Tuesday, October 14, 2008

What Exactly is Newsweek Trying to Tell Us?

It's no secret that I've got a thing for content analysis and Newsweek. Content analysis is a fantastic method for quantitatively identifying narratives in communications while mass-market newsweeklies – like the evening news or newspapers – represent a closed-system of news communication that captures a specific period of time.

This week's issue of Newsweek, with its almost blank yellow cover featuring Fareed Zakaria's "The Bright Side," gave me pause. While the striking use of color with minimal typography no doubt jumps off the otherwise cluttered newsstand, I wasn't at all sure – based on the cover alone – what the article was about. Turns out, it's a piece on the economic collapse's silver lining. But I didn't know that until I flipped to page 28.

Usually, a magazine cover is a lot more graphically descriptive, selling a specific story with a unique visual hook. But this cover indeed worked. It stood out not only because it was different from the other covers on the shelf, but also because it was different from the steady succession of Newsweek covers that have passed across my coffee table over the course of the last year.

"The Bright Side" and the previous 50 Newsweek covers
October 2007-October 2008

What makes this week's cover so different? As a graphic designer, I first noticed that it broke from a visual theme that Newsweek has established in general since Jon Meacham took the editor's desk and, specifically, in the past year. 31 of the last 51 Newsweek covers have either featured an isolated foreground element on a white background (27) or stark black and white photography (4) that accomplish much the same visual effect. Throughout, accompanying text is treated simply and in uncluttered formats.

This visual trend in Newsweek's covers is striking for two reasons. 1) It creates a unifying visual brand that extends beyond the red masthead and 2) it flies in the face of decades of publishing convention wisdom that says that more color, more visual complexity, and more teaser copy make for more interesting covers.

The second differentiating factor is less surprising. A superficial content analysis reveals that the 2008 election – including its exaggerated primaries – is the overwhelming theme over the course of the past year. 22 of the past 51 issues featured the election on the cover – seven for team McCain and nine for team Obama. So this week's yellowed statement stands in direct visual opposition to a parade of political mugshots likely mirrored on the covers of other newsweekies.

2008 Election themed Newsweek covers
October 2007-October 2008

Ironically, the economy – including the dramatic global market upheavals and the impending recession – only garnered four covers in the same time period. This is especially surprising for covers from August-October 2008, when the current crisis ramped up and came to a head. It is even more surprising when one considers that the economy and the war in Iraq, at four covers each, are tied in second place behind the election as Newsweek cover topics.

Economy/Recession themed Newsweek covers
October 2007-October 2008

It's never just the news. It's also how it's shown. And, in this case, what color, typography, and content you use to create that visual hook. Whether or not Newsweek's new visual trend continues – its political topics certainly will – the previous whitening of the covers set a perfect stage for an otherwise graphically weak and contextually vague cover to jump out and make an impression. FB

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