Sunday, January 6, 2008

A Bizarre Blip in Periodical Publishing

I love PARADE magazine. A hot coffee and James Brady’s “In Step With” interviews are a favorite Sunday morning indulgence. The rest of the newspaper-insert periodical is fun, too, from the celebrity gossip to the recipes. But this weekend, my frothy diversion astonished me. The Sunday, January 6, 2008, PARADE cover reads “Is Benazir Bhutto America’s best hope against al-Qaeda?” Okay, they got all the spelling right. Here’s the problem for the one person in America who may have missed it: Benazir Bhutto is dead. Inside, the three-page interview makes absolutely no mention of the woman’s assassination, subsequent funeral, and the chaos these events have caused in the already turbulent Pakistan. Inaccurate doesn’t quite cover this error, does it? Beyond confused, I visited the magazine’s website where, not on the publication’s main page but only after clicking on a link to “learn more” about Bhutto, I found the following: “The assassination of Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto on Dec. 27 occurred after PARADE’s Jan. 6 issue went to press.”

Sorry. No matter the cost or hassle, this one should have been pulled. Or at least, some sort of insert contextualizing the article and commenting on the assassination should have been included. Parade’s excuse that the issue had already been printed and shipped the day before the assassination needs a bit of beefing up before that’s okay—or maybe there’s not enough beef in all the Midwest for this one. Our country is embroiled in a difficult war which brightens the spotlight which September 11th switched onto the Middle East’s political/religious/natural-resource-based quagmire. To disseminate nation-wide a snappy, four-color document featuring Bhutto’s face and cover assertion that “I Am What The Terrorists Most Fear” nine full days after her assassination goes beyond cheap or lazy to irresponsible (and, seriously, weird).

I cannot imagine a trade book publisher not stopping the presses or even shredding volumes in production at this pivotal moment. Perhaps this is purely economics. Who would buy a whole book about Bhutto absent this critical final component? Meanwhile, no one is going to skip their local “Times” because PARADE editors have decided its gossip and brainteasers are so essential to readers that they are going to include a dangerously dated, offensive, and ultimately bizarre cover story. (And apparently editors of Sunday papers nation-wide agreed!) Still, if one takes even a single step back, past the obvious cost and possible penalties of failing to provide this weekly missive to its many contracted newspapers or having to reprint or rebundle the advertising circulars, toward the bigger picture, can this possibly be viewed as the optimal decision for this periodical, much less its readership, its carrying papers, or Americans?

Unfortunately, I think Parade is showing our true American corporate colors: the bottom line is more important than the human mind. I believe this philosophy (to grace the notion with such a word) is ultimately self-defeating. In focusing so hard on the cost of the immediate change, Parade was blind to its readership’s sense of compassion, intelligence level, and international concerns in this critical election year. The result seems to me to be a humiliation for the magazine in the astonishment of those of its readers who were not outright offended.

I guess Parade’s embarrassment is a good thing. But I still wish I had not had the twilight-zone experience of seeing that cover. Parade and the entire publishing industry can, and should, do better.