If You Want to Sell Magazines, Don’t Think Like a Journalist

By Jack Limpert

The new Washington Post Magazine says it’s “bigger and bolder” and on Sunday I looked at what bigger means in an era of ever-smaller magazines. What did the Post editors mean by bolder?

The magazine’s cover photo of Samantha Power is in-your-face bold and the cover head calls her an “INSIDER,” a generally meaningless word in Washington but better than foreign policy expert, which is what she is. The cover story is 10 pages and well-written with great pictures.

The top cover line on the left of the page features the always popular word “SEX,”  the story being about a 59-year-old author who has written six books, the latest being “Women Share How Intimacy Changes as Life Changes.”

Then comes “Most desired.” That’s a one-pager about which cars are best sellers and most stolen.

Then “SECRET,” always a great cover word. The story is about the pitching coach of the Washington Nationals baseball team and, no surprise, there’s not much secret about what he does.

Then “an Obama faux pas,” which was a graf in a dining column about a state dinner at which the President of the United States and the President of France held their wine glasses by the bowl, not by the stem, when toasting one another.

All in all, the cover has some good sell words and it’s more intriguing than the Washington Post Magazine covers of the past.

Is it accuracy in journalism? No, magazine cover lines are more what an ad agency would come up with to sell a perfume or deodorant than what an editor would put on the front page of a newspaper.

But that’s life as a magazine editor—we’re measured by how many newsstand copies we sell, the end mostly justifies the means, and editors at the Post magazine are smart to add some fizz to their cover lines.

As for The Washingtonian, where I wrote cover lines for many years, here are some reflections about covers I posted on this website in January 2013:


Cover lines have to be immediately understandable—not much subtlety, no making the potential reader think too much, be careful of too much cleverness, irony rarely works. The main newsstand strategy of city magazines, and lots of other magazines, is assuming that readers are most interested in useful information, something that will make their lives more interesting or better. That means lots of cover lines like top doctors and best restaurants (the two most reliable cover lines of city magazines).

Looking back at the words The Washingtonian has been putting on covers, I picked 12 issues from a recent year and here are the cover words we used most often:

Great, best, beautiful, fun, favorite, inside, big, bargain, hot, new, delicious, top, friendly, charming, cheap, cool, real, undiscovered, smart, talented, bold, wild, classical, popular, award-winning, romantic, hall-of-fame, youthful, expert.

There also were “lose 75 pounds” and “without tears” and “insider’s guide” and “best and worst” and “wins and losses.”

I was surprised not to find “free”—the most powerful word in retailing—on one of the covers.

The magazine distributors often told us that we were among the three top-selling magazines on Washington-area newsstands, beaten out only by the weekly People and one monthly magazine: Cosmopolitan. So I looked at a recent issue of Cosmo, and these are the sell words they used on a recent cover:

Sex, hard-core, secret, sexy, naughty, free, fun, butt, sexiest, hottest, vagina.

It’s hard for an editor to match that but as my daughter, then 16, once told me, “Dad, don’t worry about it. Most of us outgrow those magazines pretty quickly.”


  1. http://jimromenesko.com/2014/04/08/why-this-is-a-good-headline/

    Ever use “f—ing” in Washingtonian?

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