Category Archives: Coverlines

Seven Must-see, Must-read Links

Was8877923How headlines change what we think. From The New Yorker, of course.

This is great, the way price affects what and how we buy. From the Atlantic.

The best stories from Wired in 2014. All in one handy link.

Jeff Jarvis thinks very deeply about the future of journalism on Medium.

Time Inc. USA makes strenuous efforts to be seen as a technology business, reports Business Insider.

Meanwhile, Colin Morrison has produced this immensely detailed account of  Time Inc’s business, culminating in the prediction that Evelyn Webster will end up running the whole she-bang  sooner rather than later.

Then again, David Carr in The New York Times, speculates Time Inc. will all be sold to Meredith next year.

How the launch of Hearst’s Town & Country will help give Putin some manners

Quuen-putinIn her editors’ letter, Justine Picardie claims that the time is right for launch of Town & Country on account of  ‘a tidal wave of global wealth that is pouring into London’. She acknowledges the enduring appeal of traditional Britain, but make no mistake, it’s the international rich that advertisers want here, as opposed to a bunch of Downton fans.

Town & Country has been published in America since 1846, where, without a royal family, money really is the true indicator of social status. The big idea behind the UK edition is that this is increasingly the norm over here. If you can afford to buy your way into the highest echelons of English society, Town & Country will show you how to walk the walk.

Extreme wealth has never been a guarantee of social acceptability. The great English essayist G.K. Chesterton once said: “The rich…are egotistic, secretive, dry as old bones. To be smart enough to get all that money you must be dull enough to want it”

Whether this describes Vladimir Putin is neither here nor there, but we do need to know if Town & Country will succeed in its business of turning new money into old school charm. See more

Brand or content, what should be seen first?

people-logosThe UK newspaper People closed their website a little while ago. Launched with the idea that it would be ‘Buzzfeed for grown ups’, pretty much everything went wrong, according to this excellent reporting from of all places, Buzzfeed. Patrick Smith reports that there was a lack of identity, a lack of focus, and a complete failure to grasp how the native advertising business model works.

people-multiThis lack of brand benefit is perfectly expressed in the website logo. The way it worked (or rather, didn’t), was that the People logo was preceeded by a rotating series of words; ‘Sporty’, ‘Famous’, ‘Glam’, ‘Funny’ and so on. The story underneath didn’t change, but the context did.

What this did was remove any trace of brand from the content beneath. The stories became entirely generic, no tone, no point of view, no recall.

buzzfeedBy way of contrast, this is Buzzfeed’s home screen from the very same day. Which, when you compare the lead stories of ‘Bachelor’ and ‘Wanker’, pretty well sums up why Buzzfeed’s tone is so sharp.

Print has similar issues, but the context is very different. On a newsstand, when is right to put a coverline above the logo, and when should you never do it? Find out more after the jump.

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The colour of money: why does Hearst’s hot new launch look so bland?

dr-oz-the-good-lifeDr. Oz is a controversial figure. Billed as ‘America’s Most Trusted Doctor‘ he’s a top-notch heart surgeon, has a huge TV show and a massive social following. Oz has been named one of Esquires 75 Most Influential People of the 21st Century, as “the most important and most accomplished celebrity doctor in history.” But he often attracts establishment criticism, not just for advocating alternative therapies, but for his style. As a recent New Yorker profile explains, he employs words that serious scientists shun, like “startling,” “breakthrough,” “radical,” “revolutionary,” and “miracle.”

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Why The Independent redesign does not go far enough

This is the fifth redesign in as many years, which suggests Last Chance Saloon is not too far away. But here at coverthink we live in The Now, so let’s not worry about that, and just look at the work. The website has been redesigned alongside the paper, and there are interesting plans to introduce a new tablet app, but overall there appears to be no big change to the marketing of the brand. So I’m guessing the four redesign KPI’s are as follows:

1. Differentiate the paper against ‘i’, the Independent’s cheaper tabloid cousin.

This picture shows the previous confusion between the two, with both carrying red in the masthead. The new design has undoubtably separated the two products, primarily through making the logo a black serif and putting it on its side. Magazine logos have been seen like this (The Face circa 1990) and I’m sure there will be European papers pulling this stroke too, but it’s not been seen on a British paper before.

Under normal circumstances, I hate type on it’s side. But in this instance I have real sympathy to the approach. Independent is a very long word, so this way the logo remains BIG and the remaining space is cut into a different sort of shape.

But with no logo at the top, the key is to put stuff in its place that genuinely expresses the brand essence. It can be content or marketing, but it has to really rock.

The top of the paper starts with a band of white space (including barcode and red eagle), signalling its ‘magaziney’ intentions. But this illumination means nothing if the content beneath doesn’t repay the investment.

On this cover the opportunity has been missed. The words are underwhelming, the type is small and there is no hierarchy within this critical part of the page. Which is frustrating, as some of the content is strong and highly ‘ownable’.

The second difficulty the new logo creates is how to divide the page. On a normal width, this can be done vertically, like the Daily Mail and Express; splash on the left, picture story on the right.

But with the new Indy, the narrow page means the picture story is presented over the splash. This profoundly diminishes the headlines’ importance, as well as suggesting the picture story is somehow part of it. All in all, it makes the paper feel more like a monthy review rather than a crusading, urgent and compulsive daily purchase.

2. Sell more ads.

This might work, as the paper looks more sophisticated. There’s a nice use of white space, elegant typography, and a sense of restraint all round. Regular advertising is going to stand out better. But as far as I can see, the increasing shift of clients money into content marketing has not been addressed.

3. Improve reader satisfaction

I loved the Independent when it launched in 1986, and so did many others. As the current editor Amol Rajan said this week, “It was radically different, politically neutral, with huge pictures and real gusto.” This is the top of the first issue, taken from the Indy’s own cover gallery. But in recent years it has struggled to maintain a clear editorial direction compared to the clarity of the Guardian, Telegraph and Times. Whether due to failure of editorial or creative direction is neither here nor there, a redesign is always an opportunity to have a fresh start.

The new look has been led by Matt Wiley, a well respected magazine designer, responsible for the upmarket men’s magazine Port, along with plenty of other good work.

A full set of original fonts have been cut especially for the paper. They’re really good new typefaces, and give a great opportunity for the Indy to deliver content in its own voice. There’s an excellent overview in Creative Review, taking us through the design in fine detail, along with many images of the type in action.

But for all the beauty of the type, some of it is just too small to be easily legible. Readers have complained, obliging Amol Rajan to say that he has taken these comments on board and ‘asked the designers to address them urgently’.

Roy Greenslade, writing in the Guardian, applauds the team for the redesign, appreciating the “commitment to essay-writing as distinct from news busy-ness”. But he also points to the weakness of placing the editorial on page two, as well as other flatplan adjustments. Overall, he suggests readers will more baffled more than anything else.

For me, I have mixed feelings. I’ve bought the paper three times in three days, having not picked up a copy for years. I’ve read it, and I’ve enjoyed it.

But for all the boldness of the new logo, they just haven’t gone far enough. If the Independent’s owner, Evgeny Lebedev, can describe his paper as having “a proud record of innovation”, he should have put his money where his mouth is and done this:

a) Make the splash headline really tell the story. A few more words would deliver real newsstand cut-through, as well as allowing the line to be replicated and owned across all the digital platforms.

b) Properly visualise the splash. Use an infographic, a powerful picture or a typographic solution. Make the whole cover an image that people will want to share, to establish the idea of the front page as an event, as opposed to a template.

c) Put less copy in the paper, make the type bigger, and let stories run longer online. That way, browsing the paper will be a more pleasurable experience, as well as letting the print serve to market the digital platform.

d) Move the horizontal ad position off page three onto page two. As it stands, the paper comes to a grinding halt before it’s even begun.

4. Stabilise newsstand circulation

As always, this is the only KPI editors and owners really care about. Here’s the petrol station in Hackney where I bought my issue last Thursday. Given the current landscape, you’d be a brave man to think that a redesign alone will shift more copies. The fact of the matter, is that paid-for media brands now have to work incredibly hard to stimulate demand. This requires great content, a powerful brand filter and a sophisticated marketing operation. Daily newspapers must set the agenda, and get talked about across every platform.

There’s an interview with Editor Amol Rajan in Media Week, where he talks a good talk about his hopes for the redesign. Media week says: “By recalling the spirit of its founders, Rajan hopes to reinforce the paper’s Enlightenment values and strike a chord in what he considers to be an increasingly ‘sceptical but engaged’ age”

But the line that caught my eye was: “There are maybe a dozen areas we can do absolutely better than everybody else”.

Like all the other serious broadsheets, The Independent covers just about everything. so communicating this brand’s point of difference is absolutely essential in letting the reader know why they are buying it. The primary task of a redesign like this is to focus the readers attention on the things that really matter, but for me this is where it falls down. The design is too polite, and the editorial direction not ruthless enough.

Add that to the lack of newsstand cut through, and I can’t see this redesign making any significant difference to copy sales any time soon. I really hope I’m wrong.

What the hell is going on with Oprah Magazine?

I saw this issue of Oprah in the airport last week. A huge stack of what was once a newsstand powerhouse absolutely nailed to the shelves. A very ordinary picture of Oprah, horrible typography, cheap colours and a splash line that insults it’s readers by suggesting that they are already dead.

It’s nearly as bad as this other car crash of a cover from a few months ago.  Again, awful typography, nasty colours, and a tired splash line.

This really does break my heart. For a good while Oprah was one of the greatest magazines in the world, due in no small part to the great Design Director Carla Frank. Witness the confidence of this, the first anniversary issue. Much more of Carla’s amazing work on Oprah can be found here on her site.

It wasn’t that bad even a year ago, here’s an earlier coverthink post that highlights some smart type, great colour control and a compelling proposition. All sadly lacking today.

I know that Oprah is not on the telly like she was, and that will absolutely impact sales. Along with general newsstand decline this has made for some pretty horrible numbers for Oprah recently. The idea of trying and connect with a slighter more mainstream audience is a good one, but this is so not the way to do it.

An Englishman In New York

Well, sort of…

If you haven’t already guessed, this is my favourite magazine. Which seems more than appropriate since I’m currently consulting in New York City. You’ll find a shorter version of this post in the new book My Favo(u)rite Magazine, along with 88 other fantastic titles. It’s a brilliant project for a truly worthy cause, if you haven’t already done so, you can order yours at magculture right now.

The New Yorker

I lived in New York City for three years from 2001, taking up a position on Condé Nast’s Mademoiselle, and Rolling Stone after that. When asked what I thought of The New Yorker, I replied: ‘Not much’, brought up as I was on a diet of Smash Hits, The Face and European news weeklies. What business did I have with pages of uninterrupted text and tales of some place called ‘The Upper East Side’

9/11 changed all that. Not only did I become a New Yorker in that moment, but suddenly I had an appetite for news about America’s place in the world I could really trust. And for me, trust is still the strongest editorial currency; a value The New Yorker has held for an awfully long time.

With the most polyglot population imaginable, New York is truly a world city. Along with the movies, TV shows and general mythology, I believe everyone carries a little bit of the city with them. Should we wish, we can all be spiritual New Yorkers even if we have never lived there.

I could have chosen many issues as my favourite, but in the end I plumped for one I was reading when writing this post. From July 9th 2012, it’s not exactly the current issue, but I only finished reading it in the bath last week.

One reason why print still works so well, is the visibility and sheer physicality of the navigation. You always know exactly where you are, both on the page and in the book. The New Yorker amplifies this benefit by setting the type perfectly, using a minimum of page furniture and appearing to never change.

This means the reader experience can become highly ritualised. Flip though the cartoons, read the reviews, zip through Talk of The Town, and only then dive into a feature.

In my July 9th issue, I’d pulled out pages 48 to 68 in order to keep the floor clean as I clippered my hair. But mercifully, the big TED talks feature ‘Listen And Learn’ had remained intact. I wasn’t planning to read ten thousand words on something I wasn’t exactly searching for, but such is my trust in the brand, I made a start.

And what a piece of journalism it is. Immaculately researched and full of insight, the story had such power that it ever-so-slightly adjusted my world view, in a way that I believe will be permanent. Which is surely the greatest thing any media brand can ever do.

Finally, the cover; a celebration of Barack Obama’s health reforms. And like all New Yorker covers, it works on many levels. As an illustration, it requires the viewer to exercise their imagination. But then, this opening of our minds then allows the masthead to really work its genius. Because with no other coverlines, the masthead becomes the caption. In this moment, Barack Obama clearly has become a New Yorker.

But more than that, (and at the risk of appearing in Pseuds Corner), if we are all spiritual New Yorkers, looking at any New Yorker cover means that in some small way, we end up looking at a reflection of ourselves.

Glamour. But at what price?

September issues are a big deal for any fashion magazine, none more so than for US Glamour, Condé Nast’s most profitable newsstand title. But new figures released this week show the title to be 28% down year-on-year, so the stakes couldn’t be higher, particularly since Anna Wintour was named Artistic Director for all Condé Nast titles earlier this year.

Let’s be clear, the reason why sales are so rubbish is all to do with change in audience behaviour, not because the work is no good. It doesn’t matter how hot your cover is if no-one is standing in front of it. This means it’s critical to find new ways to market the benefits of print, along with maximising other revenue streams.

With Glamour, one big way of balancing the books is through ad revenue. So how is the design of the title changing to that agenda, and where does it leave their relationship with both the industry and the readers?

Access is everything. It’s the biggest issue of the year, so you have to have Jen, still the biggest newsstand star. The picture is incredible. Beautifully composed, amazing light, great styling, smart props, enviable location. When seen on Facebook or any other digital platform where potential readers will first encounter the work, it’s perfect.

Print is demanding. When you actually see the magazine, there’s a considerable amount of grain in the cover photo creating a very noticable effect. For some Twitter users this caused genuine disappointment when they saw the real thing. More critical is whether the grain has any impact at newsstand, I certainly saw it before I bought my copy.

Eye contact really means something. However ace the cover is, eye contact is where the relationship with the reader begins. And this takes place in a tiny area of the image. If excessive grain makes this contact diffused, all sorts of questions occur. Has the picture been retouched? Is the picture original? Was the image ever intended to be a cover? In short, are the readers being shown the truth?

Don’t piss off the talent. The whole set has the same grain, yet the photographer Alexei Hay is hardly a beginner. In fact he’s built up an exceptional list of celebrity clients. So I must assume this grain is a deliberate choice. It’s a super flattering technique, but possibly of greater benefit to the star than the reader. Jen’s an amazing looking woman, as a recent selfie proves. But she’s also pushing on a bit, so the risks of being seen to be less than perfect are perhaps still too high for the brand to carry.

Craft still matters. Creative Director Geraldine Hessler is a true master of this kind of work, so there’s much to admire. She manages the newsstand paradox perfectly. Great type, yet loads of lines, lots of color yet a cool black logo. My only quibble is that as this is a special Hollywood issue, centering that line alone does not communicate this ‘specialness’ at all.

Make all the ads look good. I haven’t seen the US version for quite a while, so I’ve missed the change to Helvetica throughout the book, all the way up to and including the cover. This is easily my favourite font of all time, witness the Coverthink logo.

In Glamour, all the pages look terrific. But more than that, the ruthless typographic discipline creates outstanding relationships between editorial and ads, as the content looks well branded, yet neutral. Which is of course, Helvetica’s dark secret. If there is a problem, it’s that many of the sections look very similar, the whole mag can feel one paced. But hey, if it flatters the client…

Make it look like Vogue. What Editor-In-Chief Cindi Leive thinks of Anna Wintour now being on her masthead is anyone’s guess. And I don’t know if the recent design changes pre-date her arrival or are  pre-emptive moves. But the fact remains that the mag is now red and black throughout. This is a HUGE move. It’s much more fashion, a lot older, and a lot more premium. Again, it helps with the ads, as many of the editorial pages are now entirely monochrome.

The upshot is, Glamour now looks an awful lot like Vogue.

Make it look even more like Vogue. Helevtica’s great, but it needs a foil. So just to make sure, Glamour now sports a smart new serif. It’s not Vogue‘s Didot, but it sure is a pretty close cousin.

Understanding brand values is everything. Like all general interest women’s magazine brands, Glamour has an overarching dilemma. When you cover a bit of everything (fashion, features, sex, real life, etc), how can you truly define yourself when content won’t do the job for you. This is where tone, both visual and written, is absolutely key.

Tone is the fastest and deepest way of establishing who the reader really is. And this is where Glamour is running the greatest risks. If she were your best friend (and many women’s mags like to make this claim) is she still the clever, sassy and friendly girl you used to know?

Or, has she dropped two dress sizes, become really hip and a little less approachable?

I have always held the view that Condé Nast has only ever been about one brand, Vogue. And that every other title they publish has a substantial amount of Vogue in their DNA. This is no bad thing of course, but given the bun fight we’re all involved with now, it’ll be interesting to see how Cindi Leive keeps hold of her hat.

(Full disclosure: I was Creative Director of Mademoiselle, US Glamour’s now closed sister title, back in 2001)

Why the picture’s not the problem

As an ex Art Director of Rolling Stone, I’ve been reading a lot about this week’s cover, which has created a shit-storm of accusations that they are glamourising an alleged killer.

The Guardian report that certain retailers will not stock it. Jezebel has a good round-up with lots of supporting visuals. The Huffington Post says they were right. Boston magazine says they were wrong. Bloggers far and wide are all busily casting theories, culminating with The New Yorker’s well made opinion:

‘This is an example of two of the ugly public outcomes of terrorism: hostility toward free expression, and to the collection and examination of factual evidence; and a kind of culture-wide self-censorship encouraged by tragedy, in which certain responses are deemed correct and anything else is dismissed as tasteless or out of bounds.’

My view is that Rolling Stone are quite within their brand and their remit to write this story, and perfectly entitled to put this picture on the cover, just as many newspapers have done. Here’s the New York Times, by way of example.

Where this has gone wrong is how the picture is perceived. When Rolling stone put serial killer Charles Manson on the cover back in the 70’s the magazine still had a newspaper format. Crucially, the logo did not go over the image, itself virtually an illustration. This meant critical distance was maintained, there was no endorsement, and no outrage (not that I can remember!).

But put the logo over a glossy image and everything changes. To hell with what an editor might think, the public see this as invitation to admire the subject, to buy into the fantasy, to identify with the brand’s cover choice.

This is an extraordinary image for Rolling Stone to use, not because he looks like a Rock Star, but because it’s a selfie. Rolling Stone is legendary and rightly so for creating powerful identities on their cover. Here, they are doing nothing more than reflecting back to us the vanity of a young man’s narcissism, complete with his Armani Exchange T-shirt.

Regardless of the quality of the reporting inside, the use of such an image was always going to be the story. Particularly for a title with such a history of putting long-haired hippies on the cover and asking us to love them.

Already, thousands of people are firmly of the belief that Dzhokhar could never have committed the crimes he is accused of, purely because of the way he looks in this image. We are such a visual society that we are willing to ignore any amount of hard evidence in favour of a good haircut.

My complaint lies with the words ‘The Bomber’. Notwithstanding that he is innocent until proven guilty, and that any editor in the UK would never get such a headline through their lawyer (read Roy Greenslade on the matter here), it’s this unthinking label that causes the problem. Unlike the New York Times headline (The dark side, carefully masked), ‘The Bomber’ does not comment on the image.

Without the words, we don’t really know what to think. The picture asks a good question, but it’s up to the editors to let us understand what this picture really means. Are we: ‘Looking at the face of American youth’ Or is it: ‘What this picture says about America today’. Who knows, and of course, very easy to say with hindsight.

Another route to making this cover work would be a layout that detaches the image from the logo. At this point there is no explicit editorial endorsement of the image. It’s the technique that has allowed Time magazine to put any number of mass murderers on its covers over the years.

Or of course, they could go the Manson route and abstract the image, so that it no longer becomes a depiction of reality. Rolling Stone would still have a controversial cover, they might still be accused of glamourising terrorism, but perhaps they could have avoided the Boycott Rolling Stone facebook page, currently at 142k likes and rising at the rate of 2000 an hour.

Update: since this post was made, Rolling Stone reports that this issue doubled it’s newsstand sale.