How a print mag’s front page retains its power in a digital age

30 March 2016

While it’s clear print is here to stay a little longer, the debate has recently shifted towards how we ensure it does by innovating approaches to magazine-making. Gym Class Magazine has continually touted the magazines that push the format and in its latest issue, which came out last week, one article discusses how publications are using the power of magazine covers to stand out in the digital age. Written by Colin Crummy (film editor at i-D and contributing editor at Esquire), the journalist draws upon on recent examples including Kim Kardashian’s Break the Internet cover for Paper to illustrate the impact covers can still have. The magazine has kindly let us reprint an extract from the article below.

Kim Kardashian’s bum may have broken the internet in November 2014, but it was a magazine cover that helped her do it. Long after the “print is dead” mantra stopped being anything other than dreary reading for magazine ABCs day, a print publication was blowing up the very thing sent to destroy it.

Paper’s iconic cover was less a retort to the idea that print was dead than an acceptance of new rules of reader engagement. Editorial director Mickey Boardman explains: “That cover was a response to us recognising that everything in the magazine and on the cover needs to be something that will be exciting to digital readers.”

We live in visual times. If breaking the internet with an attention-grabbing cover makes sense for a magazine, it is also an attractive proposition for celebrities to frame themselves within.

Sometimes this can be about absolute blanket coverage. Star Wars dominated the broadcasting, online and social media agenda throughout 2015, but its stars took time out for cover shoots with Empire, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and Glamour. In music, Rihanna did not manage to get her eighth album ANTI out in 2015, but she had enough downtime to knock out covers for i-D, NME, Harper’s Bazaar, AnOther Magazine and Vanity Fair.

When the biggest music comeback of the year did arrive, it was launched with a magazine cover: Adele for i-D in November. For Adele, the launch in a London-based style magazine that she read in her youth set the tone before she went into her CD-buying heartlands through James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke and a BBC special with Graham Norton. The magazine cover, shot by fashion photographer Alasdair McLellan, felt special and intimate in comparison.

If newsprint has become – as New Yorker writer John Cassidy predicted – “a luxury good,” then magazines are at the vanguard, primed to deliver on promises of exclusivity, quality and control. In a world of selfies and pap shots, it’s a no-brainer that a celebrity might want to appear in the most exclusive environment: on a magazine cover.

“It has a weight to it,” says i-D editor-in-chief Holly Shackleton. “Magazine covers still hold tremendous value and prestige. There’s a beauty to the tangibility and exclusivity of print that I don’t think will ever die.”

The value of a great cover to the magazine publisher may seem as obvious now as it ever was. But to the reader, it also represents what Holly calls “a marker in time.”

“With our ever-growing digital presence, the magazine is more important than ever,” she says. “It’s the beautiful window to our world, showcasing the best photography, styling and writing, a collector’s item to cherish.”

When David Bowie died in January, new media provided tools for users to share their favourite songs and catalogue his strongest looks. But a moment like that demanded something more. From newspaper front pages to monthly magazine covers, Bowie was celebrated across print media, a reminder of physical power in a digital age.

The Guardian, like all British dailies, covered the Bowie story with a front page entirely dedicated to the late star. The Guardian’s creative director Alex Breuer posted the cover on Instagram with the words “Sometimes only print will do.” What did he mean?

“The digital age embodies movement and the progress of time,” says Alex. “But psychologically preserved moments are still hugely important to people. Our living spaces are filled with images and mementos. The print cover has a unique value in marking key moments and preserving them in a way digital platforms are less successful at because of their need to change and update.

“Print, like photography, will carry this value for a long time to come. We haven’t yet reached the moment when we clamour to preserve place in a gallery, a tweet, an Instagram post. We may yet, as these platforms evolve and new generations grow older. But for now, I think to many they feel disposable.”

Issue 14 of Gym Class Magazine is out now and available to buy here.

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