Magazines’ Fragmentation Problem

The website coverjunkie has posted a couple of vintage magazine covers in honor of the late, great Larry Hagman. There’s Time magazine’s WHODUNIT? from August 1980, as the nation held its breath wondering who shot J.R. A New York magazine cover shows a young, not-too-far-removed-from-Major-Tony-Nelson Hagman sporting a Santa cap with the line “Merry Christmas—Or Else.”

Who shot J.R.? I don’t remember, but the question reminds us of the hold a few media outlets could have over the zeitgeist in the pre-Internet days. It was an atmosphere good for consumer magazines, which were adept at capturing the prevailing mood or conversation and representing it on covers inevitably seen by everyone, everywhere.

People managing editor Larry Hackett laments about the new reality today in AdWeek: “It’s not like it was 20 years ago where everybody saw the same movies and the television audience was five times as high for the top shows.” He was talking about the difficulty publishers have predicting which celebrities will sell covers. While “the story may have been reduced among big movie or TV stars,” Hackett said, reality stars do well because they have “narratives.”

In a fragmented media landscape, people seem drawn to reality-ish celebrity drama, rather than soap operas of the fictional sort. We don’t rally around characters and mythologies the way we used to. While I can imagine a Time cover featuring a stylized picture of Hugh Laurie leaning on a cane, and the tagline “Dr. House—And the Real Life Drama of Medical Mysteries,” I don’t expect to see it anytime soon. Time‘s latest cover features a bunch of legumes and vegetables. The one before that? David Petraeus, of course.

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