In this guest post, Marie-Sophie Bibra, Head of Growth at Readly reflects on the covers that best exemplified publications reckoning with the highs and lows of 2020.In a year that will be marked in the history books forever, magazine covers brought us the stories with arresting, confronting, but ultimately powerful messages.
So much has been said and written about 2020 already, and so much more will be said about it in the future. My personal memories and moments of this year will forever be shaped by the people I experienced it with, but also by the memorable covers and magazines that ended up guiding me through.
Why? For one, it is part of my daily job at Readly. More importantly, I have always had a huge passion for magazines, and this year their meaning became so much more than just for the joy of reading. Magazines – their stories, their covers, the people they featured – became the context to my year, sometimes a beacon of hope for the future, sometimes a much-needed insight into what was happening in the world.
The topics of this year were so important, so big, so all-encompassing. Reflecting on it now, it feels so clear why magazine and media brands will play such an essential role in the future: they are the mirror of our world and society as well as an important role model and shaper of our development. Striking this balance between reflecting and guiding is a difficult task, one that will require a shared effort, a great deal of listening, and the willingness to change our usual ways.
1. The Covid-19 Pandemic
When the world went into lockdown in March, our realities changed drastically. The cover that will forever remind me of this pandemic is the Vanity Fair Italia cover “L’Italiasiamonoi”, created by the artist Francesco Vezzoli as an homage to the iconic Lucio Fontana.
When it was published in April it represented the heartbreak for Italy, which had been so devastatingly hit by the virus, but also the hope and strength of a country that rallied together, united in the belief that from pain and loss there would be creation and strength. Vanity Fair’s covers during that time all represented this: they wanted to make sure people felt seen, reminded of their shared strength and destinies.
The global covers during these months represented many firsts. The first time that frontline workers were shown on the cover of Vogue UK and Grazia UK, the first time a Vogue IT cover was left entirely blank, the first time that travel magazines were calling for us to stay home and dream through their pages instead.
What all the magazines had in common was how they showed us reality – the real people fighting on the front line for us, the real heartbreak and stories. This was so necessary because we wanted to feel connected. We all had our personal struggles, but were united in the hope we shared and in the questions that remained unanswered.
I personally hope that this time might help to redefine what we want to see more of in the future – a realness in magazines that reflects the genuine heroes and people that shape our time.
They should be shown not just on the inside pages, but also on the covers.
2. #BlackLivesMatter and The Topic Of Equality, Inclusion and Representation
What might have been underlying tensions of inequality in the past became front-page news and the catalyst for a global movement. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many others meant the world could no longer look away.
This sense of outrage, however, had to be accompanied by increased accountability and responsibility, because outrage can only create long-term change if it is followed by action. Vanity Fair UK’s cover featuring the portrait of the late Breonna Taylor by artist Amy Sherald was exactly that. A call for justice, a reminder not to look away and to never forget, and a celebration of an innocent life lost due to a system where equality is still not a shared reality.
Systemic change can only be accelerated if we create normalcy – and what could be more normal than showing people of every race, gender, sexual orientation and background on and in magazines. That is what we need, that is the responsibility of editors and publishers – as well as readers.
Stylist UK made Alicia Garza, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, the guest editor of its amazing October issue “The Future Of Power”, The Hollywood Reporter celebrated its inaugural Pride issue and Vogue UK dedicated its September issue on hope to activism and to the inspiring individuals who have dedicated their lives to fighting for a fairer society and future.
All these covers and stories have moved me profoundly and will stay with me for a long time. I sincerely hope that they mark a moment of change – but it will be up to each of us to demand this change, to unlearn and relearn and to create equal and inclusive representation in magazines and beyond.
3. Female Empowerment in Every Way
Continuing the topic of representation, I was glad to see that in 2020 we saw more real women and their inspiring stories shared across the globe. While I believe that sadly in many ways, we still have a long way to go to achieve true equality, I had many moments of inspiration and hope when it comes to this journey.
Forbes AT’s dedicated “Women”’s issue highlighting stories and role models of female crisis management, Vogue NL’s issue on motherhood, Grazia IT’s important work in the fight for women’s rights and safety which suffered so greatly during the pandemic are just some examples.
I don’t think we can stress this enough: the women shown on these covers and sharing their stories – with their real and individual beauty, age, bodies, professions, backgrounds and ways of life – will shape the way how future generations of girls, boys and women will dream, envision and ultimately live their lives.
That is what is at stake when I look at these covers and why to me, there is no alternative than making sure that everyone is represented, that equal female rights are demanded and that role models and their achievements and ambitions get celebrated.
4. Sustainability Finally a Frontpage Topic Across All Categories
While we stayed home this year, we saw nature around the globe slowly recovering from some of the painful damages our way of living had inflicted over so many years. Though we all may hope to return to a new normal way of life soon, it seems that the increased awareness for sustainability and our planet has finally arrived in all categories.
National Geographic sent a strong visual reminder across most of its issues with the hopeful message that we are not doomed, but we need to act. Time Out (renamed “Time In” during the lockdown months) sent Sir David Attenborough as a powerful advocate for individual accountability and Consumer Report had an important wakeup call about eating less plastic – as we might already be consuming one credit card’s worth of plastic each week, which we can only change if we act now.
What I consider one of the most important developments is that the message is also being spread through other magazine categories, like Vogue Italia’s fashion inspired plea to save Venice or Grazia IT dedicating the issue with Greta Thunberg to highlighting more sustainable fashion approaches.
This is essential because the message needs to reach every type of reader. It is the approach, however, and how it is explained will determine the successful delivery and impact of the message.
5. The future of business centered around human needs
I have long lost count of the number of meetings or hours spent on Zoom and other video platforms this year as part of my daily work, so I have been particularly interested in following the coverage of business media this year.
Ultimately, I have been positively surprised and very inspired by the development I have seen. Wired UK’s September issue featuring Zoom founder Eric Yuan on the cover was a highlight with its dedication to the future of work, the need for collective intelligence and human leadership, as well as the toll on mental health and corporate responsibilities in addressing this.
Also evident in the coverage: the importance of realigning companies according to their purpose and impact on society as a whole (Fast Company, Nov 2020), how the need for environmental changes brings a huge potential for business growth if understood correctly (Newsweek, Feb 2020) and how the current economic climate leads to great concern but also creativity and drive especially among women (Marie Claire Australia, Aug 2020).
My hope is that many business people will actually read this and hopefully reflect on their own impact and responsibility. The revolution of work has been catalysed tremendously in 2020, so we will need more reminders, stories and examples to make sure we can create the best outcome and most positive change from these learnings.
6. Political movements that will change our future
And what a year it has been in politics. The covers that moved me the most also gave me the greatest sense of hope – hope for all the voices being raised for inequality, injustice and change, hope that by sharing those voices we get reminded that we all have a voice and that the only decision we have to make is how to use it, not if.
“Yes We Matter” on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter, and “George Floyd’s America” on the cover of New York Magazine are both saved in my highlights, as reminders for the collective strength that was shown by thousands this year, in the face of a pandemic, addressing a systemic issue that is up to all of us to question and change without compromise.
Then there was the Time Magazine cover from the 23rd of November, featuring Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, the first Black, first Asian-American and first female vice president, and President Elect Joe Biden on the cover, following the US’s historic election.
The biggest development I observed this year is that politics became more talked about, often catalysed by covers and magazine stories, and paired with the importance of listening, tolerating and discussing different standpoints. Politics concerns all of us and the media has a crucial influence on how we perceive it – so those covers are already historic and will be referenced in the history books.
These are six emotional, moving topics. All of them connected with each other, and with our personal stories. All visualised and represented on the covers and in the pages of global magazines. This year I have had many moments of awareness, where I felt like both spectator and participant in the piece of history that will be 2020. I watched history unfold right in front of my eyes: on those covers, reading those stories, looking at the photographs of so many heroes.
While we often talk about the rapid changes of the media industry, the rise of fake news, the increasing digitization, there is one thing I am absolutely certain of: magazine (and media) brands have a cultural power, an extreme influence on individuals and society.
As a result, they also have a significant responsibility. They are a mirror of our world and society but they are also an influence on it. As such, I believe their relevance will only increase, but they will be held to elevated standards – for their contribution, their voice and their influence on what readers think, feel, read and see.
I will end my reflection with the most recent Time Magazine cover “2020 – the worst year ever”, which for many reasons we would probably all agree with, but I will add that I leave this year behind with a greater sense of hope, that from the lessons learnt we will accept the chance we have been given, to create a better future for all of us.