Journalism’s Future Better Not Be Scantily-Clad Women With Big Guns

Richard Just, editor of the Washington Post Magazine, wrote in his April 7 issue about reader complaints over an earlier cover that had the headline “Young Guns” and featured a scantily clad woman holding an assault rifle. Just wrote about the complaint of one reader, Diana Wahl, who said she was so offended by the cover that she threw it in her recycling bin. Here’s Just writing about her complaint:
Wahl and I also talked more generally about magazine covers. I argued that a good cover should provoke an emotional response. Later, when we talked about a recent piece in the magazine that hadn’t grabbed her attention, Wahl put the challenge this way: “How do you get somebody to read the articles without … sensationalizing it?” She added, “That’s a real dilemma for you.” I agree. The problem, of course, is that the line between good and bad provocation is both thin and subjective. An image I saw as thought-provoking was, instead, seen by Wahl as inflammatory.

Just contends that a good magazine cover should provoke an emotional response but I’d argue that a good magazine cover should make the reader want to open the magazine and read the story and that curiosity comes best from stories that are engaging and thoughtful, that make the readers want to know more.

Just is right that in the world of digital journalism, sensational sells, negativity sells. But that’s cheap and easy journalism, not good journalism.
An admission that the most controversial cover the Washingtonian ever published showed an ice cream cone with a scoop of vanilla ice cream topped with four scoops of chocolate ice cream. The cover type:

CAN WHITES SURVIVE IN DC? A “Chocolate City” mentality is taking hold in the District. A new kind of racism is emerging. And there is a growing frustration and bitterness between blacks and whites.

That cover was designed by Terry Dale, the Washingtonian’s design director. Ben Bradlee, then executive editor of the Washington Post, liked the cover so much he quickly hired Terry to be the Washington Post’s design director.

So yes, emotional headlines can create talk but that’s short-term success. The search goes on, in journalism and schools and government, for long-term success.

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