It used to be an unwritten journalistic rule -- the front cover is not for sale. But that's changed as USA Today started putting ads on the front page, and
many other papers followed suit. (I'm not counting, in this discussion, the small reader ads that look like classifieds that you sometimes see at the bottom of the front page of The New York Times.)
Some newspapers, especially the New York tabloids, sell their cover in the form of a wrap, which is usually the front and back pages. Those papers carry the paper's masthead, but the rest of the page is an ad. Those wrap papers are generally distributed free.
New York created a stir in magazine publishing circles by having a paid wrap for a museum, incorporating the magazine's logo in the ad. Inside was also an article about the museum. (I'm not sure if the article was a value-added deal in exchange for the paid cover, which would cause me to question the magazine's ethical standards. If the article was clearly labeled as an advertisement, then I'm ok with it.)
The wrap version of the magazine was distributed free to about 10,000 people, according to a story in Portfolio.com. The American Society of Magazine Editors has a rule specifically warning editors not to use their covers for ad purposes. But there seems to be some wiggle room if it's not the entire, or even a major portion, of the magazine's run.
I don't see the big deal if the special cover was, in fact, used only for a limited promotional run. Like newspapers, magazines are struggling to stay relevant, hold readers and grow their ad pages. It's seems like a fair and smart way to bring in some extra ad revenues.
Not all agree, however. Comments at Portfolio.com seem to sway against New York's move. Doesn't matter much to me, personally -- I'm not a big fan of New York Magazine.
One final note: The head of the agency that created the promotion is quoted as saying the special copies were sent to a select list of 10,000 of the city's "culturati." "So if you don't get a copy, you're not somebody," he said. What an arrogant and stupid thing to say publicly. Nothing like turning off the city's other 7,990,000 people -- many of whom could be potential visitors or members of the new museum. Snobbery can backfire, my friend.