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A Brief Taxonomy of the Cover Line

By Daniel Luzer

Cover lines are “a topic filled with editorial mystery, uncertainty, creativity,” said Jack Brady of the Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University and a frequent contributor to Folio Magazine, “and the need to be the same, only different, issue after issue.”

According to Benton and Coleman Patterson in their 2003 book, The Editor in Chief: A Management Guide for Magazine Editors, there is a sort of pseudoscience behind them, indicating that effective use of numbers, simple phrasing and words like “new” or “bonus” can make the difference between a good or bad month in a magazine’s newsstand sales.
But do cover lines deliver what they promise? The following is a brief taxonomy of the cover line, with some of the year’s more entertaining examples.

The scare cover line

A sexy or provocative series of words designed to convince readers that a given article will reveal something they simply must know.


“Shocking Ways You Could Get Pregnant By Accident”
(February 2008)

This cover line promises a little more than it delivers. The article discusses only the most tried and true method to get pregnant by accident: failure to use a condom. This is a highly creative use of the word “shocking,” not wearing a condom being a necessary condition for pregnancy. With only a slight change in tone, this cover line could have appeared in The Onion.


“What Was the Worst Year in British History?”
BBC History Magazine
(February 2008)

The answer is 1812. Now you know. Okay, not really. In this case the cover line is just a tease. Author David Wilson refuses to rate the relative badness of Roman repression, the Black Death, Tudor tyranny, food shortages and the Great Depression. According to Wilson it is a five-way tie between A.D. 60, 1349, 1536, 1812 and 1937.


“Are You Turning Your Kid Into a Douchebag?”
(December 2007)

Author David Hochman argues that well-meaning parents’ efforts to give their children an appreciation for stylish clothing and fancy food can result in spoiled children. Counter to the usual Details philosophy of “buy more, spend more," Hochman recommends simple products and restrained spending habits to help parents raise well-behaved and mature youngsters. It’s worth pointing out that 100 percent of the products advertised in the magazine, and about 85 percent of the things discussed in Details’ articles, are the sort that would totally turn your child into a douchebag.

The visual cover line

A cryptic series of words that make sense
only when they are considered alongside the
image on the magazine’s cover.


“Dirty Harry!”
(September 2007)

The cover line accompanies a (clearly Photoshopped) picture of HRH Prince Henry Charles Albert David in his boxer shorts, clutching a can of beer. The article is a profile (accompanied by more Photoshopped pictures) of the drunken, drug-addled, womanizing younger son of the Prince of Wales. It appears that author Tom Teodorczuk did most of his research using Google; at the time of publication, Prince Harry was actually in military training and shortly after was sent to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. Dirty Harry, indeed.


“Janet off the Wall”
(April 2008)

This cover line appears next to a picture of singer Janet Jackson in a suit and fedora. In the accompanying profile, Vibe editor-in-chief Danyel Smith describes Jackson as impeccably well-organized: her clothes are “tightly buttoned,” her eyebrows are “impeccably shaped,” her hair is in a “tidy chignon.” So where the cover line’s “off the wall”—generally defined as “exhibiting bizarre behavior; crazy”—comes from is unclear. Amy Winehouse is off the wall. Jackson’s brother Michael is off the wall (as his album of that name warned us back in 1979, before he went totally off the rails). But Smith, in her star-struck profile, suggests that sister Janet (whose album titles include Discipline, Control and, one would imagine, the as-yet-unreleased Joining the Marines) is anything but off the wall.

The placeholder cover line

Used in magazines with well-established
readerships to fill up cover space and indicate
that the publication covers pretty much the
same territory it always does.


“The Art of Poaching”
(March 2008)

This article does not refer to the illegal hunting, fishing or harvesting of wild plants or animals. Nor does it refer to the process of gently simmering food in liquid. This four-step guide instead explains how to move diagonally across the court to intercept a return in doubles tennis. While this cover line is perfectly clear to anyone who plays tennis, it’s totally baffling—even after reading the article—to someone who does not.


“Garden Party: Scarecrows Come Alive”
Berkshire Living
(October 2007)

This may induce visions of Massachusetts gardens overrun by the straw-fueled undead. But no, sadly, this article was a profile of Plainfield, MA, sculptor Michael Melle, who creates life-sized human forms with straw. In the fall he exhibited his creations at the Berkshire Botanical Garden. Everyone got out alive.


"Suicide Plane Target: The Big E"
Naval History
(April 2008)

What? While "the Big E" is a somewhat common moniker for the U.S.S. Enterprise, an aircraft carrier (not just the "Star Trek" spaceship), this cover line is only tangentially related to the article. The actual article, titled "Who Knocked the Enterprise Out of the War?" is an investigate piece about the identity of the Kamikaze pilot who damaged the "Big E" in May 1945. While the subject of the article is fairly interesting, the cover line is both cryptic and somewhat less exciting than the article it introduces. One wonders what Naval History Editor-in-Chief Richard Latture (the magazine’s own "Big E") was thinking with that cover line.


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