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How The New Yorker Cover Became Twitter Gold

The legendary magazine alters its DNA for the Internet era

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

The first really talked-about New Yorker cover came nearly 70 years after the magazine’s founding. In 1992, when Tina Brown took over as just the fourth editor in its history, she broke a long-standing editorial taboo by adding three brand-name visual artists to the staff: cartoonist Art Spiegelman, illustrator Edward Sorel, and photographer Richard Avedon. The February 15, 1993 edition—coming one day after Valentine’s Day and not two years after the Crown Heights riot—was fronted by Spiegelman’s drawing of a Hasidic man, in hat, coat, and beard, making out with a black woman.

There was, generally speaking, an uproar. But not from all quarters, according to Spiegelman. “Many voices came forward to express delight with the cover as well,” he said in Blown Covers, a book about New Yorker covers edited by the magazine’s art editor, Françoise Mouly (who is also Spiegelman’s wife). “My favorite was from a young reader who wrote that she didn’t understand the controversy. She thought that it was sweet of the magazine, on the week of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, to show him kissing a slave.”

Twenty years later, topical New Yorker covers are no longer so rare. Monday morning brings a Barry Blitt drawing of the soon-to-end television show “Breaking Bad”’s Walter White happening upon Syrian President Bashar Al Assad down in his chemical laboratory. And when these covers do appear, they often seek to be controversial: Blitt’s 2008 caricature of the Obamas giving each other a “terrorist fist bump” most immediately comes to mind; this past summer, on two hot Fridays (a few days before their publications), the talk of the town was a cover by Jack Hunter featuring “Sesame Street”’s Bert and Ernie, in lovers’ repose, watching the Supreme Court (which had just made two pro-marriage equality rulings), and one featuring Anthony Weiner, as King Kong, taking an iPhone picture of his … Empire State Building. The Assad/White one (“Breaking Bassad”) smells a little of the Andy Borowitz factory—these two figures have a superficial thing in common, let’s put them together!—but it is helping drive the Internet conversation.

Photo courtesy of the New Yorker.

Brown, for one, is happy to see her legacy continue. “Love the Anthony Weiner cover which I assume is Barry Blitt,” she says via email (actually, the illustrator was John Cuneo.) “Delighted to see the buzz quotient ramp….Successful covers should start a conversation. Never understood why critics of Newsweek covers did not see that. Thought Rolling Stone terrorist and Biz Week penis also home runs.”

Some longtime New Yorker readers may be appalled to hear a former editor speak of the magazine as though it is competing for eyeballs with other covers. For much of its time, The New Yorker was self-contained and defiantly off the news-cycle (people say that a Mel Brooks profile in the late 1970s was deliberately held so that it was not published too near to the release of one of his films). As for the cover, minus a couple Depression-era depictions of poverty, it was walled off from what was happening of import both outside the magazine—World War Two, the Sixties—and inside it: The cover of the August 31, 1946 issue depicts a summertime idyll, even though had you opened it you would have found John Hersey’s “Hiroshima.”

“It’s not supposed to be spectacular,” editor William Shawn, who reigned with storied benevolence from 1952 to 1987, once said. “When it appears on a newsstand, it’s not supposed to stand out. It’s a restful change from all the other covers, I’d say.” Today, not only does The New Yorker court disputation with its covers, it often hypes them online the Friday before publication. (This week’s must not have been deemed sufficiently buzzy.)

Given The New Yorker’s tradition, some—okay, I—had qualms about the magazine’s deliberately provocative covers and its efforts to promote them. Call it Luddism, call it fuddy-duddy-ness, but at least admit it is internally consistent. This is a magazine, after all, that still uses that umlaut-thing (actually called a diaeresis) in hiatuses, as in “coöperate”; still deploys an army of fact-checkers that would embarrass virtually any other magazine; and still, indeed, has a cover that does not allude to what’s inside the thing itself (and also rarely, if ever, contains a photograph). Magazines are supposed to stand for something, and one of the things The New Yorker stands for is continuing to be the rarefied thing known as The New Yorker, and the cover is a key way of conveying that—“it’s one of the only magazines left where the cover doesn’t have to be about what’s inside,” as Spiegelman tells me, “a rather remarkable position.” Ultimately, making a big deal out of the covers defies the magazine’s ethos. 

“What would Mr. Shawn say?” says David Remnick, the magazine’s current editor, after I put the question to him. “I really don’t know. And, with respect, it would be foolish to get bogged down in that kind of curatorial obsession. A magazine that starts behaving like a museum of itself or one that makes a cult of a particular editorial predecessor, even one as great as Shawn, is asking for trouble.”

You can get a vision of how people saw The New Yorker in its pre-Brown (some would say prelapsarian) state by checking out a New Republic cover-story review published in 1990 of an earlier book containing New Yorker covers. Author Louis Menand—now a New Yorker staff writer—took stock of the hand-wringing over whether something as self-consciously twee and above-the-fray could survive. He concluded, presciently: “The New Yorker’s market is still there, but it’s wearing a different face. Maybe the magazine will put on another face to meet it.”

That began two years later with Brown, who in turn hired Mouly. Today, Mouly (whom I once heard called the Robert Silvers of the cartooning world, and who is the subject of a brand-new book by Jeet Heer) helps pick the covers, with Remnick getting final say. This is a decision made for editorial as opposed to business reasons: Unlike monthly glossies, The New Yorker overwhelmingly relies on subscriptions, so how many copies a given issue sells off the newsstand—and, therefore, how well the cover catches the eyes of prospective buyers—matters almost not at all.

Steven Heller, the prominent art director and design writer, notes that in 1925, when The New Yorker was founded, many magazines had illustrated covers without cover lines (e.g., words telling you what is inside). The difference is, the others are all gone now. The logo, in the so-called “Irvin type” (a reference to the original art director, Rea Irvin), remains. “And that bar down the side,” he adds, beckoning one to wonder what he is talking about, and then to look at almost any New Yorker cover and realize there’s a bar down the left side. “That empty piece of real estate has always been a New Yorker trademark, the way the red border used to be the trademark of Time,” he explains. “From a design perspective, it’s a mnemonic: You look at it, and even if you’re not conscious of it, it’s a stop sign.”

Heller is a fan. “A good magazine cover becomes something you remember. And if you’re lucky, you’ll remember the name of the magazine,” he argues. “It’s what the Pillsbury Doughboy is to dough. It’s the trademark, the character, the personality.”

Photo courtesy of the New Yorker.

It is a personality that was invented when people sent telegraphs. But, combined with topicality, it turns out to be a perfect fit for our own era. Read any article about media today, and you will learn that what travels fastest and most furiously on the web are things that are funny, topical, easy-to-understand, well-branded, and, apart from widely available cultural references, require no further context. I just described a topical New Yorker cover. it is Internet perfection—so perfect you would think it was genetically modified. It out-BuzzFeeds even BuzzFeed. (“This is the cover of this week’s New Yorker,” tweeted @BuzzFeedNews Monday morning.) The Bert and Ernie cover garnered 657 million “impressions”—times people saw it, essentially. That’s a massive number, generated by a perfect Internet storm.

What would Mr. Shawn say? Given the Internet’s comparative coarseness, topical covers would likely fall pretty low on his list of concerns (he died in 1992). He might take comfort from the fact that most New Yorker covers continue to be non-topical, even if he realized that that is part of the trick—that if they all were topical, they would lose their panache. And he would also, perhaps, perceive the most important thing about them, which is that they tend to be good.

“The DNA is really high-quality,” argues Ben Yagoda, who has written a book about The New Yorker, when I ask him what defines the magazine. Being excellent is not by itself a sensibility, though. But the quality of the topical covers along with the editorial discipline that allows them to run only once in a blue moon—or, at least, once in a moon—allows The New Yorker to maintain its actual sensibility, which is a quirky, high-middlebrow general-interest magazine with a special focus on a certain city.

Mouly delivered her own apologia to me on the phone in a soft accent. “I like that not everyone agrees on the cover,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I’m French.”

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An earlier version described the "oo" in "cooperate" as a diphthong when actually it is a hiatus.