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Battle of the Magazine Covers: The Atlantic vs. Harper's

If only these two long-standing titles would follow some basic cover rules.


JC Suares By JC Suares
03/24/2010 -08:54 AM






One would think that at least one of two magazines that have been competing for attention on the newsstands for a combined 200 years would be a bit savvier about what they put on their covers. It seems as if neither the Atlantic (founded in 1857) nor Harper's (founded in 1850) have learned many lessons about newsstand culture over the past 100 years or so, let alone the past five or six.

God knows both magazines have lived through many a crisis. They've managed to survive near-bankruptcy and sudden changes of editors (Harper's) as well as new owners, new editors and having to abandon their native city after 150 years (The Atlantic) and yet, they're better magazines than they've ever been (although Harper's needs a redesign).

If only the covers followed some basic rules:
1. Does the cover really tell you what's inside?
2. Is the main headline compelling?
3. Is the main image compelling?
4. Are you blowing your horn?

Harper's main headline “The Vanishing Liberal” is accompanied by a bland illustration of headless bodies, some holding signs—proof that the editors meddled. Unless you're attracted to depressing 5,000+ word essays, there is nothing in the combination of the two that might make you want to pick up the magazine. If only the cover were clearer and gave the reason liberals are vanishing. To quote from the piece: "No other president in our history had so thoroughly spurned his political base in so short a time.” Does that mean that Obama betrayed the liberals who voted for him? Are we getting somewhere now?

Harper's uses a New Yorker-like flap to sell newsstands. It's gratifying to see that they've sold advertising on the flip side of the flap, but the flap itself is underused. They should look at the New Yorker's and count the words. They should also look at the pecking order and the clever use of decks with each cover line.

HARPER'S COVER INDEX
Number of elements on the single contents page: 20
Number of stories on the cover: 6
Number of bylines: 6
Number of stories on the flap: 5
Number of times the autism piece is mentioned on the flap: 2
Number of times “Exclusive” and “Special Report” are used on the cover: 0
Number of depressing pieces out of 6: 5
Number of pieces translated from other languages: 3

The Atlantic’s Obama cover package, “Why He’s Right” doesn't exist. It's a compilation of three pieces in different parts of the magazine, none of which claim that Obama is right about anything. In fact, the “On the Economy” cover line refers to “Inside Man,” Joshua Green's 10,000-word piece on Timothy Geithner, which is by far the longest in the magazine. By the looks of the pictures, it's obvious that Geithner was headed for the cover, but the editors must have had second thoughts when they realized that their subject was slated to appear in a half-dozen other magazines, including Vogue.

The main headline would have benefited from a long, chatty deck that cleared up “Why He’s Right” and tied the three articles under a single umbrella but, as it is, it's got no clarity, no drama—even Obama is looking in the distance—and, therefore, no impact.

THE ATLANTIC'S COVER INDEX
Number of entry points on the three contents pages: 27
Number of stories on the cover: 7
Number of bylines: 3
Number of decks: 0
Number of times Exclusive” and “Special Report” are used on the cover: 0

Final grades:
Harper's: C
The Atlantic: C

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JC Suares By JC Suares -- JC Suares has been working as a creative consultant for more than 100 magazines in the U.S. and Canada over the past 10 years. He has worked with publications such ESPN, Fast Company and INC to improve their newsstand performance.

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