Cover Girl Michelle Obama Doesn't Always Deliver

Magazines Fuss Over First Lady, but Newsstand Sales Are Mixed

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Vogue's March cover story on Michelle Obama called her "The First Lady the World's Been Waiting For." No doubt she's been embraced by the media world, appearing on cover after cover, from Us Weekly to Newsweek. But when it comes to sales, Ms. Obama may not yet be general-interest magazines' new Princess Diana, who regularly helped the industry sell more copies at newsstands.

New York magazine's March 23 issue looks to have produced only 'average' sales.
New York magazine's March 23 issue looks to have produced only 'average' sales.
A Michelle Obama cover doesn't hurt a general-interest magazine, the numbers suggest, but it doesn't produce more than an occasional lift either.

New York magazine's March 23 issue, with a cover story about "The Power of Michelle Obama," looks like it produced "average" sales, New York said April 3, although the numbers remain subject to change.

When Ms. Obama appears on the cover of a magazine directed toward African-Americans, however, or when she appears with the president, sales really do seem to jump.

Newsstand gold for Ebony
Ms. Obama proved newsstand gold for Ebony last fall. The September 2008 issue, with a cover story on "The Real Michelle Obama," sold a hefty 261,000 copies on newsstands, 26% better than the six-month average, according to its report to the Audit Bureau of Circulations.

And the January issue of Essence, which split its print run between a cover featuring the president and a cover showing the first lady, earned newsstand sales of 458,000, the magazine told the audit bureau. The January 2008 cover, by comparison, sold 250,922 copies on newsstands.

"January was our first opportunity to present the new president," said Angela Burt-Murray, editor in chief at Essence. "And we knew that for our readers that Michelle Obama is just as exciting as the president.

The Obamas together have produced mixed results. People's Feb. 2 issue featuring the Obamas on Inauguration Day moved 1.8 million newsstand copies, well above the 1.4 million copies sold by the roughly comparable Jan. 29, 2008, issue.

Us Weekly's Nov. 17 cover, "Their Amazing Journey," sold 923,161 on newsstands, 16% over the average for the second half. Last summer Us Weekly ran a "Michelle Obama -- Why Barack Loves Her" cover on its June 30 issue, picturing them both; that one just sold 2% better than the first-half average.

And the September issue of Ladies' Home Journal, picturing both of the Obamas, sold 182,233 copies -- 21% below the average for the second half of the year, according to its audit-bureau report.

People's March 9 issue with the first lady solo on the cover sold about 1.4 million copies on newsstands, right in line with the March 5, 2008, issue. The first three issues of the year averaged 1.3 million on newsstands.

The Feb. 9 issue of Us Weekly, featuring Ms. Obama and her daughters, seems to have sold about 800,000 copies, which the title called about average. The first five issues of this year, from Jan. 5 through Feb. 2, averaged newsstand sales of 863,250.

Covers with weak sales
Then there are a few covers with relatively weak sales. Newsweek's Dec. 1 cover story on "The Meaning of Michelle," using a black-and-white photo, only sold 90,000 copies on newsstands, 15% below its average for the second half of last year. More's October issue featuring a cover story on "Michelle Obama at 44" sold just 154,000 copies on newsstands, 23% below the second-half average.

The most positive exception among general-interest titles may be O, The Oprah Magazine, whose April cover showed the first lady with Oprah Winfrey. "The April issue of O, The Oprah Magazine featuring Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama is on newsstands until April 13, so it is still early," a spokeswoman said April 3, "but as expected, the issue is doing extremely well, tracking 25% higher than average 2008 sales."

That was the first issue of "O" to include anyone but Ms. Winfrey herself, a big change for the magazine after 105 issues in nine years, according to Susan Reed, editor in chief. "It syncs very perfectly both with the times and with Oprah's interests and commitment to change," she said.

Vogue and The New Yorker, which ran a Michelle Obama-themed cover on its March 16 issue, said it is still too early to say how those issues fared at newsstands.

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