Four covers also provided an opportunity to showcase Mr. Riley’s sensibility, Ms. Pak said. Mr. Riley has been an important black male voice for more than 20 years as the frontman of the hip-hop group the Coup; he reached new audiences this year with the critical success of his first feature film, “Sorry to Bother You.” Split-run covers are also used several times a year by The New York Times Magazine. In June, the “Love City” issue ran with 24 different covers: one for every hour of a day, with each photo featuring a different couple. It was a celebration of the diversity and ubiquity of love in New York.
That does, of course, complicate things at the printing site in Lancaster, Pa., where T magazine and The Times Magazine are produced.
An even number of covers helps, said Marilyn McCauley, the managing director of print for the magazines, because two covers can run on a press together. Once they are printed, but before they are bound, 20 workers mix them by hand — yes, by hand — like shuffling a deck of cards. Unless there is a geographic preference, the idea is to evenly distribute the versions of the magazine to seven national print sites: Chicago; Concord, Calif.; Dallas; two in Los Angeles; Seattle; as well as the New York Times printing plant in College Point, Queens. Downstream, the run is sorted further. The goal is concerted randomness.
Could two neighbors get different covers? “The likelihood is that they are getting different covers on the same block,” Ms. McCauley said.
Why You and Your Neighbor May Get Different Versions of The Times
In the newspaper, split runs occur every day in subtler ways: advertisements and the weather. Businesses order customized ads in certain regions to, say, display the phone number of the location nearest a reader. And the weather “ear,” or the brief summary on the upper right corner of the front page, corresponds with the 27 national printing sites The Times uses. The expanse of some distribution zones, like one that stretches from San Diego to northeast Nevada, translates to more general forecasts.
The Times ventured two split-run cover projects out of the College Point plant this year. One, a “Pano-8” four-page spread, featured six American metropolises on the cover of a special project that mapped nearly every building in the country. The Halloween issue of The New York Times for Kids split its press run between three acrylic paintings of one-eyed monsters — “because more monsters equals more fun,” said Amber Williams, editor of the section.
Sometimes plans can change and one cover becomes several, like when the filmmaker Gus Van Sant photographed T’s Fall Men’s Fashion issue. Mr. Van Sant took a big-tent approach, and began shooting not just models, but other people in the room who fit his vision. “It just kept getting bigger and bigger, and we had more photos than we knew what to do with,” Ms. Pak said. So she called Ms. McCauley.
This weekend, you might be looking at Yusef Komunyakaa and Gregory Pardlo, Jericho Brown and George C. Wolfe, James McBride and Kevin Young, or Jeremy O. Harris and Ishmael Reed. That depends on where you are — and a little bit on luck.