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Why are magazines dated ahead of the time they actually appear?

Dear Cecil:

Why are magazines dated anywhere from a week to a month later than the time they actually appear? Newspapers don't presume to print August 1 on a paper that hits the streets July 31.

W.J. O'Neill, Los Angeles

Cecil replies:

It’s all a ploy. These days, what ain’t? What you see on newsmagazine covers, at least, is not the publication date but what is sometimes called the “off-sales” date — that is, the date on which dealers are supposed to pull the magazine from the stands. It’s the equivalent of the “fresh-until” date on milk. The feeling is that if people see a cover date a few days in the future, they figure they’re getting the latest poop, even though the magazine may actually have been sitting on the rack for quite a while.

For the most part it’s a harmless illusion, but some magazines do look a little silly in retrospect. A prime example is the December 12, 1941, issue of United States News, predecessor of U.S. News & World Report. You’d think word of that little hoo-ha at Pearl Harbor on December 7 might have filtered in to USN by December 12, but no; one cover headline begins noncommittally, “If War Comes in Pacific …”

Newspaper types such as myself might have you believe we’re somehow above all this. Bah. We’re lying scum just like everybody else. The evening edition of many dailies bears the next day’s date, and of course you can get Sunday papers Saturday morning. Newspapers simply benefit from the fact that they’re lining birdcage bottoms within hours of publication, so nobody notices if their headlines (and datelines) are occasionally overtaken by events.

Cecil Adams

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