In an interview with Yahoo News, the newly-fired editor of Golfweek discusses his firing over a controversial cover.
The cover featured a picture of a noose, and was meant to illustrate a feature story on the asinine comment made by Golf Channel sportscaster Kelly Tilghman. Referring to Tiger Woods and how unbeatable he can be, she said that the other PGA Tour players should “lynch him in a back alley.” It was a stupid and ignorant thing to say, no doubt about it. Tilghman was suspended for two weeks, and her long-term future in the field of broadcasting is tenuous at best.
Some might question why Dave Seanor, the editor of Golfweek, lost his job over his poor judgement, while Tilghman only got a suspension. As someone who has been in a similar situation–not once, but twice–during my career, it’s my opinion that Seanor’s actions were worse, and that his firing was just.
My first job in publishing was as an intern at a national magazine aimed at successful businesswomen. I was barely 20 years old, and didn’t understand how the politics of putting together a magazine worked, but I would soon find out.
It was 1987, and our magazine had a cover story coming up on Maureen Reagan, then-President Ronald Reagan’s daughter. The coverline said, “Daddy’s Little Girl,” and the article was all about how Maureen–while feminine and jovial on the outside–possessed a keen business savvy and tough-as-nails approach that helped her navigate the Washington political scene.
One day, I came upon the magazine staff huddled around two cover mock-ups for the Reagan issue. One depicted Maureen in a tight close-up, while the other was a half-body shot of her. The further-away shot was beautiful: she had a whimsical expression on her face, with her hands resting just under chin, fingers linked, looking at the camera with an amused half-smile. She appeared confident, pretty, and self-assured.
The tight shot was awful. It was taken at a strange angle, from slightly above her. The photo was so tightly zoomed in, you could count the pores on her nose and cheeks, and her forehead had an oily sheen to it. Her open-mouthed smile was more of a toothy grin, and gave her a menacing, almost-diabolical look that was decidedly unattractive. It was hard to believe that the two photos were of the same woman.
I immediately stated my preference for the first photo, and all eyes turned to me. I was too young and naive to pick up on the signals coming from the other staffers, who were trying to convey a subtle, “Shut UP, you stupid intern” look that was, alas, totally lost on me.
What I didn’t know was that moments before I happened along, the editor-in-chief, managing editor, and art director all expressed their preference for the unflattering shot. Of course, they didn’t see it as unflattering. They claimed that it was “different” and “edgy” and more closely related to the gist of the article, which was an “up-close and personal” profile of Maureen Reagan. Despite my objections–which were brushed off as the uninformed opinion of an inexperienced staffer–they went with what I considered “the ugly cover.”
When the issue hit the newsstands a few months later, there was a great amount of buzz around the office. Suddenly, there were phone calls and meetings behind closed doors. Office scuttlebutt had it that Maureen Reagan was livid over the cover, and absolutely hated it.
Less than four years later, the magazine was struggling to find advertisers, and it folded. Fortunately, by then I had already graduated with my nifty little journalism degree, worked my way up at another national women’s magazine, and had switched over to book publishing at a major NYC publishing house.
Before long, I found myself in a similar situation. This time, I was called into the Publisher’s office, where my bosses (the Managing Editor and Editor-in-Chief) were reviewing a cover mock-up for our biggest travel title of the season. The publisher gestured toward the cover art and said, “Well, Lis, what do you think?”
You would think that, after what happened at the magazine, I would have learned my lesson. You would think that, with several years of publishing experience under my belt, I would have learned to recognize the subtle, “PRETEND YOU LOVE IT” looks that I was getting from the others in the room.
I took one look at the cover and said, “Ewww. I hate it.”
The publisher’s eyes narrowed–which I mistakenly took to mean that she was seriously considering my critique, not lining up her eye-daggers-of-death–and she said, “Oh? Why is that?”
And so, I proceeded to explain how hideously awful the cover was, without mincing words. The entire cover photo was dark and uninviting. It depicted a farmhouse in the middle of a pitch-black field. The only light visible was an ominous yellow glow coming from one tiny window in the house. It reminded me of that Amityville Horror Movie poster, or the kind of place that Freddie Krueger would hide out in between teen killings. It was scary, and not the kind of cover that made me want to go anywhere near the book, much less pick it up and purchase it. The title was in red and yellow with black shadowing, in a font that was oddly reminiscent of a can of RAID ant & roach spray.
“A can of ‘RAID’?” said the publisher. “What’s that?”
“Oh, c’mon, you know,” I said, “‘RAID: kills bugs dead…'”
A moment of stony silence followed. “I don’t have bugs,” she said finally. Uh oh. I was starting to catch on that maybe I’d said too much.
Nevertheless, I forged ahead: “Yes, but, surely you’ve seen a can of RAID at the supermarket, on the shelf, maybe?”
She took a moment, reloaded her eye daggers, and continued calmly: “No. I don’t shop at the ‘supermarket‘,” she said, spitting out the word like it left a bad taste in her mouth. “I shop at Gristede’s and Zabar’s, and I’m fairly certain they don’t carry this ‘RAID’.”
Ah, I get it now. So that’s how you want to play it. “Well, trust me then,” I said back with what I hoped was an air of condescension, “it looks just like one.” End of conversation.
Afterwards, the others in the room admitted to me–well out of earshot of our publisher, of course–that they weren’t thrilled with the cover either, but that she’d hand-picked the designer herself, and had already made up her mind to go with it, so there was no sense fighting it.
It ended up being a total disaster. When she presented it at Sales Conference, the sales reps buzzed with negative reaction to the “horrible” cover. It was the worst-selling edition of that book that we’d ever had. A year later, when the next edition came out, it had a cover that was the polar opposite in every way: a bright, warm, inviting photo of a sunny mountaintop, with soothing blues and greens. I felt vindicated, although, the designer of the scary cover did end up winning an award from some art-industry competition for his unusual, avant garde cover. To this day, I think they gave it to him because they were so impressed he’d somehow managed to get someone to actually publish the awful thing.
The lesson? You can come up with an unusual cover concept that is artsy and edgy, and try to use that as justification for publishing it, but if you want it to be a commercial success, you’d better think long and hard before running with it, and be prepared to face the consequences when the stuff hits the fan.
That Golfweek editor knew darn well that the cover would be controversial. Yes, it was an interesting idea, but one that should have remained JUST an idea. He didn’t run the final cover mockup past the Editor-in-Chief, even though he knew there were reservations about the cover concept. He deserved to be fired for his hubris.
I don’t know anyone over at Golfweek personally, but I’m sure that there must have been at least one young staffer who objected to that cover, and was made to feel stupid about it. Now that things have played out the way that they have, I hope that he or she has learned to trust his or her own instincts, no matter what the higher ups say. Speak up, and don’t be afraid to voice a different opinion, even if no one else appears to agree with you at the time.
You might just be proven right after all.