Why does the Tsarnaev cover still matter?

It’s a fair question. And I don’t just mean the fact that, nearly two weeks after it was announced, Rolling Stone‘s decision to put Boston bomber Dzokhar Tsarnaev on the cover of its Aug. 1 issue is still making headlines (Senator John McCain said this week that it was “stupid” and “inappropriate”). Why, in an age when few people buy physical magazines at retail, or even see them for sale outside the checkout line, does our culture still react so strongly to what Rolling Stone chooses to display on the front of its print edition?

The easy answer is that Rolling Stone has long been a symbol of celebrity, hipness and youth. Getting your picture on the cover of Rolling Stone is a storied mark of rock celebrity, of making it big and, of course, buying five copies for your mother. There is even a Wikipedia page dedicated to Rolling Stone cover celebs. This speaks to the enduring power of the magazine as a pop culture brand.

But there’s something else at work here. Vanity Fair tagged July 13-21 “The Greatest Week For Magazine Covers In Recent Memory.” Search “magazine covers” on Google, and there are dozens and dozens of recent news articles dedicated to who is appearing on what magazine cover and what (if anything) they are wearing. I’ll bet fewer than 10 percent of the people reading these articles will ever hold the print edition of those magazines in their hands. Yet there is an almost mystical quality attached to the idea of the cover. It matters little that it’s about as relevant as hot type to the search and social media-driven Web.

The media still needs self-generated symbols to help drive stories. We all still need benchmarks—the idea that somewhere, “out there,” is a fixed edition, a reference point around which we can focus emotion and mark change. Oddly, digital bits and bytes—what we once called virtual—is now the “real,” while actual print objects increasingly fill the role of a Platonic ideal. Yet another reason why print will never completely go away—and why the idea of the magazine will continue to hold power.

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