By Tiffany Hsu
2:05 PM CDT, September 17, 2012
Newsweek is at it again: The magazine’s newest controversial cover, blaring the headline “Muslim Rage,” has readers in an uproar and social media in a tizzy.
Whether any of it will boost the publication’s sales remains to be seen.
The magazine’s story, penned by feminist and atheist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, is teased on the cover with the blurb “How I Survived It. How We Can End It.”
The news peg? The riots spreading across the Middle East in response to an anti-Islam video.
Ali writes that the protesters behind the unrest, many calling for those responsible for the video to be punished, “represent the mainstream of contemporary Islam.”
“In the age of globalization and mass immigration, such intolerance has crossed borders and become the defining characteristic of Islam,” she writes.
The divisive cover and story have spawned a new meme on Twitter, based off Newsweek’s tweet inviting discussion through the hashtag #MuslimRage.
Mocking messages have flooded the social media site, featuring photos and descriptions of Muslims in decidedly un-aggressive scenarios. There’s a picnicking family and a smiling child holding a pink balloon. A break-dancing teen in skinny jeans. A man blowing soap bubbles.
Others described what makes them break out into #MuslimRage: "When the cousins eat up all the goodies during Eid." "Losing your shoes at the mosque." More tongue-in-cheek, ad nauseam.
So did Newsweek make an epic public relations fail or did it execute a bold strategy to generate more newsstand sales and website clicks?
It certainly needs the attention. Single-copy magazine sales in the U.S. slumped nearly 10% in the first half of the year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Newsweek circulation has slumped for four years, dropping 31.6% in 2010 and 3.4% last year to 1.5 million copies, according to the Pew Research Center.
After Time released a magazine with a breast-feeding mother on its cover, spokespeople said subscriptions doubled from the number usually ordered in a week. Newsweek, at nearly the same time, proclaimed President Obama to be “The First Gay President” on its cover, prompting a rush of attention.
“Newsweek has become an expert in really throwing gasoline on the fire,” said Samir Husni of the Magazine Innovation Center at the Meek School of Journalism and New Media at the University of Mississippi.
“They have become experts in igniting the media conversation, and any time you get that going, people will pick up the magazines for the right or wrong reasons,” he said.
But Newsweek has made a habit of running controversial covers, even manufacturing some, such as one last year that imagined what Princess Diana would have been like at age 50, he said.
“When controversial covers become the norm, they lose their impact,” Husni said. “If it’s a strategy for Newsweek to save itself in the long run, it’s the wrong strategy.”