Seven Lessons for Publishers from the Boston Bomber Cover Controversy
As part of our mission to provide helpful advice to the magazine industry, Dead Tree Edition offers seven ways Rolling Stone could have avoided the recent Boston Bomber cover controversy:
• Remember your history: You can’t spend decades gracing your cover with the likes of pedophile rock stars, drug-addled actors, and Charles Manson – and then expect us to be happy when you desecrate that hallowed space with a criminal.
• Emphatic language: Some thought Rolling Stone was depicting Jahar Tsarnaev as a hero. Merely calling him a “monster” wasn’t enough; the cover should have had big red letters saying “This is a really bad man.” Besides, because Monster is a popular web site, perhaps some confused people thought Rolling Stone was endorsing him as a resource for job searches.
• Learn to use Photoshop: People complained that the photo of Tsarnaev looks like Jim Morrison or a young Bob Dylan. Outrageous! Every good American knows that terrorists wear turbans, have badly styled facial hair, and are obviously from somewhere else. They’re not supposed to look like a Sad-Eyed Laddie of the Suburbs. Couldn’t Rolling Stone have had the decency to edit the photo so that Tsarnaev didn’t look so much like one of us?
• Give him the Juice: Don’t forget the infamous TIME magazine trick of darkening O.J. Simpson in hopes of making him look more sinister.
• Know your sales channels. Among the first retailers to jump on the boycott bandwagon were major drugstore chains. They’re used to seeing Rolling Stone covers featuring their most profitable type of client – abusers of prescription medicines. You can’t expect them to stomach a cover model whose demons are apparently all non-pharmaceutical.
• Know your sales channels’ customers: Noting that The New York Times had previously used the same image on its front page, without controversy, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone summed up the controversy as “it's OK for the Times [to use the photo], not OK for Rolling Stone, because many people out there understandably do not know that Rolling Stone is also a hard-news publication.” No, it’s OK for the Times because its magazine is not on display in supermarkets and drugstores. People in such venues don’t want to be reminded of bad things in the real world. They want to see fluffy stuff about movie stars and royal babies that get their minds off their hemorrhoids, cold sores, oxycontin addiction, or whatever it was from the real world that brought them to the store in the first place.
• Ban my magazine, please: Getting banned from some stores will get you more publicity than money can buy, boost your web traffic and digital subscriptions, and turn your issue into a collector’s item.