Oct 12, 2012

Behind Mother Jones’s Recent Dual Cover Strategy

For their November/December 2012 issue, the editors and creative director at Mother Jones decided to do a split run cover, with a completely different cover story and image for subscribers and newsstand buyers.

Subscribers get “No Way Out,” a long-form investigative piece on solitary confinement in California state prisons written by Shane Bauer, who himself was imprisoned in Iran for 26 months, six in solitary, when he was picked up on the Iraq border in 2009. The cover image is a realistic illustration by Tim O’Brien of a tormented man in a prison cell.

The newsstand cover story is “Sweet Little Lies,” a story by Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens about the sugar industry’s 40-year long campaign to cover up evidence about the bad affects of the sweet stuff: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and its addictive nature. For that cover, also an illustration by Tim O’Brien, there’s a pitcher of Kool-Aid with a grinning skull superimposed on it. (Note that on the newsstand the issue is simply dated December 2012.) By Mother Jones standards this is considered a lighter, more accessible story!

“No Way Out is a great story, but we felt that it might not sell that well on newsstands, where the potential buyer is not as familiar with our magazine,” says Mother Jones creative director Tim J Luddy.

Early last year Mother Jones did another split cover for similar reasons. Editors Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery wrote about their decision for the January/February 2011 issue to put a story about gang rape in Haiti on the subscriber cover, but deliver a newsstand cover story that highlighted the pot business: “As compelling as all that is in a story, it’s a tough sell on the newsstand. Even assuming that anyone tempted to buy this magazine probably isn’t expecting cheerful (our joke is that the Mother Jones tagline should be ‘It’s Worse Than You Think’), rape gangs are pretty heavy stuff to hit a new reader with on our first encounter.”

That both current covers were illustrated by Tim O’Brien was more by chance than design, says Luddy. “I did a separate set of conceptual sketches for the Sugar and Solitary covers. Once we decided on final ideas, it just happened that Tim was our top choice for each image.”

The actual cost for producing and printing two separate covers for Mother Jones is minimal, since they already print different covers with a UPC code and a subscriber address. And Mother Jones does its own in-house proofing. As Luddy says, “The only additional cost is the extra wear and tear to the creative director and editors,” along with the additional fee for the illustrator or photographer.

How does Mother Jones handle the covers on other platforms? On their website, or for any online editorial use, they rotate between the two. For their Zinio app or other digital versions that require a cover, they use the newsstand version. For development and fundraising, they use the subscriber cover, since according to Luddy, “That’s the kind of story our donors like to support.” For circulation (blow-in cards, etc.), however, they go back to the newsstand version.

Are split covers worth the effort and is there a payoff? There’s a long history of entertainment magazines like TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly doing multiple covers. But they usually promote the same story, albeit with different cover images (like doing a separate cover for each cast member of Lost). It’s much less common to take the Mother Jones approach, although idiosyncrasy for a smaller independent title can work to its advantage.

When I was creative director at Reader’s Digest we tried a similar split cover strategy for several issues, but found that it confused readers, and got us plenty of complaints. It also didn’t pay off at the newsstand; in fact one of the covers was the worst-selling of the year. And Luddy reports that last year’s Mother Jones split cover was also one of their worst-selling issues for 2011.

So why bother? Newsstand sales are only about 10 percent of Mother Jones’s total paid circulation, so featuring a “softer” story at retail is a strategy that’s aimed at luring in new readers rather than one that’s designed to materially boost single copy sales.

Nevertheless, I wondered whether the strategy had any downside for the brand overall. Liz Gettelman, the Mother Jones public affairs director, put it this way:

“The game has changed when it comes to print magazine covers. In the print era you would rarely see a logo separate from a cover image. But now, the logo is a much more prominent feature, since that alone (without cover art) is usually a publication’s branding image on platforms like Twitter and Facebook, and on websites. The split covers signal to readers that we are versatile and robust enough to be able to highlight various types of coverage. So long as they all feel like Mother Jones stories, then we are actually staying true to our brand.”