How Our Cover Changed the Talk About the Economy

There are several ways to gauge the success of a cover story: massive newsstand sales, a segment on Today, an altered policy. My cover—"The Recession Is Over!"—accomplished none of these. But it succeeded by another metric: it influenced the national conversation about the economy.

The piece was the subject of trepidation in the office. Facing a slew of poor news—continued troubles in housing, falling retail sales—it seemed like a bid for some buzz. "We're kind of out there," said a colleague. But having reported through three recessions, I strongly believed we were, well, right.

The cover got the usual treatment—ABC's This Week put it up onscreen, I chattered about it on TV and radio, and bloggers responded with typical hoots of derision. If the recession is over, they asked, how come the economy is still -losing jobs? CNBC's Jim Cramer said we were six months early.

Most of the arched brows ignored my caveats about the tough recovery we face. But in an age when all thoughts are condensed to 140 characters, it's common for people to use headlines as rhetorical devices. It's less common for the rhetorician in chief do so. Speaking at a town-hall meeting in Raleigh, N.C., on Wednesday, July 29, this is how President Obama set up a pitch for his economic agenda: "I don't know whether you've seen the cover of the latest NEWSWEEK magazine on the rack at the grocery store, but the cover says, THE RECESSIONIS OVER! I bet you found that news a little startling. I know I did." While stabilizing the economy was a great achievement, he argued, it was vital to press forward with the stimulus and health-care reform (which I also advocated).

But as our analysis became political fodder, a funny thing happened: signs emerged that the recession was coming to an end. On Friday, July 31, the government reported that in the second quarter the economy shrank at a 1 percent annual rate—much better than previously thought. Economists ratcheted up expectations for the second half, and the stock market surged. Car shoppers, lured by cash-for-clunkers deals, thronged to auto dealers. By the time the market closed that Friday, an assertion that had seemed fairly radical a week before, and that had been the basis for a presidential rhetorical ploy two days earlier, had crystallized into the new consensus.

My article, of course, didn't solve the globe's economic woes. Contrary to popular belief, the media can't do much about that. But it did influence how we talk about the economy. "Good work ending the recession," one veteran politico with a developed sense of irony e-mailed me. Had I known it would have done the trick, I would have pitched the piece in January.