Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

The theory of Life

Posted by metaphorical on 28 March 2007

Life Magazine is dead—again. The magazine that is. In a memo to all Time Inc staff, CEO Ann Moore said on Monday, “I regret to inform you that we will no longer be producing LIFE magazine, effective with the April 20th 2007 issue.” The NY Times reported:

This time, the magazine’s demise looks permanent, largely because Life is moving its huge archive of photographs onto the Web, where consumers will be able to download them free.

The magazine once featured the work of some of the world’s greatest photographers. In its current incarnation, it has dwindled to 20 pages of mostly celebrity interviews and homemaking tips. The last issue will be April 20.

The Times article offered an analysis which basically argues that Life, the #3 newspaper supplement, failed because it wouldn’t emulate the category’s #1, Parade, and #2, USA Weekend; it had an idea to be a different sort of publication from them, which theory doomed it to failure.

I think just the reverse—a different theory was the right idea, but unfortunately, Life didn’t drink enough of it’s own Kool-Aid. Not enough Kool-Aid, and one other thing—it would have helped if Moore was a reader of climbing magazines.

I’ll explain that, but let’s first recap Life’s life. The magazine began in 1936 in the mind of publishing genius Henry Luce as a sister publication to Time that would engage in the then-rare art and craft of photojournalism. Telling stories largely through pictures worked for 36 years, for some of those years, phenomenally well. As Wikipedia puts it,

The Luce Life was the first all-photography U.S. news magazine and dominated the market for more than forty years. The magazine sold more than 13.5 million copies a week at one point and was so popular that President Harry S. Truman, Sir Winston Churchill, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur all serialized their memoirs in its pages.

Perhaps one of the best-known pictures printed in the magazine was Alfred Eisenstaedt’s shot of a nurse in a sailor’s arms, snapped on August 27, 1945, as they celebrated Victory Over Japan Day in New York City. The magazine’s place in the history of photojournalism is considered its most important contribution to publishing.

Life was wildly successful for two generations before its prestige was diminished by economics and changing tastes. Since 1972, Life has ceased publication twice, only to be brought back to readers in different incarnations.

The Times theory comes through in quotes from two media executives.

Randy Siegel, president and publisher of Parade, said that Time was wrong to “scapegoat” newspapers for Life’s problems. While newspapers are having problems, Mr. Siegel said, and their ad revenue declined steeply last month, “Life’s inability to be successful is a separate issue.”

He praised Life’s editorial approach but said it had spurned the kind of advertisers that historically supported magazine supplements, like those that play on a reader’s buying impulses, often involving food or dieting.

“When they came into the category, they publicly declared that they didn’t need the support of direct-response advertisers and package-goods advertisers, which are two of the biggest categories of business for all of us,” Mr. Siegel said. “The folks at Life felt they could rely more heavily on upscale, brand advertising.”

Marcia L. Bullard, president and chief executive of USA Weekend, said that Life had high expenses because it used higher-quality paper and had a strategy of entering several large markets all at once, which increased its distribution costs. “Give them credit for trying as long as they did,” Ms. Bullard said, “but they didn’t gain the advertising traction they needed to continue.”

Okay, we now have all the pieces in place for my theory, except one—a conversation I had with my climbing partner, M., on our way to the climbing gym last week.

M. and I were discussing the climbing magazines, in particular Climbing and Rock & Ice. M. said he still got them and read them. I didn’t have to ask why, it’s for the same reason I do—the climbing porn.

Both magazines have for a long time had a popular back-of-the-book section that one calls “Gallery” and I forget what the other calls it, consisting of great climbing shots with short captions that say where it is, who’s the climber in the shot, and how hard the climb is (so you know whether you might try it someday, or just limit yourself to drooling).

Recently both magazines have put that section up front, right after the inside front cover, in fact. They have great photos on the cover, on the table of contents, on every feature, and every front-of-the-book and back-of-the-book article as well.

The climbing toys department has a photo for each, provided by the manufacturers, and the ads play this game even better, as advertisers are savvy enough to know that they can get people to really look by having great photos, with their gear product-placed, discreetly, so as to not interfere with the eye candy. Each ad has, naturally, a small caption with the location, climber, route, and difficulty.

The photography, I told M., is the only reason to get the magazines because everything else is done on the Web, and done better. Trip reports? Better on the Web. Tips and tricks? Better on the Web. News of the climbing world? It’s all been discussed for two months or more by the time it appears in a magazine on the newsstand.

Oh, there’s some real value. Sometimes the magazines sponsor research about gear, or a technique, that’s a real eye-opener. And then, briefly, it leads the Web discussion instead of following it. When someone famous in the climbing world, the obits are always done with care. Sometimes they sponsor a well-thought-out debate. But the big value, the one thing that couldn’t be done in a Web magazine, is the photography. A 300-lines-per-inch 4-color photo large enough to fill a 2-page spread just isn’t going to happen on a computer screen for another 10 or 20 years.

Life should have understood it. They apparently did a little bit; Moore’s memo says that

LIFE Magazine was a truly innovative publishing venture. It was developed, edited and published by some of the best talent in the business and we can remain proud of its many achievements. LIFE enjoyed strong consumer support. Research showed readers consistently placed it above its competitors in terms of quality edit and photography.

But they didn’t get it enough. Life should have been printed on regular glossy paperstock. It should never have been publishing “celebrity interviews and homemaking tips,” two things that can be done much better on-line. It should have been publishing soft photojournalism. Sure, publish a couple of Hilary and Joel’s favorite recipes, or Tom and Katie’s, but only after running three pages of what their kitchen and home look like. Or go on location with Tom on whatever movie he’s shooting now. With photography as good as National Geographic’s. As good as the old Life. Go look in the archives and see how it’s done.

What the Today Show is to the Nightly News, that’s what Life should have been to Time magazine. 24 pages of that with ads, now that’s something that people would have leafed through. I don’t know that it would have made money. (Parade and USA Weekend apparently aren’t, at the moment, by the way.) 4-color photography on good paper isn’t cheap. But it would have been in the legacy of the old Life. It would have been worth trying.

3 Responses to “The theory of Life”

  1. ptomblin said

    I once got a cross country skiing magazine where you could see pictures of the same two people in the same clothes with the same mountains in the background illustrating an equipment round-up article, an ad for a ski resort, and an ad for the ski clothing. Now that’s what I call maximizing your return on investment!

  2. I should have mentioned that this isn’t really climbing-specific at all. A colleague at work gets a couple of bike magazines, and the photos are a big deal in those as well. Skiing, sailing….

    And yeah, I see climbing shots incorporated into bus stop ads or magazine ads that I’ve seen as editorial shots in the climbing magazines first. The mags pay only for first-use, and the rights stay with the photographers or their agents.

  3. ClaireDePlume said

    I’m so sorry to read of the demise of Life. I recall once some years ago a weekend visit to a friend’s cottage where we spent many joyful hours reading his grandmother’s Life Magazine collection from the 1950’s. Later on, I subscribed to Life for a time, reveling in the photographs which captured life’s images from all of its juxtapositions – all with the same quality and poignancy of modern pieces of art. I now wish I’d kept my issues of Life, a ‘pictoral’ history of our temporal visit with Life. But nothing lasts forever.

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