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NEW YORK — Magazine newsstand sales were revealed last week by the Audit Bureau of Circulations and the numbers were bleak. Editors are desperate to engage the younger generation — those tweeters, Facebookers, text messagers and Web surfers who will ensure that titles have a future beyond the Baby Boomers. But what do they have to offer this prized demographic? More pictures of Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian?

Been there, done that.

This story first appeared in the August 17, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

What about the cover of the magazine?

For the Aug. 18 issue of Rolling Stone, nearly 2 million people visited the magazine’s Web site as part of an “American Idol”-style contest to choose who would appear on the cover. The winner was an unknown band from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. In addition to the cover, the winning band, The Sheepdogs, was promised a contract with Atlantic Records and a performance on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.”

The Sheepdogs are now living the rock ’n’ roll dream. A few weeks before winning the contest, they were deep in debt and on the cusp of calling it quits. As of Monday, the shaggy-haired foursome had two albums rated in the top five albums on iTunes in Canada and had bumped Adele off the number one album chart there.

“It was a leap of faith,” admitted Nathan Brackett, Rolling Stone’s deputy managing editor. Editors are already thinking about next year’s contest (provided, that is, that this first iteration doesn’t fall completely flat at the newsstand).

Only a fraction of Rolling Stone’s print readership of 1.5 million (which, coincidentally, was around the number of votes cast) visits the Web site, said Brackett, so the contest presented an opportunity to cultivate a larger following among a younger demographic. This is especially vital since most of the visitors to aren’t typing it into their browser — most are led to the site from Google or social networking sites such as Facebook.

“This had a big appeal to young consumers,” said Matt Mastrangelo, publisher of Rolling Stone, adding that the print title increased 17 percent on the newsstand during the first half of the year. “Music and entertainment are used as social currency in their peer group so any company that wants to engage young people in an authentic way — this is a way to do it.”

The program generated over 1 billion media impressions, he claimed.

Rolling Stone’s willingness to give up the most valuable asset it has — the cover — shows what lengths magazines are stretching to these days in their attempts to lure a younger audience both online and in print. And it isn’t the only one willing to make the sacrifice. Seventeen is as well.

The magazine’s October cover is currently up for grabs, but it won’t go to Selena Gomez, Blake Lively or another actress from ABC Family’s “Pretty Little Liars.” The most coveted spot in that issue will go to the Girl Next Door.

Editor in chief Ann Shoket said more than 35,000 readers visited to enter the “Pretty Amazing Real Girl Cover Contest” and 167,000 votes have been logged for a field that has been narrowed down to five girls. A glimpse at the finalists: Zoe, a 19-year-old from Chicago, designs and sells her own clothing and has met President Obama; Ann, a Texas native, is a published photographer; Shannon, 21, is a race car driver who wants to be the first female to win the Indy 500; Lauren, from California, is a budding filmmaker, and Nina, from New Jersey, travels the country giving presentations on cyber bullying.

The winner will be revealed during a special that will air on MTV at the end of August. “The way these girls are reading magazines, they demand that there be an online level of digital ingenuity at a level never experienced before,” said Shoket. “It’s thrilling because I have to be quick on my feet.” at press time had 2.16 million uniques, 246,362 Twitter followers and 937,882 “likes” on Facebook — yet the magazine still saw its newsstand sales fall 13 percent during the first half.

The magazine is known for is oversize intern program (25 of them are roaming the halls right now) so Shoket has a focus group at arms length. “This is the new generation of readers,” she said. “Our biggest competitor is everything else that’s vying for her time. Where I talk to them is less important than how I talk to them. We need to meet them wherever they are in their lives.”

Melanie Shreffler, editor in chief of Ypulse, said Generation Y wants to be courted as much as possible. “When you ask for feedback you get their interest and you’ll also gain their loyalty as well. They will come back in the future and become your advocate. I met one of the real girls that’s going for the cover of Seventeen last week. She was just glowing with the idea that she had a shot at the cover.”

She said unlike older readers, the younger demographic doesn’t mind paying for content online — although few magazines charge for it. “They would prefer it to be free but they won’t freak out about it,” Shreffler contended.

Shreffler added that teens and young women are still reading magazines, but in a different way. “They are not going to spend hours poring over a hard copy,” she said. “They want the information they need and be entertained, so apps are a smart way to do that. It’s digital and on the go.”

Any day now, Teen Vogue is launching a Snapshot app based on the popular back page of the magazine. Glamour just launched its Friends and Fans app and had 25,000 snaps in the first 24 hours of its September newsstand date of Aug. 2. The app allows smartphones to uncover discount shopping codes, reveals free prizes and leads to exclusive videos with celebrities. Kardashian, for example, garnered 60 comments per second during her chat.

And while editor in chief Cindi Leive doesn’t have any plans to kick Kardashian (her best seller in the first half) off an upcoming cover and in favor of some fresh-faced reader from Oklahoma, she did recently send a stylist and photographer to the University of Virginia for a “real girl” shoot. A long line of young women showed up, after hearing about it on Facebook and Twitter.

“It’s a totally different ball game now,” said Leive, about leading a brand such as Glamour, which fell 17 percent on the newsstand during the first half. “It’s 1,000 percent different than it used to be. You’re not just running a print magazine now — it’s a whole army of things. E-books, books, product lines, all manner of digital inventions. And it will all probably be changing many times a year for the foreseeable future. Constant change is the norm.”

One thing that will stay the same, Leive said, is the mix of celebrities and fashion with street style and “real girls. We’ll always be aspirational — people want to know what Rihanna is wearing — but these girls want to be represented,” said Leive.

The question is: Will a spread featuring UVA students inside the magazine be enough anymore? Ask Rolling Stone and Seventeen after the next newsstand numbers.