The Tale of Two Covers

Sarie’s recent decision to leave Zola Nene off the cover of the Spring 2021 issue of Sarie Kos was at once tone-deaf as well as ultra-conservative. Neither are attributes needed for a successful print publication in the face of ever-growing competition from the digital world.

In my opinion, when you have the opportunity to feature two such well-known personalities on the cover of your magazine, you should really pull out the big guns in order to produce a far more WOW or engaging image. Despite liberal sprinklings of ‘bakers bling’, the covers of Sarie Kos and Sarie Food were actually pretty ‘bleh’ when you consider how vibrant both of these personalities are on the small screen.

If the cover had been more exciting it could potentially have distracted from the *shock* of having a black woman on the cover of an Afrikaans-language magazine… but as it turned out, the publishers/editors chose to let Nataniël stand ‘man alleen’ on the cover of Kos, and to then share top billing with Zola on the cover of Food.

In their defense, they did give Zola a more prominent headline on the cover of Food, although it was actually somewhat lost on “her” cover compared to Nataniël’s coverline on “his” cover.

While it is understandable that this cover was greeted with anger from many quarters in South Africa, their reason for leaving Zola off the cover of the Afrikaans version of the magazine was most likely purely financial, and not political or cultural. This is the challenge facing magazine publishers in South Africa because they operate giant monsters that carry enormous costs. When profitable, the owners naturally want to maximise those profits… to the max! When times are tough, they want to control the losses. Stop the bleeding!

In both instances, the decision-makers tend to veer towards the more conservative approach. Now, I don’t mean AWB or Republican Party (U-S-A!) conservative… I’m referring instead to being conservative in terms of not taking financial risks.

I’m pretty sure that the Sarie editorial and design departments would have pushed for a more dramatic image on the cover, and quite possibly to have had both personalities feature on the cover of Sarie Kos as well as on Sarie Food. At least, if their editorial and art departments are good then they would have pushed in that direction, but almost certainly they would have been herded into a conservative pen by the “money men”.

Part of this conservative approach is due to the widespread global belief for the past two to three decades that, when you put a black person on the cover of a magazine then your sales are “guaranteed to drop”. It’s hard to argue against that view as the people who uphold that narrative seem to have convincing stats on their side, but there is another far deeper side to that argument, although that is part of a much longer discussion.

Suffice to say, the Sarie money men were almost certainly bowing to what they perceive the market wants to pay for because, as is usually the case in almost every area of the economy… the market dictates! The money men are also conservative because all it takes is one really bad decision (such as the choice of cover image or any of the content inside the magazine) and you could lose 2000 to 5000 readers overnight… and that lower circulation could lead to the loss of 5-10 advertisers once the next quarter circulation figures are released. It’s a downward spiral, and it’s not easy to climb up out of a downward spiral.

From working in independent as well as corporate magazine companies for over 20 years, I have real empathy for the decision-makers (even though I’ve always butted heads with them), because so much is at stake financially. It’s easy for us in the editorial and art departments to throw around wild ideas and say “let’s take a chance on it”… but the money men have a responsibility to keep the ship afloat for us all (at the same time as protecting their much fatter slice of the pie!).

THAT SAID… it was a terribly tone-deaf decision, not to mention highly disrespectful to Zola. If they were convinced that having Zola on the cover alongside Nataniël would alienate a large portion of their readers (which may or may not be true), I would have suggested that they rather produce TWO covers of Sarie Kos… one with Nataniël on, and one with Zola on. Half of the copies could be printed with Zola on, and half with the boerewors champion striking a pose.

Having two different covers of Sarie Kos on newsstands would have created a more dramatic impact on the newsstand, and it would also attract the eyeballs of a far wider readership, and in particular the younger generation who don’t ascribe to living in the Apartheid past. Sarie Food could then act as a third cover, featuring Nataniël and Zola.

Suddenly your magazine is speaking to a much wider audience… and that should result in increased revenue.

In an interview for the position of editor of Men’s Health in 2008, I offered the publisher and the interviewing panel this very idea as my proposed strategy to draw in a larger black readership for the magazine. I was pleased to see them start using the idea a few months later, even if they hadn’t decided to start using me as their editor.

The reality for all magazines is that what counts today more than ever before is quality content as well as giving readers what they want. That’s the way to be sustainable as a print publication because social media and its big, broad digital canvas is catering superbly to the needs of a vast majority of readers. Print media has to become better and better in order to retain its share of eyeballs.

And while it holds fast that “the market dictates”, a magazine also has to keep an eye on society, how it is changing… and to then adapt to REFLECT such change. That is the true role of a magazine, but it’s a role that the money men in South Africa are terrified to adopt. They follow overseas trends and seldom break new ground.

It’s the South African way, aside from a few incredible innovators with funding aplenty, deep pockets or nerves of steel!

Our conservative money men will of course argue that they are in the right because they keep their giant ships afloat… but what can’t be proven is how much readership they are LOSING OUT ON through their conservative approach. This is something I have been arguing with publishers for 20 years and more, but it’s not an argument you can win against Captain Excel-spreadsheet. It’s an argument that has to be proven at the sharp end of the smaller, more entrepreneurial publisher’s sword.

That has generally been impossible in the world of print magazines… but wait… therein lies the opportunity for publishers in the digital domain. Beware, big publishers of print… for there be dragons on the horizon!