Magazines of the past were defined by their iconic covers, such as The Saturday Evening Post or Life magazine. Magazine covers were, and still are, pivotal to capturing the attention of shoppers in often cluttered newsstands. But now, as more desperate times call for more desperate measures, editors are getting attention, both negative and positive, with controversial covers.
New York magazine a few years ago caused a stir with a caricature of Barak and Michelle Obama on the cover. Time magazine recently made the news with its cover image of a disfigured Afghan woman. Rolling Stone is winning publicity with its new cover of the cast of True Blood naked and blood-covered.
As more readers access publications' Web sites or Google individual articles instead of purchasing print editions, the relevance of covers is open for debate. In many ways, home pages have become the online equivalent of print covers -- images and text on a Web site's main page will determine what content viewers will click through to see.
Print magazines began to overload their covers with multiple messages in an attempt to hedge their bets and have anything on the cover that might catch any potential reader's interest. It's no surprise that subscriber-only issues without any text on the cover usually become collectibles.
It's still a status symbol to be on the cover of certain publications -- Sports Illustrated, for example, and of course Time magazine. Time had people talking by putting author Jonathan Franzen on its cover, the only living writer to grace its esteemed cover in the past decade. (Read a great article on Flavorpill's Flavorwire blog about Time's history of honoring writers on its cover in recent history.)
The old saying claims that you can't judge a book by its cover, but for magazines, at least, the cover is still vital to their survival.