From Best to Awesome: Where Will It End?

By Jack Limpert

Back in the late 1970s a group of magazine editors, many of them at city magazines, figured out how to sell more magazines. We had found out the hard way what didn’t sell so we began to exchange notes on what covers did well on newsstands. About the same time, People magazine editor Dick Stolley became famous for Stolley’s  cover laws which included “Pretty is better than ugly” and  “Anything is better than politics,” an insight I confirmed many times at The Washingtonian when I tried to sell pols as cover subjects. Stolley also dissed music as a cover subject, and I’d add religion.

While Stolley concluded that the best cover subject at People was a dead celebrity (Elvis Presley, Grace Kelly), city magazine editors found by the early 1980s that the two best newsstand sellers were “Best Restaurants” and “Top Doctors.” Readers knew instantly what these service stories were about, and they found such stories helped them live better. Weekend travel, best neighborhoods, good nightlife, and best places to work also sold well.

One cover challenge was finding enough superlatives to sell five or six best-of stories on the cover each month. We didn’t like to repeat cover words so one day I took a Thesaurus and came up with a list of about 25 words (finest, prime, outstanding, terrific) that were variations on best. I kept the list in a desk drawer so other editors didn’t know it had come to that.

We  took a lot of heat, especially from the Washington Post, about all the best lists we came up with. Newspapers traditionally looked down on service stories—service pieces weren’t real journalism. Now they’ve come around, but when I stepped down as Washingtonian editor in 2009, the Post’s Style section couldn’t resist summing up my 40 years this way: “Ah, Jack Limpert, You’re Still Tops on My ‘Best’ List.”

How times have changed. Spend five minutes  today on BuzzFeed and you’ll see they’ve taken the sell words to a new level.  Their stories are awesome, amazing, heartbreaking, incredible, jaw-dropping, astounding, sensational, epic.

My guess is that BuzzFeed doesn’t hide its list of good adjectives in a desk drawer.

Speak Your Mind