Is Men's Health helping its readers get ripped off?

David Zinczenko, the always-camera-ready editor in chief of Rodale Inc.'s Men's Health, once described the ideal effect of a magazine's cover copy as a "newsstand mugging." But Men's Health readers may feel robbed, in more ways than one, once they realize how very, very often the publication's editor have been selling them the same old content for a fresh $4.99 every month. Not similar -- the exact same.
As Perez Hilton was first to notice, the current edition of the popular fitness magazine features six cover lines that also appeared, word for word, on the cover of the December 2007 issue.

And that's not all: A hawk-eyed DailyFinance reader points out that five of those cover lines were also used, in an identical configuration, on the cover of the April 2007 issue, and most of them also appeared on the April 2009 issue. Gawker notes that the cover-line collection is one of four templates the magazine uses on a regular basis.

Gain Muscle, Lose Pounds -- Over and Over!

Zinczenko -- who's known among his peers more for his frequent Today Show appearances than for his skill with a blue pencil -- didn't immediately respond to an inquiry, but he tells the New York Post that the repetitions were "not inadvertent" and "part of overall branding strategies."

Certainly, it doesn't sound as though this happens by accident. A source who used to work at Men's Health recalls sitting with Zinczenko and his top editors in cover meetings. "They had a file of used cover lines and would just pick them somewhat randomly, with no regard for what was in the issue," says the source. "Occasionally they'd have to call some poor editor and ask something like, 'Hey, is there anything in the issue that involves 792 sexy women confessing what turns them on?'"

A quick, casual, by-no-means-systematic survey of Men's Health covers from the last three years turns up numerous instances of recurring cover lines. Some are more popular than others. "Gain Muscle, Lose Pounds" turned up three times in 2007 (April, November, December), three in 2008 (April, June, December), and twice in 2009 -- in consecutive months, no less (March and April). Some of the repeated lines raise truth-in-advertising concerns, such as the promise of "1,293 Cool New Health, Fitness, Sex & Nutrition Tips" -- a number that's suspiciously consistent from month to month.

'Totally Obsessing'

It's hard to square that kind of lazy, paint-by-numbers regurgitation with the sort of painstaking efforts Zinczenko has described taking in putting together covers. From a 2001 New York Times profile:
Mr. Zinczenko says he spends a full week out of every month "totally obsessing about the cover." After he chooses a final image, the art director will spend three or four days designing the cover and marrying the image to the cover lines. Mr. Zinczenko and the art and design directors will consider more than 30 mock-up versions before choosing one.
I asked Sid Holt, chief executive of the American Society of Magazine Editors, whether the group's guidelines for magazine journalism have anything to say on the subject of recycling cover copy verbatim. This is what he told me:
ASME doesn't comment on the editorial practices of its members (or nonmembers, for that matter), but everyone knows the first rule of journalism is, Tell the truth. And the second is, Make it interesting. We leave it to readers and media critics to determine when those rules have been broken.
I also asked Greg Gutfeld, who preceded Zinczenko as editor of Men's Health (and now hosts the show RedEye on Fox News), what he thinks of the whole thing. Gutfeld:
The Men's Health cover is a Coke can. It doesn't change, nor should it. It's a powerful template created and perfected long ago by [founding editor] Mike Lafavore, and their current staff just plugs it in every month (and then heads to a dark, quiet room to gently cradle their abs). The latest, lazy incarnations are just examples of how, if it wasn't for Lafavore, those people would be working at Perkins. Which is not a bad thing -- I love Perkins! Their Mammoth Muffins are to die for!

Update, 5:46 p.m.: Lafavore says he did not institute the tradition of Men's Health parroting itself. "When we had a cover line that worked, we'd work really hard to come up with a variation," he says. "For us, it was just sort of a point of pride that we were going to come up with a new spin on something. You've got to give it the old college try to come up with new ideas." He says he does not remember an instance of intentionally re-using a cover line word for word, except perhaps to promote an annual package. Doing so, he says, "makes it look like they put the thing on autopilot and fell asleep at the controls."

An earlier version of this article erroneously identified the chief executive of ASME as Sid Evans rather than Sid Holt. I only know two Sids. You'd think I'd be able to keep them straight.
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