Why the Boston Bomber Cover Controversy Helps Rolling Stone

Why the Boston Bomber Cover Controversy Helps Rolling Stone

The furor over a controversial photo Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has injected life into a magazine that was being undone by the internet

Rolling Stone is riding an internet backlash over a cover portrait of the accused Boston Marathon bomber all the way to the bank and proving the old adage that there's no such thing as bad publicity.

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Not that they haven't had plenty of negative attention this week. The magazine's controversial decision to post a "selfie" of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover has critics fuming that the magazine is glamorizing an alleged terrorist and being insensitive to the bombing's victims since the issue hit stores on Tuesday.

"They used to be iconic," news industry analyst Ken Doctor told TheWrap.

"Now the same internet that has progressively destroyed the print magazine industry is working in Rolling Stone's favor.

"Most Rolling Stone covers, people never look at," Doctor said. "Now they are."

The reaction to the cover across cable news and the internet was fast and furious with major retailers like CVS and Walgreens vowing to pull the magazine from shelves and various social media sites launching petitons calling for boycotts of Rolling Stone. 

Also read: CVS, Walgreens Won't Sell Rolling Stone's Boston Bomber Cover

Despite the furor, any hit to sales won't last much longer than the next news cycle, experts and media analysts told TheWrap. In fact, it could help boost the profile of a magazine that has not been at the epicenter of public debate for some time.

"I think it's much more likely in the long term to have a positive effect on Rolling Stone than a negative effect," Doctor said.

Also read: Rolling Stone Responds to Boston Bomber Cover Controversy

"Rolling Stone for the next year will be known for this," said Richard Laermer, CEO of RLM Public Relations. "There's no downside whatsoever."

Though several stores have refused to stock the issue, it's doubtful that will make much of a dent on the magazine's bottom line. Of Rolling Stone's 1.46 million circulation, only 75,391 issues are sold on the newsstand – a mere 5.1 percent.

Robin Steinberg, executive vice president of publishing and digital director investment and activation at MediaVest, doesn't expect the magazine's dedicated subscribers to cancel, either.

"Those subscribers expect and demand this type of journalism," she said.

An advertiser boycott would have more of an impact on the magazine – and, reportedly, some advertisers are not happy with the cover – but even that would most likely be a short-term problem, Doctor said. "I'd be surprised if we see many boycotts, but even if they do I don't think they'll last."

Also read: Newsweek's Michele Bachmann Cover Unlikely to Give Mag What It Needs Most

Though Steinberg called the backlash a "mixed bag" for Rolling Stone, she said, "All press is in some ways good press. Rolling Stone's name has become highly socialized in the social ecosystem for the past 48 hours. I assume traffic has spiked tremendously to the website."

Indeed, with all the criticism and boycott threats circulating around social media, Rolling Stone's name is constantly out there and part of the conversation for the first time since Michael Hastings' Gen. Stanley McChrystal story in June 2010.

Rolling Stone "needed some blood," Laermer said. "They don’t get a lot of attention."

The magazine "has been able to break through the noise" of the Internet with this cover, Doctor said – and that can only help with advertisers and readers. "Whatever hit they take, they have built their brand on free media," Doctor said.

Controversial covers weren't enough to save Newsweek, which stopped printing at the end of 2012 and is on the cusp of being sold off. But Rolling Stone's demographic and typical subject matter are different. 

Also read: Digital Magazine Sales Doubled in Second Half of 2012

"I think they were thrilled and I think they knew exactly what they were doing," Laermer told TheWrap. "Rolling Stone knows exactly how to push this country’s buttons. They are very good at this. Their timing could not have been better. After Zimmermann’s verdict we needed something to keep us entertained. Every columnist and cable news guy played into it."

The only person who might not love the reaction is author Janet Reitman, who delivered a deeply reported look the radicalization of an alleged terrorist — a young man who might have chosen a different path. Yet her work has been obscured by the vitriolic reaction to the cover art.

"Millennials like the unexpected and that’s exactly what [Rolling Stone] delivered here," Steinberg said. "They wrote an article that is inspiring public debate and that could win an award for journalism. The unfortunate part is the way [Tsarnaev] was depicted on the cover."