Editorial: By George, he's got it covered

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Today's magazines are too full of copycat, butt-kissing content, and-if you'll forgive the ironic sycophancy-three cheers to George Lois for pointing it out.

It took an impassioned adman in his 70s revered for the iconic Esquire of the '60s to blow the magazine industry's cover: "The editorial content and imagery of a great magazine belongs to the passionate writer and iconoclastic graphic designer and heroic editor, and not to outraged advertisers or quivering sales departments or the celebrity flavor of the month whose butt you're kissing."

Mr. Lois, ad-agency veteran and creator of Esquire's eye-stopping covers four decades ago, got it right in his fiery speech at last week's American Magazine Conference. Newsstands overflow with me-too titles, each with a "boring, adoring ... cover" and content as shallow as the celebrity profiled within.

Magazines are laboring to hold readers, advertisers and market share in a world full of new media options. But here's the thing: Print prospects are bright for magazines that crack the code with compelling content and inspired design that bond them to their readers. Prospects are troubling for titles that find themselves hamstrung by the fear of failure and consequently produce insipid, forgettable content.

A magazine has to be seen as a platform-neutral brand with a history of engaging readers. But as publishers take their brands into the digital world, their competitive set expands, as does readers' ability to toggle more easily among sources of entertainment. That will only underscore the need for more stand-out content.

Publishing has changed since the "Golden Age of Journalism" in the '60s that Mr. Lois recalled in his speech. It's a corporate world; publishers are employees, not owners. It's also a far bigger business; even after factoring in job losses since the 2000 bubble burst, magazine employment has nearly doubled since Mr. Lois' days with Esquire.

And with that, some of the strong editorial voices have been lost. As Mr. Lois' welcome rant suggested, it is time, once again, to re-discover that confidence. One thing hasn't changed since the '60s: You can tell a book by its cover.

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