Aamir Khan makes the cover of Time magazine, declare the headlines. The wire copy then proceeds to rattle off a long list of other Indians who’ve received the honour: Aishwarya Rai, Manmohan Singh, Sachin Tendulkar, Narendra Modi, Indira Gandhi et al.
We’re certainly on a roll this year with Khan’s profile marking the fourth Time cover story in less than nine months. And we the media have marked each occasion with lavish attention. “The Underachiever” issue on Manmohan Singh was greeted with widespread hand-wringing, and in the case of Outlook magazine, by a counter-cover story featuring Barack Obama accompanied by exactly the same tagline.
Narendra Modi‘s ascendance to Time’s dizzying heights was cause for celebration among his supporters, a sign that he was finally getting his due on the international stage. Liberals wrung their hands for the very same reason.
Lost in the strum and drang provoked was one tiny detail: Making the cover of Time magazine is no longer about prestige but marketing. Back in the day, having your mugshot plastered over its front marked a pinnacle of achievement, a sign that you had joined a global club of VIPs. But in this day and age of market segments and circulation anxiety, choosing the cover story is more about business calculation than editorial judgement.
So it is that all the Indians who made it to the cover this year did so in regional editions of Time. And Manmohan Singh is the only one who graced the all-Asia edition. The rest — including Narendra Modi, Sachin Tendulkar, and most recently Aamir Khan — are on the cover only in the South Asia version, or as a colleague puts it, “The India edition, basically.” They are on the cover because their familiar faces will help sell more magazines in India, more so by generating the predictable media over-reaction: OMG, so-and-so made the Time cover!
This then explains why the actual stories themselves are so weak. The reporting is often shallow, and they say little that is new. As Firstpost’s Venky Vembu pointed out at the time, the only noteworthy element of the MMS profile was its incendiary cover. We also noted elsewhere that despite its top billing, the actual Modi story got only two pages in an issue that also contained a four-page spread on the Danish chef Rene Redzepi. And here’s why: The Redzepi profile was the cover story in the rest of Asia.
The last Indian to make the global cover of Time was Indira Gandhi when she died back in 1984. The rest — including Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, Aishwarya Rai et al — have graced Asia editions, and still others are mostly South Asia cover material.
Does this mean we need to beat ourselves up for being deluded by Time’s marketing strategy? Not really. It just means we need to stop paying quite so much attention to a publication that is increasingly resorting to desperate measures to boost its lagging sales. There’s nothing wrong in changing the cover from one region to another. But editorial integrity demands that any piece that makes it to the cover should deserve that status. If you want to put Sachin on the cover in India, make sure you assign the talent, resources and energy to his profile as you would for a cover story elsewhere. Don’t just change the photo from one market to another in the hope that the rest of us won’t notice.
If it’s any comfort, the cover stories for the US editions have come in for their share of flak. Their December 5 issue generated widespread annoyance because of the glaring discrepancy between the US and International editions. Where the global cover highlighted the historic Tahrir Square protests underway in Egypt, the US version went out with this bit of fluff: “Why Anxiety is Good For You”.
At the time Daily Kos blogger David Harris Gershon did an extensive comparison of other US v global covers with unflattering results:
This is not an isolated incident, for perusing Time’s covers reveals countless examples of the publication tempting the world with critical events, ideas or figures, while dangling before Americans the chance to indulge in trite self-absorption. Viewing these covers, a question must be asked: do these moments of marketing (through a choice in covers) reveal more about Americans, or about the state of American journalism? I fear the answer.
So here then is the upside of this story: Time editors don’t think we’re quite as self-absorbed as the Americans.