Judging by the Cover

Illustration: Ken Del Rossi

If you’re reading this page, we must have done something right. Perhaps you’re a regular here, or perhaps you needed a place to rest your coffee cup and figured, why not? But if you’re on this page, it means our cover worked.

Covers are our holiday window at Macy’s, our marquee poster at the theater, our teaser promo on the evening news. Their utility comes down to one thing: pulling you in.

Anybody who has loitered in an airport newsstand knows how hard it is to break through the clutter of images and promises magazines use to motivate the pickup, the flip-through and the sale. It must be easy for you guys, you’re thinking. You don’t have to persuade a potential reader to plop down $4.95; what you’re “selling” is free.

Don’t believe it. We’re competing for time and attention with everything else in our readers’ mailboxes. Just because our publication says “Stanford” at the top is no guarantee people will dive in and read. A lame-o cover is the publication equivalent of the snooze alarm. It might as well declare in large type: “Put Me Aside,” or worse, “Dispose in Nearest Receptacle.”

While many commercial magazines produce covers based on the time-tested triumvirate of sex, money and death, we don’t go there very often. In the lineup of cover subjects in recent years, the tally looks like this: good-looking famous actors, 0; ancient Peruvian sculpture, 1.

Four years ago, we put an ant on the cover. It was cute and all, but it wasn’t exactly George Clooney. Yet it worked somehow. You could not not look at that ant, blown up to 100 times its normal size, revealing every shimmering surface, from its Mexican-pot abdomen to its obsidian ant-eye.

Illustrations are common on our covers because stories about ideas and concepts aren’t easy to depict photographically. For a story on neuroscience three years ago we had a drawing of a happy-face head with the top open like a teapot, surrounded by imaginary construction workers moving boxes and such out of the brain. It won an award.

Last March, we pointed the barrel of a gun at readers to illustrate a story on the president of the National Rifle Association. It was visually arresting, but perhaps a little too in-your-face.

And occasionally we put notable individuals on the cover, as in this issue. The Stanford universe brims with alumni whose accomplishments make them cover-worthy, but we aren’t in the business of celebrity journalism. The last alum we put on the cover was retiring Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor, ’50, JD ’52, a year ago. That might give you some indication of where the bar is set.

When discussing cover options for this issue, we chose the Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, ’74, the first woman to head the Episcopal Church. As Diane Rogers’s story attests, Jefferts Schori has both a personal narrative and a professional ascent that transcends typical success. What’s better than an airplane-flying cleric, formerly an oceanographer, who broke a 500-year-old gender barrier?

There’s not an ant alive that could top that.


Email Kevin