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Time Magazine targets youth market with Messi cover | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat- Something strange happened on my way to the office last week. Stopping at the usual newsagent, I went to the racks to grab my weekly Time magazine, as I have done for the last five years – and it wasn’t there. I moved on to the next newsagent and they, too, had sold out. It wasn’t until the third shop that I snagged a copy, the last one in stock. I asked the man behind the counter why there had been such a run on Time: he shrugged and pointed to the cover star. It was Lionel Andrés Messi, the world’s greatest footballer.

I was doubly surprised. Not only have I never had a problem getting hold of a copy of Time before, but I have never seen a sportsman on its iconic cover, let alone a footballer. A quick bit of research on the last year of covers shows that while there were 11 devoted to political leaders (with a full three reserved solely for Muammar Gaddafi), 18 devoted to countries (including eight on the U.S.), and four devoted to business leaders, Messi was the only sportsman to grace the front page. That’s the same amount of cover time given to rhinos, immortality, Tintin and the Future of Fish.

It’s not like Time didn’t have alternative options – it definitely wasn’t a slow news week. Potential stories which could have taken the cover slot included the race for a Republican presidential candidate, Israel’s attempt to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the future of capitalism being hammered out at Davos. So what is so compelling about the Messi story that made it cover-worthy?

The six page feature gives readers a crash course in Messi’s life and career to date. We learn about the 24-year-old’s youth in Argentina, his small stature (he is nicknamed ‘The Flea’ and received hormone treatments as a teenager to help him grow) and his departure aged 13 to join FC Barcelona’s youth academy. And then there are the stories of incredible, heart-in-the-mouth goal-scoring, heaping glory on his club and earning himself three FIFA Ballon d’Ors in a row. The crux of the article, though, is the fact that while Messi is adored by football fans across the globe, he receives only lukewarm interest in his home country of Argentina. Suggestions to explain this disparity include the fact that Messi’s whole career has been shaped abroad, and that he tends to play much less well when representing his country than his club.

It’s all very interesting, but there’s no particular news ‘hook’ which means the story should be run in this week instead of another – and nothing which screams out ‘cover story.’ But then maybe I’m not the best person to judge, being indifferent to football at best. For a fan’s perspective, I called up James Montague, soccer journalist and author of ‘When Saturday Comes: Football in the War Zone’ and upcoming release ‘Thirty One Nil: From Afghanistan to Zambia, the incredible story of World Cup qualification.’ I asked him whether Messi deserved to get a Time cover.

The legend of Messi

“People who go on Time’s covers are people who have made a large impact on a global scale, and there is no bigger game than football” says Montague. “It is probably the most under-evaluated cultural phenomenon left, it is absolutely huge. So in that respect, Messi does deserve to be on the front cover of Time because he is very much the best of the best. He seems to see a football match in a completely different way from everyone else, almost as though he can preempt actions on the pitch. He is like a chess grand master in that he can see the game ten moves in advance, and can manipulate it to his will. And he is truly deadly in front of the goal.”

“I think another thing that makes Messi really special is that it is very easy to empathise with him because he is a polite young man who is just very good at football whereas for other people who have been that good, it has kind of destroyed them. He is often compared to Maradona, who had an anti-hero status in the end, but he was disgraced during his career and Messi hasn’t got that feel about him, he is the real ‘boy next door’.”

And will the cover story help raise boy-next-door Messi’s stock and make him more valuable? After all Time is the globe’s biggest weekly news magazine, with millions of readers across the planet. Presumably, this can only boost his media profile and make him more desirable? Montague is unsure. “It is a little bit like if you have a Ming vase and you put it on the front cover of Time,” he says. “It is already priceless. Messi too is already a priceless commodity, so it won’t make a big difference.”

The youth vote

So, if Time almost never puts sportspeople on its covers, and there was no particular reason to run a Messi cover last week – no ‘hook’ event to tie the story to – then why did it run? Could it be that Time is trying to reach out to a younger audience, for whom Messi is an icon?

If so, then it seems like a pretty smart choice. Messi is incredibly popular among the teenage and 20-something market. When he launched his Facebook page in April 2011, with a typically polite “Hola! Welcome to everyone”, he received seven million ‘likes’ within a matter of hours. That’s almost half as much as President Barack Obama, in just one morning. And check out Twitter – his account has been set up, but he’s never made a single tweet. It doesn’t matter – he’s got 319,307 fans nonetheless, all desperate to hear the great star’s first 140-character pronouncement.

If Time is indeed trying to appeal to the youth market with the Messi cover, it would not be the first time such a tactic has been employed. Last year, Time linked up with Activision, creators of ultra-popular video game “Call of Duty”, allowing a mock-up of the magazine’s cover to be used in promoting the launch of “Call of Duty: Modern Wafare 3”.

The mock-up poster, which was displayed at Gamestop video games stores across the U.S., showed an apocalyptic scene: a half-destroyed Wall Street, with smoke coming from the buildings, and the headline “World Stands on the Brink” . Other coverlines included “SAS Commanders still at large after global manhunt”, “Russian President stalls peace talks in shadow of daughter’s disappearance” and “Coalition forces on high alert as UN calls emergency summit.” Customers who pre-ordered the computer game got a copy of the poster as a free promotion.

The New York Times was intrigued, reporting that “Time said that the question had been carefully considered and given approval after editors and executives realized they would be reaching a demographic that has eluded news magazines: young men. ‘This is where the boys are,’ said Kim Kelleher, Time’s publisher. ‘This is a great way to connect with millions of people we might not have otherwise connected with.’”

Some online commentators were unimpressed by the land-grab for younger readers, and a fair amount of controversy was caused. As Alan Henry of geek.com said, “a number of people have questioned whether or not Time Magazine should sell its highly prized and esteemed likeness for some short-term revenue and exposure for a video game.”

The print problem

A desire to reach out to the younger generation is pretty much standard among magazine editors and publishers across the world. As media outlets proliferate and a new wave of young people grow up in an era in which they take free and immediate access to content for granted, persuading them to buy print-on-paper publications at the newsstand or even sign up for anything so old-fashioned as a subscription, appears an increasingly overwhelming task.

Sarah Cooper, an academic and lecturer at the media department of Southampton Solent University sees this shift in attitude among her students, saying that “the only reason that they will ever tend towards print is if they have a particular interest and are looking to collect issues – so those who like fashion and want to collect Vogue or those on the techie side who collect Wired. For those disposable pieces of information, though, they’ll go online.” Cooper also points to a major perceived advantage of online over print – interactivity. “They have this eagerness to interact,” she says, “adding comments or sharing a feature that piques their interest through social media gives them a sense of validity.”

Capturing this slippery, digital-savvy demographic and making money out of them is the biggest single challenge facing big name media brands today. “The industry as a whole is completely in the dark about how to represent itself multiplatform-wise” says Cooper, “and it all boils down to how they’re going to generate income. So if Time is thinking that taking this sort of approach [running the Messi cover] will broaden its readership, attract younger readers and generate more revenue then I’m sure we’ll see more of these sorts of tactics.”

It’s hard to gauge whether such tactics will work for Time in the long run. In a sea of falling print distribution figures, the 88-year-old magazine has been holding up rather well recently – as the Pew Research Center’s ‘State of the Media 2011’ report stated, “Time Magazine, in the last two years, has come a long way in stabilizing its circulation, and now appears to be the sole survivor of the traditional three [Time, Newsweek and U.S. News and World Report]. Time lost just 1.1% in 2010 (and 0.7% in 2009).”

But if my experience at the newsagents was anything to go by, the Messi cover had a short-term boosting effect on sales – whether the magazines were snapped up by that much-sought-after youth demographic, by middle-aged sports fans or just by regular Time readers pleased to have a change of pace from political leaders on the cover.

Interestingly enough, the Messi cover didn’t run in the US edition – only in the Europe, Asia and South Pacific versions of the magazine. Readers in the States were treated to a cover story on “shyness”, contrasting introverts with extroverts. Presumably this decision was taken because football is not yet a dominant sport in the US (although it is well on its way to becoming one). You can be sure that the circulation analysts at Time will have been watching the effect of last week’s unusual cover on sales in the European, Asian and South Pacific regions, and if they received a boost, I’d be expecting to see some sports covers appearing on the US edition before too long: proof perfect of the Messi Effect…