Have Newsweek and Time’s provocative magazine covers crossed a line?

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

News magazines, like all old-school print media, are struggling to capture eyeballs in the age of the Internet, whether its for their hard-copy or online editions.

But have Time and Newsweek crossed some kind of line with their latest provocative covers?

The U.S. cover of Time's May 21st edition touts a feature piece on attachment parenting by showing an attractive blonde mom with her three-year-old son clamped to her bare breast.

Now, the latest edition of Newsweek features a story on the evolution of President Barak Obama's views on gay marriage with a cover anointing him as "The First Gay President," along with an illustration showing a rainbow-coloured halo over Obama's head.

Leaving aside the controversial topics themselves, some observers wondered about the propriety of the covers and, more importantly, their effectiveness as circulation boosters.

BuzzFeed.com contributor Andrew Kaczynski tweeted this Photoshopped version of the Time cover, asking how desperate the venerable news mag is.

For media watchers, there's nothing surprising about these covers. They're a 'well, duh' moment.

"Every once in a while, many in the news business seem to rediscover something that's always been rather obvious: Publishers will put provocative images on their magazines and newspapers — and now their websites — in order to create "buzz" and, they hope, attract readers." Mark Memmott wrote on National Public Radio's Two-Way blog.

The Poynter Institute, a media-research think tank, called Newsweek's cover "a flag in the ground for print journalism," which overshadowed at least temporarily the story itself.

"One might, at this benighted point in print-journalism history, ask what difference the cover of a magazine actually makes," Andrew Beaujon wrote.

News magazines are no longer a cultural force, he said, and Newsweek's circulation last December was just over 40,000, less than half the 2007 figure.

"But they still occupy a nice piece of cultural real estate. An article in a newsweekly has as much chance of becoming the focus of cultural conversation as a photo of a falling bear or a review of an Olive Garden in a North Dakota newspaper, but an arresting cover is an assertion that while print magazines' power may have receded, they're far from toothless."

Beaujon pointed out Time's "breastfeeding" cover sparked controversy about the impact on breastfeeding when the story itself wasn't really about that.

When Newsweek publisher Tina Brown saw the Time cover, she laughed and said "let the games begin," according to a Newsweek spokesperson.

But as NPR's Memmott noted, the discussion of the covers has been largely online and on television, "mostly among people who almost surely haven't gone out to buy the magazines.

"That's why it doesn't seem to us that this is so much about whether 'print journalism still matters' as it is about what we said at the start of this post — the power of images."

Canada's venerable news magazine, Maclean's, has not been shy about using cover controversies to raise its profile in recent years.

The Quebec government demanded an apology in 2010 for a cover that depicted the province's iconic Quebec Winter Carnival mascot, Bonhomme Carnaval, beside the headline "The Most Corrupt Province in Canada."

The magazine didn't oblige.

"We were aware that some of our readers might find the cartoon on the cover to be provocative," the magazine said in statement reported by CTV News. "But we think that the articles should be read and judged based on their own merits of fair and credible journalism."

Maclean's circulation for the last six months of 2011 averaged more than 330,000, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. But in 2009, it was 355,000.

Magazines Canada noted a Leger Marketing survey commissioned by the Periodical Marketers of Canada found Canadians still love reading magazines.