The wrong kind of attention

Newsweek's focus on provocative covers isn't a solid digital-age strategy

Talking about the relevance of magazine cover images feels comparable to mentioning that a newspaper story was “above the fold”—both are print media conventions with little significance in an age when most folks consume media digitally.

And yet, week after week, Newsweek’s cover manages to enter the conversation, mostly as a focal point for criticism among media watchers and on Twitter. It’s as though, as for a neglected child, bad attention trumps none.

In early August, the mag ran a suggestive photo of asparagus dangling over a plump, open, lipsticked mouth, angering feminists. The image turned out to be a stock photo, angering media purists. This was just the latest in a run of controversial covers since Tina Brown took over Newsweek in 2010. There was the photoshopped Princess Diana “strolling” with Kate Middleton, and the crazy-eyed “Queen of Rage,” Michele Bachman. This week, Ayaan Hirsi Ali penned Newsweek’s cover story, a sort of Western imperial take on last week’s anti-American riots in the Middle East (“If we take the long view, America and other Western countries can help make this (democratization) happen in the same way we helped bring about the demise of the former Soviet Union,” etc.) The story’s coverline contains more rage, this time Muslims’. When Newsweek asked readers to use the title as a hashtag to weigh in on the story

Twitter’s response was a torrent of tweets lampooning the phrase. (The New York Times had a story Monday that covered differing definitions of “freedom” in the US and in Islamic countries without suggesting that one worldview is better than the other.) Newsweek’s story, starting with its cover design, aimed for an emotional response rather than to further discourse toward a much-needed cross-cultural understanding.

Brown is a savvy, experienced media presence who was charged with revitalizing Newsweek after it merged with her site, The Daily Beast. She’s known in the industry as a masterful conversation starter, as Michael Wolff writes in his inaugural column in the redesigned USA Today, but one that is attempting to keep using old formulas in new equations:

It’s a world focused on the voodoo arts of traffic acquisition, cost control that depends on a cheap, young workforce that repurposes other people’s content, and a boundaryless relationship with advertisers that blurs the editorial and commercial.

In contrast, Brown has continued an old-line, even purist strategy: hiring big names, courting attention with teasing covers and building her brand through the media itself … She is, in a sink hole of cost, trying to use old-media tricks to meld The Daily Beast and Newsweek into the kind of zeitgeist-shaping, buzz-creating, cocktail-party-fueling package

She’s doing this in an era when sites like BuzzFeed and HuffPo have the “buzz-creating” locked down; and, in the process, Brown is tarnishing a legacy brand by insisting on making it a locus of the wrong kind of attention. And while readers may keep clicking—for now—Newsweek’s insistence on emphasizing incendiary cover design rather than than compelling journalism bodes ill for its longevity. In the digital news environment, covers aren’t currency, and there’s always something better a click away.

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg. Tags: , ,