-washed jeans, arms up, with man-hands covering her bare breasts. John Lennon wrapped around Yoko Ono, also for Rolling Stone, is the iconic image of that relationship. Even National Lampoon’s 1973 “If You Don’t Buy This Magazine, We’ll Kill This Dog” bit triggered an immediate, emotive response—and remains a cultural touch point more than 40 years later.
That longevity in the cultural imagination made sense back when print was the only game in town. But now, we scroll through dozens of compelling images every day (and hundreds of mediocre ones). Some of us still buy print magazines, but ever more of us are reading the articles on tablets or laptops instead. And the volume of accessible content online far exceeds that at your local newsstand or grocery store checkout. And yet, despite such an enormous quantity of high-quality, cover-worthy imagery, the photos on the covers we can actually hold in our hands are what become online content fodder.
That scarcity may actually be the point. There’s not a widely read website in internet-town that keeps the same photo on the frontpage for more than a day, let alone a week or a month. Magazine real estate may be rendered more valuable by virtue of the fact that it’s more permanent—if you have a hard copy of a magazine you can store it away without the fear that you might go to read it one day and find an “Error: Page Unknown” message. And although fewer people may purchase a copy of Rolling Stone over the course of a month than click over to the homepage of a popular website, the eyes on a magazine cover may be more valuable than those on a quickly changing Web page. Even if you only look at magazine covers while waiting to check out at Walgreens or getting your nails done, your eyes are settling on a small handful of options, making each of them resonate more strongly than the hundreds of pictures in your 15 open browser tabs.
Magazines also have a cachet that newer folks on the internet all want: A “brand.” And part of that brand comes from attention paid to the cover art. The challenge for magazines now, Hearst Magazine President David Carey has said, is in “training subscribers to pay for digital content.” That’s a tall order online, where there’s a seemingly never-ending universe of high-quality content a mouse-click away. But it’s a necessary one in a country where overwhelming majorities of people get their news digitally: 82 percent read news on a laptop or desktop and 54 percent on a mobile device.
The Huffington Post averaged 45 million unique monthly visitors last spring, far more than picked up a copy of Rolling Stone. But most readers couldn’t tell you what image illustrated HuffPost’s front page last week (or in the last hour). Someone reading Vogue on an airplane probably doesn’t have to check the cover to tell you who’s gracing it.
There’s value in that branding for advertisers, who continue to pay more for hard-copy magazine space than digital editions. And there’s value for the cover model in being positioned as the flavor of month, not of the minute.
That’s true even given the fact that with print comes permanence, for better or worse—including an inability to fix that faulty John Hancock.