When Editors Talk About the Worst Magazine Cover They Ever Published

John Fennell was editor of Milwaukee magazine for 13 years and then until last year taught at the University of Missouri school of journalism. At Missouri, he held the Meredith Chair in Service Journalism and also coordinated the annual editorial awards contest for the City and Regional Magazine Association.

Over the weekend he was in Washington, D.C., and we had coffee and talked about our lives as editors. Some of the conversation was about how much we enjoyed the pre-digital days of magazine journalism—for old editors the good old days.

Back then we had annual meetings of editors of the biggest city magazines—we’d informally meet and for two days talk off-the-record about how we did our jobs, how we could improve, our wins and losses.

One year someone suggested that each editor talk about the worst cover they’d come up with. One editor did a cover on insomnia with a zombie woman staring out at the world with dead eyes. Another had run a cover with a discreetly naked woman which got the issue removed from all the city’s newsstands. As we went around the table, I thought I might be a lock to win for a Washingtonian cover with the headline:

The Death of 
Washington as a
Quiet, Charming
Southern City

The cover deck:

The City Gets More Rude,
Congested and New Yorkish 
Every Day. Here’s Looking
at the Good Old Days.

The cover art was a photo of a woman in full Southern belle costume laid out with her eyes closed looking very dead.

Can any of the editors top that? Yes, John claimed he did at Milwaukee magazine. He published an issue with a black cover and the headline in white type:

The Baby Was Dead

In the middle of the cover was a small grainy photo of a baby’s face with a deck saying that the baby had died because the mother was a cocaine addict. “What’s worse,” John says, “it was a July issue”—traditionally when city magazines did enjoying-the-summer covers that sold well. No surprise that the dead baby cover was Milwaukee’s worst seller that year.

But, as with many journalism disasters, if enough time goes by you might be able to smile about it.

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