Magazines tell stories, but sometimes they themselves become the story.
Take the May 2015 issue of Germany’s Zeit Magazin, which focused on refugees arriving in Europe and so was radically presented in two languages – German and Arabic – because Arabic was the first language of most of those arriving.
“Many German subscribers were amazed,” the guest editor of the issue Mohamed Amjahid recalled recently. “Of course, some right-wing supporters complained that ‘their Germany will disappear now'”.
“We never had so many requests from organisations and schools for extra copies,” remembered editor-in-chief Christoph Amend.
Those recollections were conveyed to magazine industry veteran Ian Birch, who included the issue of Zeit, and Amjahid and Amend’s comments on it, in a book on “revolutionary magazine covers” called Uncovered, just published by Octopus Books.
The covers in the book are “social documents with unique backstories”, Birch says in his introduction. “I didn’t chose them on the basis of sales – their newsstand numbers fluctuated between the dismal and the dynamic. I chose them because they broke boundaries and started conversations. They made a moment feel red-hot and meaningful.”
His selection starts in the 1950s, Birch explains, because he “wanted to hear those stories from the creative mavericks behind them”. Magazines featured from this era include Britain’s The Queen; associate editor Drusilla Beyfus told Birch its content “was unlike anything else in its canon, combining sharp social observation, tiptop art direction and photography and pieces by literary stars”.
The selection runs up to 2016, ending with one of many Brexit-focused covers run by the satirical British magazine Private Eye. The cover Birch chose juxtaposed a “then” image of the famous red campaign bus that promised Brits an extra £50 million a day for their National Health Service if the country left the EU, with a “now” image of a clapped-out, wrecked bus abandoned in a field. “It was a very, very striking cover, but it was a very, very annoying cover for a huge number of people who wrote in,” editor Ian Hislop says.
Birch was interviewed about the book by Fernando Augusto Pacheco for Monocle’s The Stack podcast. He said that a great cover is one that mixes the familiar with the surprising by bending traditional industry rules, such as that covers should feature photographs that make strong eye contact with the potential buyer and reader.
“It has those rules in the back of its head, but it starts to change and subvert those rules, and that’s where the surprise comes in.”
Magazines today are losing readers because they’re playing it too safe in an attempt not to turn buyers away in these times of austerity, Birch said. “They’re underestimating their readers’ intelligence and their need for change, variety, surprise and something to talk about.”
The magazine publishing landscape is “grim” at the moment, Birch laments in his introduction. “Revenues from advertising and circulation have been shrinking rapidly, and that has forced legacy companies to close, combine or sell some titles and reduce the frequencies of others.”
On the plus side, however, launches of well designed independent magazines are surging, he says, while news magazines are thriving because people need trusted sources of information in these politically turbulent and confusing times.
He concludes by quoting magazine editor Kurt Andersen, who has likened magazines to sailboats. “They don’t need to exist anymore. But people will still love them, and make them and buy them.”