Even with the newsstand's ongoing sales challenges, magazine publishers are still making the effort to produce compelling covers—just take a look at ASME's cover design winners. Even so, with a 17 percent unit sales decline for full-year 2014 and, in some cases, tightening publishing schedules, the pressure to produce cover concepts that strike a chord is greater than ever.
There are still titles that perform well at retail and The Atlantic is one of them. The magazine increased single copy sales 19 percent in 2014.
The Atlantic's political, cultural and business content has a carefully managed newsy currency to it that makes it timely, but balancing timeliness with big ideas that have staying power is challenging on a 10x schedule.
James Bennet, the magazine's co-president and editor-in-chief, and editor Scott Stossel spoke with Folio: about how they create covers that keep the impact quotient high while driving sales at retail.
"One of the huge challenges of creating a monthly magazine is trying to look several months, if not a year, out and imagining what's going to be timely," says Bennet.
"Our extremely long lead time is both a strength and a challenge," adds Stossel. "A newsweekly can always be on the news. For us it's almost always a mistake to be chasing the news of last week, because we're coming out a couple of months later. We have to be at a specific altitude looking at the deeper, underlying questions."
As a result, The Atlantic's covers skew toward concept rather than personality-driven. And at the center of the concept is a tightly framed assertion.
With the long lead times that Stossel mentions, stories have time to marinate and develop, which helps drive the cover concept. "The ideas and arguments are refined and develop a stronger voice and point of view," he says.
Cover lines are batted around early in the process, says Bennet. Referring to the April cover story, "Is It Time for the Jews to Leave Europe?", Bennet says the cover lines sprang out of the central angle of the story. "That was the question the writer was there to address. It was the working headline from the beginning."
From there, the illustration has to support that explicit statement. Again, there's a concerted effort to avoid appearing too newsy. "You could have some news photograph, but that would make us look like we're in the newsweekly space," says Bennet.
Tactically, the edit and design teams have landed on cover story ideas and concepts as category killers. Big, thoroughly-reported pieces that tap directly into an ongoing national or global conversation. They're positioned as a sort of antidote to the frequent, quick-hit pieces that make up much of what is on the web.
"The periodicity of coming out 10 times per year is our chance to back the truck up and deliver this big piece," says Stossel.
Beyond that, the covers can be a launch platform for other ways of leveraging the story. The big pieces do well on the web—the 2012 cover "Why Women Still Can't Have It All" by Anne-Marie Slaughter became the most read story online in the magazine's history, and was the highest selling issue on the newsstand in four years.
More recently, March's cover story, Graeme Wood's "What ISIS Really Wants," stole the crown for most-read story on the site and is tracking to be the top-selling single issue (four-week on-sale as apposed to a combined month issue) in five years.
The brand is also launching events around cover stories and hosts debates online about them, which ends up amplifying the story longer term.
"It's important to note that we feel like The Atlantic's cover has become a powerful launching pad for big ideas that come out of a broader cultural context of the times we are living in," says Bennet. "People are looking for these kinds of pieces."