One of my anxieties about the Internet age is that it has given journalists and readers a false sense of how well we understand each other. We journalists can see the analytics — how many are reading — but how well do we know what readers are thinking? And, in turn, how well do readers grasp the unspoken reasoning behind our journalistic choices?
I’ve rarely felt that gap as keenly as in the days after we published a cover featuring a glamorously dressed, gun-toting entrepreneur — to illustrate a piece by Simon van Zuylen-Wood on the rise of a social-media-fueled culture of gun ownership among millennials. The magazine quickly received a blizzard of emails from outraged, presumably liberal, readers. Some had opinions on the story itself, but much of the response focused on the cover. “It is irresponsible for the Washington Post, of which I think very highly, to depict firearms in such a highly sexualized manner,” wrote one reader. Another reported: “I am so offended by your cover that I could not even open the pages. Straight to the recycle bin. You ruined my Sunday morning routine.”
One email criticizing both the article and the cover came from Diana Wahl, 71, of Arlington, Va. “When I saw the cover photo and accompanying story on [millennials] and their weapons, I thought that the NRA had taken over the Post Magazine,” she wrote. “It is inconceivable to me that the magazine would glamorize and sexualize high-powered weaponry at a time of mass shootings and outrage over the lives taken. It was not just poor taste: it was an astounding blunder, and demonstrates [that] the editors of the magazine are tone-deaf to one of the most pressing issues facing this country.”
Wahl, a retiree who worked in urban planning and commercial real estate, generously agreed to talk to me. She told me she thought the cover was “infantile,” “cheap” and “tawdry,” and, after seeing the issue, she found herself speculating about what could have motivated our decision-making. “I thought to myself, ‘Well, The Post is worried about losing millennial readers’ — I know that that’s a real issue — ‘and is this a way of appealing to millennials, that they’ll see how cool and hip The Post is?’ ” Alternatively, she wondered if the magazine wanted to demonstrate “that it could look at another side of an issue, of a very, very important issue, and show that there was something evenhanded about The Post coverage of gun violence.”
I told Wahl that our cover had been an attempt to accurately depict the article’s thesis: that a new generation of gun owners see their weapons as aesthetically appealing, even sexy, and that their online personas are central to their subculture. Most of the pictures in the piece came from Instagram feeds of gun-culture influencers; the cover image was part of a photo shoot that one of the characters in our article did for a gun-focused publication.
In other words, with our cover, we were documenting a subculture, not celebrating it. To Wahl, though, the image was inherently glamorizing. Even “if you felt that the photograph of the woman that appeared on the cover was a legitimate photograph to have” somewhere in the piece, she said, “I think turning it into, essentially, an 8-by-10 glossy on the cover was sending the absolute wrong message.”
Wahl and I also talked more generally about magazine covers. I argued that a good cover should provoke an emotional response. Later, when we talked about a recent piece in the magazine that hadn’t grabbed her attention, Wahl put the challenge this way: “How do you get somebody to read the articles without … sensationalizing it?” She added, “That’s a real dilemma for you.” I agree. The problem, of course, is that the line between good and bad provocation is both thin and subjective. An image I saw as thought-provoking was, instead, seen by Wahl as inflammatory.
This cover is one of my favorite we’ve done recently because, in a single photo, it provided readers with new, significant information about the world. But I’m also grateful to people like Wahl for caring enough to tell us what they think — thereby bridging the gap that often separates readers from journalists.
Richard Just is editor of The Washington Post Magazine.