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Decipher me or I’ll devour you

What is hidden behind the magazine covers and the leading pages of newspapers

In the beginning there was the word. But it, on its own, did not sell many magazines or newspapers, especially in a world onto which light was shone and filled itself with photographic images. “The sun divides its attention between crimes/ spaceships, guerrillas/ on the face of presidents/ the bomb and Brigitte Bardot/ The sun on the magazine newsstands / fills me up with happiness and idleness / who reads so much news?” If in 1967 Caetano Veloso had already lost himself in an anarchist sea of headlines offered to the passersby, imagine today, with television, the internet and other means, how difficult it is to attract a reader so that he stops, looks and buys a given newspaper or magazine, everything starting from a mere piece of colored paper: the cover or the front page.

“The cover is the window that leads the reader to an illustrated world, one that he passes through every day: reality whilst it is being mounted”, says the historian Boris Kossoy, a professor at USP. “The central theme of a publication shown only in a serious form will not be enough, since the reader has an expectation of emotion and the magazine promises this. Nothing boring, what is important is shock. Reality must be made anesthetized to communicate, the simple document of the week’s fact must be wrapped up with live colors and the cover must ‘scream’ in order to be better than its competitors.” For the student of semiotics, Nilton Hernandes, who researched the magazine Veja during his recently concluded doctorate thesis at USP, the cover negates the chaos of human daily life as it highlights the great “fact” to which all others must be subordinate, placing in hierarchal order the rest of the events. “This is part of a ritual expected by the reader”, he explains.This is a reasonably recent fact.

“When newspapers sprang up in Brazil during the 19th century, there was no difference between the first page and the remainder of the newspaper. Only when the press became industrialized this distinction evolved, and whose origin can also be explained by the strong linkage, in a society such as ours, to a low literary tradition, between word and image”, suggests the historian Marco Morel, the author of Palavra, imagem e poder [Word, Image and Power] published by DPA. “The front pages or covers are an updating of murals, lampoons, posters, without speaking of the word of mouth and telephone rumors.” But if the word of mouth, in the case of newspapers, is immediate, in the case of magazines it takes much longer to arrive. Time divides the front page of the newspaper, and the cover of the magazine, and determines how they must approximate themselves to their public. “The cover is more of a ‘seller’ than the front page, since it has basically one material that it highlights.

The newspaper has a commitment  with the dominating facts on the eve of printing”, points out he journalist Luiz Weiss. The newspaper lasts a day; the magazine currently remains for seven days, giving a greater length of time for the people to feel themselves informed. Each one, therefore, assumes its approximation of the “news buyer”. Thus, the front page will function, notes Matinas Suzuki Jr. also a journalist, as a “free sample, a sordid and dispersed story, available to all of those who can see it posted on the newsstands”. “This is the newspaper’s most impersonal page and that which looks for the most indifferent public: on it everyone must recognized themselves”, she observed. “This is the polemic ideal of the ‘world mirror'”.

“In newspapers the fight for the front cover is a day to day battle. Innumerable photographs are viewed until one is selected. Calculated risks are taken, controlled by the editor’s experience, and, in spite of the closing deadline, a balance within the page is always sought. The front page doesn’t have the need for a spectacle, as are a must for the weekly magazine covers”, analyzes Kossoy. “When, for example, various front pages bring the same photo, with the same headline, we accept this as natural, contrary to the competition within magazines.” At the same time that this generates the supposed greater “seriousness” of newspapers, this “disengagement” continues harnessed to a need to sell, although the official discourse can be more “ethical” and “objective”. “The journalist goes beyond: he not only assumes the look of the reader but attributes to himself the moral mission of guiding the public’s vision. In the name of the news spectator, he disciplines the world, places happenings in hierarchal order”, believes  Suzuki. In this movement, the reader, from subject, becomes the spectator.

“On the ably made up front page as well as seducing the reader, there is the induction of the news subject: it says what happened and who was responsible, an operation disguised in the conjugation of the third person. It considers that the reader needs to have his world organized on the cover, to which he’s looking. He’s not a subject, but an object to be seduced, dominated. Note that it’ll be the front page that manages to do this”, says Ana Cristina Silva, the author of the doctorate thesis entitled, O tempo e as imagens de mídia [Time and Media Images]  who is from Unesp. “The man who looks at the front page displayed on the newsstand has his thoughts only where he knows, he’s silent. This being (person) is disqualified as a subject and reader. The world was chewed up for him. To him a safe, controlled world is offered, with a certain “domination” over what happens.”

And who are these people who read so much news? “The problem isn’t only that few read, but these few read badly. It’s not enough to read, not enough to read a lot, one must read well”, points out  the journalist Caio Túlio Costa, from the DNA Brazil Institute. In the end, on a front page there is a lot to perceive and not always do image and text appear to establish an ideal and clear marriage. “This is illusionary, since this disconnection opens up a field for the metaphor as composition of meanings by way of juxtaposition of virtual syntax, images and texts”, explains  Elizabeth Luft, a doctor in semiotics.

“Persuasion, in the case of newspapers, is exactly in the absence of meanings or in the lack of credibility of that determined metaphoric construction having been ‘architectured’. Not wanting to feel deceived, the reader can opt for the lack of feeling, but nevertheless he is already involved by the metaphoric meaning. The sensation that something is strange on the front page remains and the power of this type of metaphor is much more emotive”, she says.

Even at that, evaluates Túlio Costa, the newspapers “are in a jungle with no way out, with no direction and without a guide”. “The front pages are like a déjà vu collection in relation to what the internet, radios and TVs gave the previous day and no newspaper, not even abroad, has managed to overcome this challenge. An American scholar believes that printing companies are going to disappear by 2043”, he says. On the other hand, magazines are doing well, thank you very much.

Even to the point of seeing in this current political crisis, an inversion of consecrated values. “In Brazil, those in a compromising situation no longer fear the front pages of the day after. They fear the weekend magazine covers. What can be seen, more and more, are the headlines of major newspapers being, for example the cover of Veja magazine being transplanted”, analyzes Weiss. Magazines sprung up in the USA at the turn of the 20th century, when the country was being industrialized and the readers transformed themselves into consumers. “The dynamism of the current high circulation magazine is the reader seen as a potential consumer and the editor becoming a specialist in consumer groups. Once an attractive formula has been found, it tends to be repeated, month after month, year after year. In the end, this is a market with a high mortality rate and even the market leaders are never in a safe position. In order to survive, a magazine needs to follow up the changes in its public”, observes Maria Celeste Mira, author of O leitor e a banca de jornais [The reader and the newsstand], a study that had FAPESP’s funding. And the plugging, as analyzed by Adorno and Horkheimer, of this system of involving the reader that, whilst he consumes, he has his likes and dislikes sounded out so that every week he can be pleased more and more. It is not without reason, that whilst the newspapers dwindle, Veja is the fourth largest magazine on the planet. “In this era of marketing, it’s indispensable to know the reader, who makes all of the magazines constantly reformulate, and which leads to the editors sounding out the reader’s desires.” In order to resist, it is impossible not to bite into the apple.

“A magazine such as Veja has to wipe out from the reader’s memory his greatest limitation: the major interval between collecting the information, the edition and the distribution on the newsstands. The temporal lapse generates a series of inconveniences, especially after the birth of the internet etc. The main objective of the magazine cover, not only that of Veja, is principally linked to the search for a time effect in order to compete with the faster media”, analyzed researcher Hernandes. According to her, the headline is the result of this search, which should result in a product that brings a sensation of widened presence, a “now” that paradoxically must keep itself vibrant whilst the magazine has to be consumed.

Anticipation, the “scoop” is a pathway. But, in the majority of cases, interpretation functions as an updating element that, united to the generating fact, creates the sensation of novelty. “We can say that, in order to maintain the updated effect of determined news items, because of the lapse between collecting and divulging, magazines such as Veja must obligatorily produce a great number of interpretative texts or opinions.”

The magazine vehicle was born upon the aegis of counted time: men, and principally women would need the maximum amount of information in the minimum possible time, like a fast food editorial. The model for Veja was the North American Time magazine, whose principles were the organization of news in sectors and “to show” to the reader what they meant, without any ideal of ideological neutrality or impartiality. “Starting from Veja, a new series of departments were to be created, such as market research, marketing and subscriptions, and it was these changes that freed the magazine from its initial fiasco”, recalls  Maria Celeste, whose proposal was “to stamp on the front cover the question that marked the week”.

The same thing happened with the magazine IstoÉ and more recently with Época. “All of them have been opting to speak about the immediate interests of 10% of the population who have the financial capacity to sustain the survival of these publications in the face of the competition from new communication means”, explains Maria Alice Carnevalli, author of the doctorate thesis entitled, Indispensável é o leitor [Indispensable is the reader], defended at ECA-USP. By analyzing and comparing the editions of three weekly magazines during 2000, the researcher discovered that 50% of the magazine covers analyzed, brought up fait divers (diets, sex, health, how to keep your job etc.), whilst 27% dealt with factual questions unlinked to periodicity or that came from reporting scoops. The questions linked directly to the week?s news were in last place, with only 23% of the covers, Veja being the most accentuated in this case, which dedicated to weekly events only six cover stories during a year, or 12% of the total.

Analysts of Meio e Mensagem discovered that those who can afford to buy the magazine are potential consumers, and thus, it is turning itself into the privileged media of the publicity market. Curiously enough, magazines are at the same time considered as a “means of greater credibility” and “transmitters of ideas”. “The covers bring a reading potential that sounds out what is the opinion of the public that legitimates it, on what it’s based, what’s its imagery”, says Ana Cristina. “Research shows that politics doesn’t sell, unless it’s an extremely serious crisis, such as the case of president Collor and the current crisis. Elio Gaspari usually says  that, to lower a magazine’s sales, it’s enough to make the cover themes link themselves to the Congress”, explains journalist Maria Alice. Various factors have removed from magazines an interest in going deeper into economics or politics.

For example, the end of the military dictatorship was one of them, since, observed the researcher, there was the disappearance of the ideological position of contesting the dictatorship and the effects of galloping inflation upon the economy. In the same manner, privatization made the reader lose interest in the State, as had occurred when eight out of every ten employees had been linked to a government job position. “Today the obligation of the weekly magazine is to say to the reader that he can be happy; live with less anxiety; take better care of his health and can manage to do well in a private company.” Only in this way can one manage to understand why the country’s three largest weeklies have put on their cover the new book by the guru Paulo Coelho. But not everything is fait divers.

As observed professor Celeste Mira, Veja?s initial political performance made it a magazine of national amplitude that conquered the market and that today has its ideological force residing in its merchandizing power. “The magazine covers have, to a certain extent, the power of agenda setting, or that’s to say, to put themes on the agenda, to create opinions and to change the country. If they don’t always manage to impose what to think, most definitely they impose what to think about. They may be playing with fire”, evaluates the historian Fernando Lattman-Weltman, from the FGV. “A magazine isn’t a political party and needs to evaluate the impact that its headline can have upon society and Brazilian democracy when defending certain theses, such as the Veja cover story about banning weapons, or printing information without having proof, as was the case with the cover stories linking the PT to the FARC or the PT and the gold from Cuba.” The political scientist Wanderley Guilherme dos Santos, from the Research University Institute of Rio de Janeiro (Iuperj), goes much further: “The media’s capable of constructing not only a public agenda for discussion, but a government agenda. Whilst the parties compete for power, the great press disputes the monopoly of saying what should be done with it. In stable democracies, the capacity of a magazine’s cover story or a newspaper’s front page to affect institutional stability is highly reduced”.

Everything is amplified, observes Hernandes, by the tendency of magazines, in their headlines, to approximate to the reader, to “you”. “It’s something like, ‘we’re your vehicle, we’re going to speak for the silent majority who don’t appear in intellectual discussions'”, completes Weltman, who remembered how the vehicles learned, as in the time of censorship, to pass on, with precision, subconscious messages to the reader, only that now it is in another ideologically biased form and of the market. “Veja’s public feel themselves to be intelligent by being readers of the magazine, they make up part of a club, to be different from others without having to assume an ideological manner. Journalism gives to the reader the confirmation of status, although in truth, the magazine, for a good part of the time, had only been saying what he, the reader, wanted to hear.”

In an interesting paradox, the spokesmen of objectivity, who have their sales stepped upon in this exemption, are exactly the most partial. Weltman points out that the Folha newspaper created the spirit of “in tune with the reader” in order to sell more and to gain the publics’ faith, a newspaper with an “electorate”. “Veja is abusing this practice and operates within its group with the logic of a political party: in the same way as the person who uses the PT star on his lapel, you’ve those who say they’re Veja’s readers.”

There are even those who analyze covers by way of their colors and photo cuts, like Luciano Guimarães, author of As cores na mídia [Colors in the media] a professor from Unesp. “In Brazilian journalism, during the military censorship, the between the lines message was consecrated as a form of escaping control. Today there’s no longer any need for this. Nevertheless, what one can perceive is that these resources are currently used to change the obscure form of imagination of those who make up the media, mainly during the periods that precede the electoral process”, she says. Thus, observed the researcher, the use of blue and yellow on the covers whose themes were positive or were linked to the previous government, whose party uses the same pallet.

On the other hand, red appears associated, with exceptions, as a color of negativity, of the leftwing, and, when associated with black, is present on the covers that deal with corruption, political takeovers etc. Another important factor is to always “personalize” the crises with photos of specific people: inflation associated with the Minister of Finance; corruption to a given personality etc. Preferentially, in order to accentuate the negative aspect, an inset photo of the “personified crisis” appears as a close up.

If this tradition promises to remain, the preference for fait divers is in quarantine. A recently released piece of research The State of News Media 2005, an X-ray of the American media, revealed that the strategy of searching for generic questions and taking them forward is no longer giving results, and, there, the magazines are losing readers, who, as well as having a spectrum of specialist magazines from which to choose, now as readers they desire more dense content. “Here this is as yet not happening. Although one can’t be certain, since the current political crisis brings together the market and ideology. Magazines can manipulate the political-political party-economic information and at the same time call the attention on their covers of those who’re not even there for politics, since the crisis of now is a pure media driven spectacle”, observes the political scientist Eduardo Ferreira Souza, author of Do silêncio à satanização [From silence to satanization],  published by editora Annablume. For Caio Túlio Costa, it is going to be complicated to move away from assertive, opinionated covers. “After having lain down and rolled about with the concept of objectivity, the communications industry has seen this ideal wear itself out and has gone on to attempt to be, in truth, objective. But with this sea of blogs, sites etc., a dragging network, opinionative, partial, there was a reflux, which again forced the need for the industry to be assertive, even though impartial. And this is impossible.” Professor Kossoy is even more pessimistic: “Moderate covers wouldn’t survive in a culture that seeks emotion and reality shows”. It’s the dilemma of the sphinx without compassion: “I decipher you and I devour you”.