Each month we pose a question to the brilliant Peter Houston, co-host of the Media Voices podcast, who will answer in his fabulously inimitable way. This month’s question comes from circulation and audience development consultant Joe Berger.
Housty, we have a problem
Who should control what goes on to a print cover and how should the print product then be promoted out to the social and newsletter audiences?
On the surface, this is a really easy question to answer: the editor of every publication has to have final control over absolutely everything that goes out to readers. Without this single point of reference, the risk is that the magazine won’t deliver a cohesive message.
Of course, that’s a very superficial answer. Dig down and the very best magazines are always incredibly collaborative. From positioning to posting on social media, a magazine team needs to be singing the same song, but with different voices. The editor’s job is to make sure their harmonies are spot on.
Legendary Time cover designer D.W. Pine told FIPP in 2018 that, at the end of the day, (usually Wednesday) what becomes a Time cover was the decision of the then editor-in-chief Edward Felsenthal. But before it got to Edward’s desk a team of about half a dozen had worked for hours to come up with ‘dozens’ of different approaches.
D.W. said, “The writers are the ones who intimately know the subject… I take input from the writers, because something they say could spark a visual idea. Then there’s the flip side… the cover has a separate mission from just illustrating the story. It is almost a story in its own right, an additional, distinct piece of reporting.”
Covers are a key area for collaboration. As well as telling their own story, that lead image needs to make a whole range of promises that the words inside can keep and without a clear editorial vision, the designer is working with one hand tied behind their back.
Equally, however, without the visual insight and imagination of a ‘pictures person’ a cover is never going to do the job it is there to do – tell the story of the issue quickly and in a way that gets people to pick it up and open it.
I was in London recently for Magculture Live where two towering figures of publication design – Neville Brodie of The Face fame and Debra Bishop of the New York Times Kids – spoke about how they do what they do. Both mentioned words as a starting point, both explained how they strived to elevate those words to a whole new level.
As an editor, I was genuinely in awe of how they saw beyond the words, beyond the grids, looking for ways to break rules that as an editor I didn’t even know existed.
Publishers could do way worse than look at D.W. Pine’s Time covers for insight on how to promote print covers online. This year, in a FIPP article celebrating Time’s Centenary, he explained that the job is the same – to be simple, clear, impactful – but the approach is different.
“We have to take a very complex subject, and crystallise it into a very simple 8 by 10 canvas,” he said. Time does that by using larger typography and simpler coverlines. It also uses animation to incredible effect and if you have the resources, making full use of digital possibilities brings something entirely new. But even without the time or money for animation, digital covers in social feeds and newsletters are a powerful attention getter.
The trick that we’re still trying to learn with The Grub Street Journal is how to convert online attention into single copy sales and subscriptions. It might seem obvious, but the secret formula lies in turning attention into action.
‘Nice cover’ replies on Instagram are not enough. ‘Nice cover, this issue is exactly what I’ve been looking for. Bought!’ is way better.
Peter Houston is one third of the Media Voices podcast, a magazine publishing consultant and trainer, freelance writer, and co-publisher of The Grub Street Journal, a magazine for people who make magazines.