When Time magazine put a hot mom and her breastfeeding boy on the cover of its Mother's Day edition last week, the photographer Martin Schoeller explained he'd been inspired by images of the Madonna and Child. But it may be that the startling photo – and the recent barrage of arresting magazine covers from other weeklies – is rooted in a very different Catholic figure: Tony Soprano.
That's because, just as the so-called death of television over the past decade spawned a creative resurgence led by cable channels such as HBO and AMC, the much-hyped – indeed, overhyped – death of print is spurring a renaissance in magazine cover design.
Covers have always been magazines' calling cards, but for decades they also served as ads for the particular issues themselves, spurring readers to reach out and drop a few bucks as they passed newsstands. Some still serve that purpose: More than 90 per cent of the celebrity weekly In Touch's circulation is from single-copy sales, an apparently Pavlovian response by shoppers halted in the middle of the grocery store checkout line by a Kardashian sister photographed in a state of disarray or unparalleled splendour.
The single-most influential force in North American magazine covers over the past three decades has been Tina Brown, the British-born editor who imported a tabloid sensibility when she arrived in the U.S. from Tatler magazine in the early '80s. She immortalized a radiantly pregnant Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair and then scandalized regular readers of The New Yorker when she took over that magazine with more staid but still provocative images, such as a 1993 Valentine's Day illustration of an Orthodox man and a black woman in a closed-eye smooch. Spikes for both newsstand sales and circulation spurred endless talk of those magazines' "buzz."
Brown's special touch with covers failed when she founded Talk magazine in 1999, but she rediscovered a knack for outrageousness, if not artful nuance, when she landed atop Newsweek magazine last year. One of her covers featured a creepy Photoshopped image of Princess Diana walking beside Kate Middleton. Another captured Michelle Bachmann looking unsettlingly wild-eyed.
Which is why so many people interpreted last week's Time cover as a shot across Brown's bow. A Newsweek spokesman said that when Brown saw Time, "She laughed and said, 'Let the games begin.'" Over the weekend, only hours after Saturday Night Live featured Time's cover during a Weekend Update segment, Newsweek leaked its latest provocation: a photo of Barack Obama adorned with a rainbow halo and text that declared him to be "The First Gay President."
But if the games have just begun, they're a different sport than when Brown ran The New Yorker. Newsstand has dropped about 20 per cent across the board since 2008, as the distribution companies in the U.S. have consolidated: There are simply fewer retail outlets for magazines. So, while newsstand sales are still a barometer of a publication's heat, many magazine editors have chosen to stop chasing wide audiences – that is, they've spurned the network television model – in favour of engaging their niche readership with quality: a cable TV-style strategy.
"When you don't need to reach the widest possible audience, it gives you tremendous creative freedom," explained Adam Moss, the editor of New York magazine.
Two weeks ago, Moss and his troops won the American Society of Magazine Editors' Cover of the Year honours for an issue from last October featuring a Photoshopped image of a pregnant, white-haired woman in full Demi Moore-belly-grasp, with the cover line: "Is she just too old for this?" The magazine won the same award in 2008 for a cover featuring a photograph of a smiling Eliot Spitzer, with the word "BRAIN" in a red box, and an arrow pointing to his crotch.
Newsstand sales, Moss said, "are more or less meaningless, so that has always given us this great advantage." Editors of magazines that depend on newsstand sales, "can't really fool around too much. But if you're a magazine like Bloomberg Businessweek, or like us, where cover sales are not an important part of the occasion, where the cover has other purposes, then you can do something interesting."
Indeed, since its redesign two years ago, Bloomberg Businessweek has become a rare business publication that puts whimsy and creativity up front, even as the covers capture a moment. "Covers provide some fixity on a story, and if you follow news on the Web you never get that," said editor Josh Tyrangiel. "If you think about it that way, the 'posterizing' possibilities of stories are so much greater. People are desperate for the story to stop coming at them. So, for people who can conceptualize those things well, there's an audience that's really grateful."
Covers these days, he said, "are much more about trying to do zeitgeist documents that you hope get seen on television, on posters outside the train station, get passed around on the Web, than they are advertisements for immediate purchase."
Note to readers This story has been modified to reflect the following correction: Jon Meacham, not Tina Brown as stated in an earlier version of this story, was the editor of Newsweek when it published a cover with the text "How do you solve a problem like Sarah?" referring to Sarah Palin.