Despite constant mischaracterizations that magazines are dead, print media endures, and as Beyoncé’s recent Vogue cover image proves, print issues can still create national conversations about celebrities, culture, and politics. But what is the function of a magazine cover now that we have Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter? At The Ringer, Alyssa Bereznak investigates the historical function of a magazine cover and how its design has evolved to adapt to the digital age. Because print issues no longer sell the way they did a decade ago, titles that haven’t ceased operation have made profound changes to their business and editorial teams to stay solvent. Many have also changed their approach to producing covers, hoping to not only grab attention, but to perform well on phones, tablets, and social media.

According to Allure editor-in-chief Michelle Lee, branding a compelling celebrity portrait is still an effective way to pique interest, especially when it’s designed to pop in multiple platforms. Since she took over the magazine in early 2016, she has worked with the magazine’s creative team to establish a clean feel to its covers by cutting back on coverlines, choosing “nontraditional, super-close-up photos,” and having multiple covers for monthly issues. Depending on the medium, her team might tweak the image so that there’s a simplified version for Instagram, or one that moves for YouTube.

“On social media, sharing a plain photo without a brand logo and without cover lines typically gets far less engagement than that same photo if it were put into a cover design,” she told me via email. “Our eyes are trained to assign value and worth to something that makes it to the cover. I think one of the reasons is that print is finite while the internet is infinite. You could keep writing digital stories forever. But there are only a certain number of pages in a magazine and only one story and one subject (in most cases) can make it to the cover. So it represents editorial decision-making. The editors have deemed this person and this subject most worthy of your attention.”

Editors measure a cover’s success from not just sales, but buzz. What’s especially interesting is what the cover reveals about this important moment in media history, which is populated by both traditional subscribers and digital natives.

But for magazines whose main revenue source still depends on a core group of older subscribers and newsstand readers, revamped covers risk siphoning off valuable revenue sources. While Vanity Fair’s April cover made an important statement about the magazine’s new direction, it sold only around 75,000 issues, according to one former editor familiar with the magazine’s newsstand sales. (A representative for Vanity Fair did not respond to a request for comment.) A June-July issue of the newly redesigned Glamour featuring Anne Hathaway reportedly sold only 20,000 copies on the newsstand; eight years ago monthly sales were around half a million, according to the New York Post. Goldberg said National Geographic’s gender issue drew “hundreds of millions of people” to the magazine’s content on various digital avenues. But it also resulted in the loss of about 10,000 print subscribers, either because they were upset by the content, or disappointed that the magazine addressed it poorly. According to Stone, Sports Illustrated’s subscribers sometimes write in to denounce the more forward-thinking coverage—say, its NBA style issue, or soccer coverage—that its online followers celebrate. “You can see the generational divide that exists there because what is popular online is sometimes less popular with our subscriber base, and vice versa,” he said. “What’s unpopular online is sometimes very popular with our readers.”

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