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Cover Stories & Controversy: An Interview with Port Contributor, Matt Haber

Text: Julie Schwietert Collazo
Screenshot from Port

The controversial cover. But did anyone read the story before they started tweeting about it?

The controversial cover. But did anyone read the story before they started tweeting about it?

The magazine hadn’t even made it to news racks across the pond before writer friends started tweeting and posting Facebook status updates railing against the summer issue of Port, a British men’s magazine.

The issue, you see, was structured around a “brave and exciting” “world-first” [or First World?] cover story (in the words of Port editors) about “some of the greatest living magazine editors,” “the leaders of the magazine industry, the men responsible for re-shaping our print and digital future.”

Yes, you read that correctly: “the men responsible for shaping our print and digital future.” And those men–six of them, dapper and suited up– struck poses of cool authority in a single shot on Port’s cover, which itself was being hailed as nothing short of a miracle: Look at us! We got these six powerhouse men who are uber-busy into a single room for a single photo!

Women writer friends went off.

Where were the female editors who are remaking our print and digital future?

My friends were indignant about the magazine’s lack of inclusiveness and the arrogance it implied. If you’re at all literate, they argued, how could you not know of Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation and Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, co-editors of Mother Jones? Why were they not included?

And then there were the women editors that even women writers didn’t mention, like Kristina O’Neill, EIC of The Wall Street Journal Magazine, who gave that publication a top to bottom makeover… and it wasn’t just cosmetic. And the women editors of “women’s” and “lifestyle” magazines were overlooked entirely (I suppose because we wouldn’t want to compare Redbook to, say, the venerable New Yorker because the subject at hand was “serious” journalism.). Among these women, a few come to mind quickly, including Robin Morgan of MS., Pilar Guzmán, formerly of Martha Stewart Living, and just this week, the newly hired editor-in-chief of Conde Nast Traveler, and Dana Cowin of Food & Wine.

And for women who were outraged about the absence of people of color, I didn’t see anyone actually mentioning women of color who head up publications or hold key spots on mastheads: Ashley Williams of O, Vanessa Bush at Essence, Damarys Ocana at Latina, for starters.

In short, there was a lot of sound and fury. What it signified, however, wasn’t as clear as it seemed.
I got in on the action, too.

Like several of my female writer friends, I had also shared Nitasha Tiku’s “It’s Dude-itors All the Way Down,” published on Gawker. I even read it aloud to friends who had the dubious fortune of traveling with me at the time. After I posted the article to Facebook, another female writer friend messaged me: “Do you know who wrote the article?”


Though I always read bylines–I think it’s a form of respect and a responsibility as a reader–I hadn’t actually read the article… and neither had my friends and colleagues. It wasn’t available in the US yet.

We were all bitching about the cover, but none of us had read the story.

It turns out that an acquaintance had written the story, a person and writer I respected and with whom I’d spent a short time traveling. For all Port’s, breathless, puffy arrogance, hubris was not a trait I associated with Matt Haber.

After learning that Matt wrote the article behind the controversial Port cover, I emailed to ask him if he’d be willing to answer a few questions about the ballyhoo. Specifically, I was interested in the intersection of the visual packaging of an article and the text and tone of the article itself. Here’s our exchange, which occurred via email:

-Was this a story you pitched to Port or was it assigned to you?
The story was assigned to me. I’ve written about media for a while and a friend and former colleague of mine had been approached by Port and recommended me as the writer. I’m a great admirer of the magazine and thought the topic was interesting in a counterintuitive way: As journalists we all tend to indulge in declinist thinking about the “end of print,” but here was an opportunity to say that not only are magazines alive, but some are doing amazing things even with diminished resources and external challenges.

-Were you involved at all (or even told about) the cover or how the story would be packaged/framed?
As a writer I’m rarely involved in the packaging of the story. I almost never see the finished product until it’s done: Headlines, photos, captions, pull quotes are all decided by the editors, which I understand completely. It’s hard enough for the writer to actually do the story, so to expect him or her to contribute in a meaningful way to its presentation is a bit much to ask. The editors and designers have their particular vision for the magazine and do it their own way.

-How did you feel about the cover? Do you feel it reflected/reinforced the content and context of your piece?
It’s always hard to visualize a business or culture story like this. While I spoke to those editors pictured and a bunch of other industry people, the story in the end is really about the medium itself and that’s difficult to visualize. It makes sense that they’d focus on the people: It’s always better to have a person or people to bring readers in.

-Were you surprised about the public reaction about the cover?
I understand why some people felt like it wasn’t a full representation of the diversity of our industry, but really, that’s an issue with magazines as a whole, not Port in specific. I’ve worked in magazines and newspapers for over 17 years and people have been noting a lack of diversity for as long as I can remember. One thing the cover did do, which I think was great, was kick off that conversation again, especially on Twitter where editors and writers came out in support of their favorite women editors. A well-designed, well-conceived magazine cover should spark debate and this one definitely did.

-Do you think most people who expressed anger about the cover had actually read the article?
Since the story isn’t online and it didn’t reach U.S. newsstands until about three or four weeks after the controversy, I don’t think many of the critics had a chance to read it before publishing their responses unless they live in the UK or had a friend send it to them.

-Any general thoughts about the relationship between “provocative” covers and writers’ texts?
A cover is meant to elicit a response. Hopefully in doing so, it doesn’t outright offend people, but it should get people thinking and talking. Sometimes magazines do this in ways that are less than faithful to the stories they contain, but in the end, if it brings readers in and forces them to engage the article, then it’s a good thing. I think most writers know this and they realize that covers, display copy, and art, while creative, are also largely marketing. If they can get readers to pick the thing up and read the story itself, they’ve done their job.

What are your thoughts about the relationship between visual and textual presentations in print magazines? Share your thoughts in the comments.


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