Monday, April 04, 2011
NOW’s Rob Ford Cover…Great or Hate?
The Naked Truth cover of NOW magazine is, let’s be honest, very effective. It’s hard to miss. And for a controlled circulation product, getting people to stop and pick it up is job #1. But it also has been effective at job #2… creating buzz, and the naked truth is, everyone is talking about it. That’s good news for future PMB surveys, and that’s helpful for generating advertising revenues.

I love “gutsy” covers that dare to be controversial.

I love it when periodicals create buzz, and when readers engage.

And I love advertising revenue, the more the better, as it pays for editors, art directors, freelancers, printers… my colleagues and friends in this crazy publishing business.

The good news for NOW is that they don’t have to worry about people cancelling their subscriptions, or deciding not to renew their subscriptions, because NOW is not a paid circulation title, so these considerations are irrelevant.

 

So, in shorts, the cover has done its job brilliantly. But wait a minute… not so fatso. When my 13-year-old daughter saw the cover of NOW on my desk she said: “That’s just mean.”

So is the cover funny or about the money? Great, or about hate?
My first thought was: how might media critics, bloggers, pundits and thought-leaders react if Maclean’s magazine did a similar cover with Jean Charest on their cover? Are certain magazines held to a different standard, and if so, why?

Or, what if Toronto Life dared to publish this exact same Rob Ford cover? Having worked for Toronto Life for 12 years, I think I know what would have come down. First of all, we probably would have been sued. Secondly, the phones would have lit up with subscription cancellations. Letters to the editor would have been venomous.

Political figures have always been fair game, and over the years Toronto Life certainly took on Mike, Bob and Dalton as equal opportunity cover boys, despite the fact that political covers never sold well on newsstands regardless of partisan political affiliations.

 

One editor called these types of covers “noble bombs” because, it was argued, “ it’s the right thing to do”,  regardless of the negative impact on newsstand sales and insert card production.  These were sacrifices that sometimes needed to be made. I reluctantly agreed then, and still agree today: it can’t always be about the money. The cover is the brand. 

As for municipal political targets, these covers never worked either, regardless of the candidates’ political leanings, left, right or center. Toronto Life even “profiled” Mel Lastman’s wife, who never ran for political office, but was deemed fair game.

 

Cover choices were very deliberate. Cost calculations were factored in to the final decision. The cost of replacing cancelled subscriptions and flagging newsstand sales with expensive direct mail campaigns was sobering. Not to mention the cost of our libel insurance and lawyers. Perhaps these financial disciplines help explain why Toronto Life never Photoshopped any of our previous mayors in their underwear.

The naked truth is that NOW’s Rob Ford cover would have been considered “tacky”, “cheap, “in poor taste” and even “gross”. Sure it might score some short-term media buzz, but let’s be honest, not too many Toronto Life subscribers would want that Rob Ford cover staring at them from their living room coffee tables.

The brand’s reputation was simply too valuable to risk for a cheap-shot or partisan media stunt. I doubt NOW’s senior executives spent much time sweating these things. In fact, I think they achieved their objectives… this cover is probably very good for business, given the recent-reading methodology employed by PMB.

Ask yourself if NOW would ever do a Photoshopped cover of a female mayor in her underwear? The naked truth is that NOW would never have dared such a cover with Barbara Hall as mayor.

NOW’s feminist readers would have gone ballistic. And, truth be told, it would never have occurred to them to ridicule Barb’s “figure” because, after all, her politics were left-of-centre, and therefore her weight would not be an appropriate target worthy of humiliation and ridicule in the buff.

Or if George Smitherman was the new mayor, can you imagine a cover with his worship wearing nothing but chaps and making fun of his sexual orientation? Please. But I guess in NOW’s progressive world, double standards are good for business.

Let’s examine and deconstruct the supporting cover lines.

 

His Evil Plot to Rule the Right. Translation: Rob Ford is Evil

Dissecting Ford’s Political Anatomy. Translation: Rob Ford is Fat (and evil and stupid)

Cronies, Reformers and Creeps: Robs Inner Circle. Translation: Rob is corrupt and his friends are corrupt, stupid evil, and probably fat too.

What about the article is noteworthy?

Well, for starters the Photoshopped image on page 15 is arguably obscene. Childish name-calling masquerades as intellectually superior journalism, with clever witticisms referring to the mayor as ”Fordo” and “Robo.” Just so there is no mistaking this writer’s opinion of Rob Ford, we are offered this illuminating and intelligent insight, “Let’s be clear. He’s still a nasty mofo.” Translation for those of you not familiar with gutter slang:  Rob Ford fucks his mother. I explained to my daughter that that isn’t just mean its disgusting.

I wonder why the writer, Enzo DiMatteo, a veteran journalist, seems perplexed on page 15 of his screed, that, “Ford declined a request to be interviewed for this story.” Really Enzo, that is hard to believe and troubling, isn’t it? I’m shocked.

So when are Photoshopping covers ok and when is it not?

Recently, Vogue magazine came under criticism for Photoshopping away a scar from Tina Fey’s face. Vanity Fair was also criticized in the past. When Tina Fey was asked about the Photoshopping of her scar, by Chris Willard of People magazine, she said, “It’s impossible to talk about it without somehow seemingly exploiting it and glorifying it.”

How did Tina Fey get the scar?

“When she was 5, the future TV star was playing in the front yard of her home when a stranger approached the young Fey and violently cut her cheek,” according to the Willard article.

 

So what are we to make of all the fuss over Photoshopping away a scar inflicted by a twisted criminal disfiguring a five year old child?

Ground zero for the Photoshopping debate seems to be a cover of National Geographic from 1982.

 

According to an article by Dean Lucas:

“In 1982, the magazine wanted to do a story about Egypt’s pyramids. They had an image but it was a horizontal photo that wouldn’t fit on the magazine’s vertical cover. To get around this troublesome problem, photo editors ok’d the use of Scitex to 'squeeze' the two pyramids together. At the time the magazine justified their actions by referring to the digital manipulation as the 'retroactive repositioning of the photographer.' Critics at the time were outraged and on retrospection National Geographic agreed with them and changed their policy.”

I don’t know about you, but I like the National Geographic cover. Compare and contrast to NOW’s Rob Ford cover.

When I asked Kim Pittaway, magazine writer and consultant, former editor of Chatelaine, and past chair of the National Magazine Awards Foundation, about NOW’s Rob Ford cover she said, “I hate this cover even more than I dislike Rob Ford… which is saying something.” When asked to expand on this Pittaway had plenty to say:

“While some people claim that there is no such thing as bad publicity, this may be the exception to that rule. If the cover treatment overshadows the content of the piece, it’s a miscalculation. Nobody is talking about the article, because the cover is so distasteful. Covers should be smarter than this. To ridicule Ford because of his weight reminds me of when the Federal Conservatives appeared to be ridiculing Jean Chretien’s lips in a political ad. It’s not smart. It doesn’t add anything of substance to the conversation. All it really does is make your opponent more sympathetic.”

Pittaway then suggested I read the code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists (which is U.S.-based, but accepts Canadian members; Pittaway is a member): http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

A few of the Society of Professional Journalists code of Ethics stand out:
    1.    Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity
    2.    Avoid stereotyping by…physical appearance  (amongst other things)
    3.    Journalists should abide by the same high standards to which they hold others
    4.    Make certain that…photos…do not misrepresent (amongst other things)
    5.    Journalists should expose unethical practises of journalists and the news media

So, why have we heard no howls of protest by the Toronto media or national media over the Rob Ford cover?

What are the Canadian Society of Magazine Editors (CSME) guidelines around Photoshopping covers? Apparently there are no guidelines. Their website yields nothing on this subject of a Code of Ethics, but perhaps this will help spark a debate.

Is NOW a magazine or a newspaper?

When you Google NOW, it comes up NOW MAGAZINE. But interestingly, they have never become a member of Magazines Canada. However, like most major Canadian magazines, they are measured by the Print Measurement Bureau (PMB). In CARD, they are listed as a City and Regional Magazine.

NOW’s circulation and readership is impressive. Urban, 25 to 49 years old, good education, strong demographics. Smart business people that they are, NOW has systematically reduced their circulation (i.e. printing and shipping costs) while increasing their reach, thus making it possible to reduce their CPMs for advertisers, and raise rate card. As a weekly publication, they are now printing 364,000 fewer copies annually than in 2007, that is seriously big savings falling to the bottom line.

 

Accurate ad revenues are not available as there is no way to know exactly how much advertisers are paying for their space. Leading National Advertisers database (LNA) provides guidance on pages, and revenues are calculated based on 1x gross rates. But there are volume discounts, negotiated discounts, agency discounts, etc. Based on display ads only (excluding inserts, classifieds and sex-trade ads, which would be considerable additional revenue):

 

To put this in context, NOW is generating considerably more revenue than Style at Home, Toronto Life, Canadian Gardening, Cottage Life, just to name a few. The free-market capitalist in me is impressed.

Finley Peter Dunne (1867-1936), a humourist, coined the phrase “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” in reference to newspapers. If NOW considers themselves a newspaper, rather than a magazine, then perhaps we can expect some more salacious Photoshopping attacks.

Will NOW ever give us a cover of Oprah Winfrey, arguably the most affluent and comfortable women on the planet, Photoshopped in her underwear on the cover? Imagine the lawsuit. Not likely.

Will Eye Weekly ever give us a Photoshopped cover of Alice Klein, CEO, Editor and co-owner of NOW, in her underwear because she is financially comfortable? If they did, I bet they could create a lot of media buzz. Not likely. Laas Turnbull, the new publisher is way too smart to fall into the gutter.

I wonder how many millions of dollars those sex-trade “escort ads” in NOW, which objectify and dehumanize women, have yielded over the years? Enquiring minds want to know…NOW!

Is the Rob Ford cover funny or about the money? I’m guessing money. Is the Rob Ford cover great or about hate? I’m guessing hate.

- Scott Bullock
About Me
Scott Bullock

 
Scott Bullock is the the creator of Coverssell.com. Bullock has worked as circulation director for both consumer and B2B magazines including Toronto Life and FASHION.

Note to readers: some of Bullock's posts may refer to his clients.
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The former editor and publisher started this over three years ago. In fact, tumbled covers won for C...
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