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Judging by the Cover: How the Magazine Industry’s Identity Crisis Is Playing Out on Its Front Page

Print may be dying, but the magazine cover still plays an essential role in defining—and sustaining—a media brand. Can the cover outlive the magazine?

Alycea Tinoyan

Vogue’s September issue is fabled in the magazine world. Advertisers flock to it, an entire 2009 R.J. Culter documentary revolves around it, and high-profile celebrities vie to pose for it. Its annual debut has become a Groundhog Day–esque event among publishers, who measure its size and content-to-advertising ratio to evaluate the health of the industry. This year, the magazine pulled off yet another headline-making September issue: On its cover was the inimitable Beyoncé, resplendent with flowery headpiece, in a photograph taken by 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell—the first African American photographer to shoot a Vogue cover in its 126-year history. In the issue was a first-person account of Beyoncé’s recent pregnancy. And on the internet was instant buzz about the intimate confessions from the world’s most coveted pop star. The whole package was exactly the kind of “get” for which a glitzy fashion magazine exists.

But it came with some caveats. A week before Vogue premiered its cover, the Huffington Post detailed some of the “unprecedented” behind-the-scenes negotiations that took place to make it happen. According to the report, the magazine was “contractually obligated to give Beyoncé full control over the cover, the photos of her inside the magazine and the captions, which she has written herself.” It was Beyoncé who—in her own centerspread words— “stripped away the wigs and hair extensions and used little makeup for this shoot” to encourage “women and men to see and appreciate the beauty in their natural bodies.” It was Beyoncé who subsequently posted the photos on Instagram, where I, and likely millions more, first saw them. And it was Beyoncé’s Instagram account that dozens of websites raided to embed the images in blog posts. In the styling, photography, words, and digital distribution, Vogue came off as a supporting actor in its own September issue cover—even if Mitchell and editor Anna Wintour eventually said otherwise.

Leveraging America’s most prestigious tastemaker to uplift people of color is an important milestone—especially at a moment when we are reshaping longstanding cultural institutions to better reflect the makeup of our country. But separately, Beyoncé’s involvement in both creating and distributing a famous magazine cover represents a certain change at Vogue, and in the media landscape. Since celebrities began appearing on magazines in the late ’90s, cover stories have always been heavily negotiated miracles, representing countless hours of heated discussions between bookers and publicists about photographers, styling, class of travel, shoot locations, and choice of writers. But it was not long ago that Kanye West courted Wintour to feature his wife on Vogue’s cover, proof that print still had some sort of upper hand. Even if Beyoncé is often the exception to the celebrity-industrial complex’s conventions, her takeover shows that the most elite publications are ceding control to the celebrities they rely upon to prop up their dwindling print sales. One need look no further than a Elle cover story in which Jennifer Lawrence “interviewed” Emma Stone to understand that magazine journalism frequently takes a backseat to booking big names.

It’s no coincidence that coverage like this comes at a time when many magazines are grasping for life. Not long before the Beyoncé cover dropped, The New York Times reported that Condé Nast—the parent company to Vanity Fair, GQ, The New Yorker, and Vogue, among others— lost more than $120 million last year, and that it will soon sell three of its 14 titles. (Wintour’s job was also rumored to be in danger, but as of publication date, the bobbed editor remains.) Weeks later, The Wall Street Journal reported that New York magazine, an independent observer of America’s cultural and political zeitgeist, is considering a sale. Over the past few years, titles like Rolling Stone, Time, and Sports Illustrated have been on the market, playing a frantic game of musical chairs to find buyers who won’t gut and sell them for parts. (The latter title is slated to be sold within the next two weeks, according to a source familiar with the matter. The magazine’s parent corporation, Meredith, did not respond to a request for comment.) And all the while, legendary figures from a bygone era occasionally wash ashore, like loose pieces of the Titanic, to remind us how drastically the industry has changed. Graydon Carter, the old-boys’-club editor of Vanity Fair from 1992 to 2017, and self-described “glorified maître d’” to its lavish soirees, has retreated to Provence and invested in a news app named Zig. Gabé Doppelt, who spent three decades as an editor at outlets like Vogue, Vanity Fair, Mademoiselle, W, The Daily Beast, and Tatler, is now an actual maître d’ at the famed Tower Bar, a famous Hollywood hangout. “Believe it, darling,” the 58-year-old told The New York Times last month. “Magazines are over!”

Three Vanity Fair covers

Doppelt’s declaration, fit for a coverline, is a slight exaggeration. Magazines may not be nearly as fat and happy as they were before the internet, but they live on, sometimes even after they’ve officially left their print corpses. (See: Self.) Doppelt’s larger point is that in a world of digital journalism, YouTube, Instagram, Netflix documentaries, Tumblr, and WordPress, magazines no longer have a monopoly on the concept they invented. And as advertising dollars follow readers to digital publications, they no longer have the budgets to outspend the competition. The considerable staff that traditional print magazines relied on to style photoshoots, design pages, fact-check stories, and copyedit words have been separated from their parent titles and consolidated into one department; the print issues are thinner and thinner. When I was an editorial assistant at Vanity Fair five years ago, evidence of that dulling was everywhere: In the success of a cheap-shot Kennedy-themed cover over one featuring an up-and-coming actress, in the tendency to pile additional online responsibilities onto already overworked editors, and in the refreshments for our annual holiday party, which came from bottles of Moët emblazoned with bejeweled golden letters that read “WOODY HARRELSON”—clear leftovers from the previous year’s Oscar party.

One very public-facing fragment of the medium remains: the cover. A magazine cover is all at once a cultural statement, a conversation starter, a negotiating asset, a digital selling point, a mood. “I like to think of the SI covers as almost, in some ways, the original meme,” Sports Illustrated’s executive editor, Stephen Cannella, told me. “It was a sign that you had arrived, as an athlete, or that this was the biggest story in sports this week or this month or this year.” Covers now function as advertisements for something far beyond a single magazine issue: merchandise, collector’s items, spinoff publications, books, recommended products, behind-the-scenes YouTube videos, television shows, and in-person events or conferences. “Somebody from our marketing department once said to me, it would cost us up to $3 million a month in advertising to get as much exposure to the public as having our magazines out on the newsstand,” said Susan Goldberg, the editor-in-chief of National Geographic. “Even when there were more newstands, it was never our biggest source of revenue, but it’s worth a lot to us to just have it out there and have it in the public consciousness.”

Alongside this brand expansion, magazines have redesigned their covers to be more minimalist, utilizing bold, closely cropped photography and fewer coverlines for a greater visual impact. They have adjusted their editorial visions, often confronting their brand’s history with more challenging, culturally inquisitive subject matter. Magazine covers are now beginning to better reflect society—not only with their changing cover subjects, but with stories that strive to better understand identity and representation in the world of pop culture and beyond. “The aspiration has shifted to being not so much about material things but to a kind of cultural aspiration,” said Vanity Fair deputy editor Claire Howorth.

These approaches have brought a certain creative rejuvenation to the industry: Not only did the Beyoncé cover shoot make history, it was a refreshing, visually compelling take on a craft long dominated by the likes of Mario Testino and Annie Leibovitz. In the same way it feels genuinely novel to see an all-Asian cast in a Western blockbuster such as Crazy Rich Asians, it’s just as thrilling to see those new faces splashed across the cover of The Hollywood Reporter. And even science-centric magazines like National Geographic have begun to engage with hot-button issues like gender and race with provocative (if sometimes clumsy) cover subjects.

But this enlightened era has also created a fractured audience: younger, less committed readers who exist in the digital sphere, and older, loyal subscribers who feel alienated by change. In a fight for survival, the average mainstream magazine is undergoing an identity crisis. Stop and look, and you’ll see it playing out in the most public place possible: the cover.

Once upon a time, the magazine cover was a much simpler concept. At the start of the 20th century, the industry was experiencing explosive growth and still happily exploring revenue streams in subscription bases, newsstands, and sales abroad. A cover’s look depended on where and how the magazine was sold, and because subscriptions were the go-to revenue source for many upstart titles, that meant most magazines relied on eye-catching illustrations or newsy photographs to do the talking. When Sports Illustrated launched in 1954, for instance, it published multiple covers featuring a photo or illustration of a game bird simply because it could. “We had a virtual monopoly on national and global sports coverage for a very long time, certainly before the internet,” the magazine’s current editorial director, Chris Stone, told me. “You didn’t have to do the kinds of selling job with covers that you do now.”

Around the 1920s, magazine sales began to shift from subscription-based revenue models to those that more heavily relied upon newsstand sales. “Most publishers found single-copy sales more profitable than subscriptions,” Theodore Peterson wrote in his 1956 book, Magazines in the Twentieth Century. “Many advertisers were more impressed by newsstand sales, which they regarded as an indication that the reader bought the magazine because he really wanted it, not because he had been inveigled by high-pressure sales talks, premium offers, or bargain rates.” This trend slowly but surely led to the transformation of magazine covers from arresting works of art to attention-seeking mini billboards. As titles expanded their reach to grocery store checkout lines, bookstores, kiosks, and airports, and more magazines entered the competitive field, editors added explanatory text to their covers in the hopes of drawing attention. Flipping through Time’s archive from decade to decade offers a guide to the gradual aesthetic changes that magazines adopted to survive. In the 1960s, it began decorating the top corners of its covers with yellow and white sashes that advertised “REACHING FOR THE MOON” or “CHINA IN CHAOS” as a means to peek out from sales racks. The next decade, its headline fonts became larger, bolder, and more integrated with the art of the covers themselves. Following a trend set by Cosmopolitan’s Helen Gurley Brown, cover models were increasingly racy, and photographed to make eye contact with readers. Coverlines became more colloquial, and grabbier. (“Soap Operas: Sex and Suffering in the Afternoon,” read one January 1976 Time cover. “The Porno Plague,” read another later that year.) Around the 1980s, subheadlines became common, and cover text waded into territory we might commonly classify today as clickbait. “Is Anything Safe?” asked one 1989 issue about food safety. A few months later, a cover story on adoption was teased with the headline “Want a Baby?” The text on publications as varied as Cosmopolitan (“The Chilling Lure of Cocaine—Could You Be Hooked?”) and National Geographic (“OUR IMMUNE SYSTEM: THE WARS WITHIN”) during the ’80s matched this tone. And they sounded desperate for a reason: From 1982 to 1993, the number of magazines in circulation grew from 1,800 to 3,300. During roughly that same span, single-copy sales of the 123 best-selling magazines in the United States declined by more than one-third, according to a 1993 New York Times report.

Cable Neuhaus, who was an editor at newsweeklies like People and Entertainment Weekly from 1990 to 2000, recalls frequent conversations and case studies about how to best move magazines from the newsstands. Factors like lighting and whether a point of sale was indoors or outdoors, might influence a person’s decision. “We thought about newsstand all the time, we researched the covers, we contemplated, we had theories about what would sell,” Neuhaus said. “The conventional wisdom was that you had roughly three seconds to catch a prospective buyer’s attention at the newsstand. For the most part, most editors still think this way. The covers need to be instantly compelling in one way or another, either because it’s beautiful, it’s revolting, it’s astonishing. But you just don’t have a lot of time.”

The cover as a literal selling point led magazines to a logical conclusion: the more recognizable a cover subject, the better the sales. Following a late-’90s push from Wintour for more actors, musicians, and political figures on the cover of Vogue, other lifestyle and fashion magazines followed suit, marrying the aspirational consumerism the industry had peddled for so many years with an elite celebrity class. “Whether the woman in question is a mere costar in a feel-good Robin Williams vehicle (Monica Potter, an actress in ‘’Patch Adams,’’ who poses on the January cover of Self) or the First Lady of the United States (who appeared on the cover of Vogue in December), it is the newly held belief of women’s magazine editors that she will sell a cover better than any model,” The New York Times wrote in 1999. This shift was so widely adopted that it created a new category of celebrity: the “cover-only” star, who will grant access only in exchange for a magazine’s top billing. And in ensuing years, editors continued to chase the most familiar faces possible, branching out into television and eventually reality shows.

Two Glamour covers

The digital publishing boom chopped away at the base of the magazine industry’s cultural perch. Newsweeklies were suddenly chasing the heels of online entities like The Drudge Report, The Huffington Post, and The Daily Beast. Sites like Gawker, xoJane, Pitchfork, and a litany of other blogs wrested the tastemaker cred away from celebrity-focused lifestyle, entertainment, and fashion magazines. Meanwhile, print publications were slow to invest in a digital presence, or find ways to reduce exorbitant operational costs that could no longer be supported by the drop in advertising dollars. These difficulties left the magazines more attached to the illustrations, photography, and celebrity-centric portraiture displayed on their covers. (And in some cases, pushed them to amp up cover text, to communicate an abundance of valuable content: Some of Esquire’s mid-aughts issues by former design director David Curcurito loaded the cover with so much text that it was often illegible.) As magazine mastheads were trimmed from behind the scenes, the cover became an essential differentiating factor, a kind of visual shield that separated them from their scrappy digital competitors.

“[In the early aughts,] there was just less visual media,” an editor at a female-focused Hearst publication told me. “If you were going to see a new photo of Jennifer Aniston—not a paparazzi photo, a professional photo—it was probably going to be on the cover of Vanity Fair or Vogue. It wasn’t going to be on Jennifer Aniston’s Instagram. Because Instagram didn’t exist.”

Magazines now face an even greater threat to their leverage: social media. “Celebrities used to go to magazines to break this news and be like: ‘Hey, we have something to say, can we do it in your pages. We’ll offer you an exclusive because we love the brand,” the same editor said. “But they don’t need it anymore.” Not only can media-savvy stars like the Kardashians announce the birth of a child on their own Instagram account, they can orchestrate and style their own photo shoots, create their own beauty tutorials, shill for their own products, and generate their own gossip. And because readers’ feeds are already saturated with celebrity images, that often means less reaction to the monthly debut of a magazine cover.

“It goes up on Instagram and, you know, there are like fun GIFs that PR folks send out, that are like, ‘Oh, if you want to post this, here’s the image, or here’s the video of the cover coming together,’” the editor said. “You see a lot of magazines doing those hyperlapse-y things. The Fug Girls will go through and debrief. But that’s it. There’s no ripple effect.”

Even if social platforms have democratized the distribution of celebrity content, being featured on the cover of a magazine still represents an important career milestone for a certain cadre of actors, musicians, and athletes. “The cover is definitely how we were able to get Brad Pitt to participate in our GQ Style cover,” said Dana Mathews, the magazine’s senior entertainment editor. “And how we were able to get top-wattage people to work with us. It’s really important.” After being featured on GQ’s March cover, she recalls a toast that Timothée Chalamet gave at a magazine event, in which he expressed gratitude for landing his first GQ cover. “You can see it in people’s faces that it’s still a big deal to get the cover,” she said. “That’s still a culturally relevant moment to have, even though there’s all of these digitally focused things that come from it.” According to Mathews, it is also that pull that allows magazines to negotiate unique access for writers and videographers, whether that means making bolognese with Tom Hiddleston or quizzing Kylie Jenner and Travis Scott about how well they know each other.

However threatened magazines might be by a host of more nimble digital competitors, their covers still deliver something other people can’t: access. Even when a star’s pap shots, selfies, and beauty tutorials are scattered across the internet, an intimate afternoon or video shoot with them stands out. The cover remains the ultimate leveraging tool, and the brand’s most recognizable advertisement for itself.

Time has maintained its famous red border (with few exceptions) since 1927, but what occupies that space in 2018 is decidedly more high concept. Take its September 3 cover: released during a week in which President Donald Trump was implicated in a criminal conspiracy, it depicts an illustration of the president’s lower torso—denoted by his signature ponch and thick, red tie—floating underwater in the Oval Office, with only the words “In Deep.” The magazine premiered an animated version of the image on Twitter before the print issue hit newsstands. From there, astute political observers noted that this was the third in a series of Time covers by illustrator Tim O’Brien depicting inclement weather in the presidential headquarters. And that observation was quickly volleyed into multiple blog posts delighting in the Easter egg. (“The ‘In Deep’ Trump ‘TIME’ Cover Is Even More Clever Than It Seems,” wrote Bustle.) In an era when the newsstand once reigned supreme, all this buzz for a teeny, two-word coverline and a floating presidential torso would’ve been hard to fathom. But in 2018, Time knows exactly where and how to get readers’ attention, and then hopefully how to turn that attention into a tangible collector’s item.

A series of three Time covers depicting Donald Trump drowning

Now that a magazine cover’s success is no longer measured by just newsstand sales, they look much different. Decades of the medium’s aesthetic tropes have been traded for more digitally malleable material. For a newsweekly like Time, that means establishing and maintaining a continuous narrative with a clear point of view that readers can look forward to each week. For lifestyle magazines, it means scaling back on the haughty portraiture, classic primary-color schemes, and wordy pleas for readership. And for many magazines focused on a younger demographic, it means leaning into the pastel-heavy, minimalist aesthetics and colorful borders that have been popularized by social media platforms like Instagram. But for pretty much any magazine it requires a renewed focus on the meaning and substance of the cover story and subject itself.

The transformation of Vanity Fair’s cover between the last issue overseen by Carter and the first issue featuring a subject booked under the leadership of new editor Radhika Jones is a useful example. The February 2018 issue oozed Old Hollywood: an Annie Leibovitz photo of 12 major celebrities (and Carter himself) dressed for a black-tie event, lounging against a backdrop that resembles a New York haunt like the Lambs Club. (The magazine has become so famous for this aesthetic that GQ recently mocked it in its June comedy issue.) Accross its dark-red background, thin, 1920s-style typography fills every pocket of free space. The April 2018 issue, starring Lena Waithe, features the writer, actress, and producer on the verge of a smile, in a simple white T-shirt from the waist up, against a white backdrop. Though she’s photographed by Leibovitz, the image is plain. Coverlines for other stories are written in a thin sans-serif font and shrunken to fit onto ends of the magazine and impossible to read from a distance; the logo is millennial pink. The image of Waithe is relatable, precisely because any reader might be able to imitate it with a white backdrop, a tripod, and an iPhone.

“Radhika wanted it to be an instant visual change, and that is now coming across in the redesign, the logo, the branding,” Howorth said. “The aesthetics are different, and the cast of people are different.” In practical terms, the redesigned Vanity Fair also communicates a change from the lavish, aspirational world that Carter himself was famous for occupying.

“It does look to me that they want to spend less money and it looks like they want to be less fabulous,” said Neuhaus, who was also an editor at Folio magazine. “I think that may be someone’s idea of what is the right way to go for these times.”

According to Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee, branding a compelling celebrity portrait is still an effective way to pique interest, especially when it’s designed to pop in multiple platforms. Since she took over the magazine in early 2016, she has worked with the magazine’s creative team to establish a clean feel to its covers by cutting back on coverlines, choosing “nontraditional, super-close-up photos,” and having multiple covers for monthly issues. Depending on the medium, her team might tweak the image so that there’s a simplified version for Instagram, or one that moves for YouTube.

“On social media, sharing a plain photo without a brand logo and without cover lines typically gets far less engagement than that same photo if it were put into a cover design,” she told me via email. “Our eyes are trained to assign value and worth to something that makes it to the cover. I think one of the reasons is that print is finite while the internet is infinite. You could keep writing digital stories forever. But there are only a certain number of pages in a magazine and only one story and one subject (in most cases) can make it to the cover. So it represents editorial decision-making. The editors have deemed this person and this subject most worthy of your attention.”

In Cannella’s view, Sports Illustrated’s covers have adapted to better anticipate where the public first encounters them. Though 90 percent of the magazine’s sales come from its subscriber base, he says editors have always been conscious of how and where people interact with its issue each month. Chances are, it won’t be in a grocery store checkout line, or a bookstore, but on a digital device.

“Is Instagram much more crowded than trying to stand out on a newsstand 30 years ago? I don’t know,” Cannella said. “But what will grab people in that new marketplace is not necessarily the tabloid-y headline that you need to stand out on the newsstands. What’s going to stand out more in the digital and the social world is a striking image that people [see] scrolling through their timeline. We’re all on a phone. That type gets pretty small. What can grab your eye more is less text and a unique look at an athlete or subject that you know well but, as you’re scrolling by, you go, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen Odell Beckham look like that.’”

Two Allure covers

In the same way these magazines are angling to bring new weight and purpose to their covers, lifestyle and entertainment-focused glossies are also searching for meaning in their cover subjects. In the past, a magazine’s strategy for picking a cover star was simple: book the most famous person it could possibly find in order to sell as many copies as possible. But as entertainment has proliferated and evolved to serve more niche audiences, editors must now consider what their subjects represent ideologically and why it deserves to be highlighted. In 2017—a year when the Trump presidency stoked racial tensions in the U.S.— GQ did four back-to-back covers that featured people of color, in addition to one dedicated to the activism of football player Colin Kaepernick. (The magazine has also transitioned to featuring more athletes on its cover, possibly because there are fewer and fewer nationally recognizable male movie stars these days.) In the six months that it has been under new leadership, Vanity Fair has featured Waithe, Kendrick Lamar, and Meghan Markle (in a licensed photograph with her husband, Prince Harry); National Geographic ran a cover image featuring a 9-year-old transgender girl in January 2017 for an issue dedicated to gender. Allure’s July 2017 cover starred model Halima Aden in a hijab, and this past June ran a hair issue starring three different Asian women on three different covers—only the third time the magazine had featured women of Asian descent. “We not only have the opportunity to report on culture, but we have an opportunity to influence culture as well,” Lee said. And even if newsstands don’t always reward these risks, she said the magazine has hit record highs for digital traffic this year.

“The old way to measure success was always single-copy newsstand sales,” Lee said. “It’s still one metric. But for me, I look at a lot of factors, including overall cultural buzz: If it got people sharing and talking about it on social media, if it resulted in PR or digital traffic, engagement, if it became a cultural moment. Of course you can’t expect that with every cover. It’s nearly impossible and, in many ways, you need to have a pace and a flow so that covers don’t start to feel like gimmicks just to get attention.”

But for magazines whose main revenue source still depends on a core group of older subscribers and newsstand readers, revamped covers risk siphoning off valuable revenue sources. While Vanity Fair’s April cover made an important statement about the magazine’s new direction, it sold only around 75,000 issues, according to one former editor familiar with the magazine’s newsstand sales. (A representative for Vanity Fair did not respond to a request for comment.) A June-July issue of the newly redesigned Glamour featuring Anne Hathaway reportedly sold only 20,000 copies on the newsstand; eight years ago monthly sales were around half a million, according to the New York Post. Goldberg said National Geographic’s gender issue drew “hundreds of millions of people” to the magazine’s content on various digital avenues. But it also resulted in the loss of about 10,000 print subscribers, either because they were upset by the content, or disappointed that the magazine addressed it poorly. According to Stone, Sports Illustrated’s subscribers sometimes write in to denounce the more forward-thinking coverage—say, its NBA style issue, or soccer coverage—that its online followers celebrate. “You can see the generational divide that exists there because what is popular online is sometimes less popular with our subscriber base, and vice versa,” he said. “What’s unpopular online is sometimes very popular with our readers.”

So far, editors have navigated this divide with caution, alternating between stories that serve different audiences from issue to issue. “One month in GQ you have the star athlete, the next month you might have an icon like Harrison Ford, then the next month you might have a movie star or a late-night host like Stephen Colbert,” Mathews said. “The variation is super important to us.” For magazines that no longer have a significant subscriber base to cater to, the transition to adopt a more culturally relevant look and feel can happen much quicker. But for a title like Sports Illustrated, which still enjoys a subscriber base of nearly 3 million, it’s not as straightforward. “To drastically change your approach to creating covers to try to pull in a whole new generation of magazine subscribers is pretty dangerous,” Stone said.

It’s a familiar dilemma, one that plagues magazines, book publishers, film studios, television networks, and any other business that was once thriving before the internet. Rough guidelines for pulling together a successful cover have existed from decade to decade, but it remains a bespoke exercise. Even with all the Chartbeat data in the world, editors simply don’t have the kind of algorithmic certainty that an outfit like Facebook or Netflix might have when it comes to putting together a cover.

“Print journalism is in a precarious place and so is media,” said Howorth, who was also an assistant managing editor at Time. “There’s not some kind of magical answer for Vanity Fair any more than there is anybody else. The best that we can do is assume that, as long as we’re doing a good job, we’re going to be able to continue telling the stories that we want to tell.”

However much uncertainty lies in the existence of magazines, covers still live on digitally. New York’s women’s website, The Cut, has made a habit out of debuting “cover stories” that include professionally styled and photographed celebrities, alongside introductory letters from editor Stella Bugbee. (For the first time last month, one of them, a profile on Tessa Thompson, was placed on the back of the magazine’s print issue.) Sites like Refinery29 have experimented with the concept of weightier features as cover stories, even if they don’t adopt the same movie-poster format of their print counterparts. Sports Illustrated occasionally commemorates major sports events with digital covers, especially now that it’s biweekly. When UMBC pulled off a historic upset in this year’s NCAA tournament, for instance, SI put out a digital-only cover capturing it the next afternoon. “Even if there wasn’t a print cover that week, that didn’t mean we couldn’t canonize in that way,” Cannella said.

Print magazines are indisputably in decline. But even as publishing companies trim their brands and legacy titles grow thinner each month, their covers still capture the public’s attention. The cover is a concept so ingrained in our lives that it may even outlive the industry that made it indispensable. In the meantime, it’s one of the reasons the industry still exists. “Covers are always going to have a place,” Howorth said. “It still reflects something about the culture we live in. It’s a statement. If the pages inside diminish, they diminish, but I think the cover is as powerful as ever.”

An earlier version of this story misstated a former employer of Cable Neuhaus. He never worked for Time magazine.

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