The Digital Journalist

The Second Going 
By Peter Howe

I always felt that monthly LIFE magazine had a kind of undead" quality about it. It was the phantom of a former self, wandering in the dark. When I first went there as the Director of Photography in 1987 it was around the time that DISCOVER magazine folded. The joke in the building then was that if that structure on Sixth Avenue and 50th Street had been called the Time and Discover Building the victim would have been LIFE. Thirteen years on LIFE has died again, or so it seems. The Time and Life Building may be the only place on the planet where death is a temporary state. 

It's sad when an outlet for photojournalism folds, even a flawed one such as monthly LIFE. During the nearly two decades of its publication some wonderful work appeared on its pages. In my time I had the privilege of publishing Sebastiao Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark, Eugene Richards, and a host of other talented photographers. Also during my time I had the embarrassment of celebrating the 100th anniversary of the bra on the cover, not exactly the high spot of my career, nor that of Greg Heisler who took the picture. But that was monthly LIFE, an uncomfortable mishmash of the sublime and the absurd. It was a magazine whose main reason for being published was that it had one of the greatest brand names in the history of journalism. 

In the Internet world that I now inhabit there is a commonly used phrase "breathing your own air," which is regarded as something to be avoided at all costs. The phrase describes the process of activities that are undertaken for their own sake without any regard to the end user. I think that LIFE breathed its own air too often. It was a magazine produced with an eye to both coasts, but was principally bought by people who lived in the middle. It was also a magazine laboring under the burden of its own glorious past. Monthly LIFE could never have been as good as the weekly version, mainly because the weekly version was never as good as people remembered it. 

Above and beyond the strengths and weaknesses of LIFE as a magazine there is a broader picture emerging here. The fact that you're reading this (assuming of course that somebody is) means that you're aware that we're in a period of transition. We are living in the middle of a communication revolution that is as significant as the invention of the printing press. Its impact on photography, publishing and many other forms of traditional communication will be, and in fact already is profound. When I look at the amount of photojournalism on the Web, and the vital and relevant way in which it's being presented then I understand the death of LIFE better. It's a magazine that is the victim of this transition. I guarantee it won't be the last. 

In the history of human development no new technology has killed the old. For the most part it has fundamentally changed it. Painting was declared dead upon the invention of photography; radio was mourned with the invention of television; even cinematography was going to disappear with the invention of the video camera. None of these dire predictions ever came to pass. Similarly, magazines are still a good business to be in, but they have changed. Magazines on a specific topic sell; general interest magazines donut. Its as simple as that, and the market has decided it, not a cartel of evil publishers. The good news is that LIFE will continue to produce the Special Issues for which it has became justifiably famous. This is the smartest solution for the preservation of that wonderful logo. It's the one thing that the magazine has always done consistently well, better than any other. It plays to LIFE¹s strengths of establishment, trust and familiarity. LIFE really is the Walter Cronkite of magazines, and that's no bad thing to be. But Walter himself knew when to quit, and that to remain was to court irrelevance. For monthly LIFE it was time to go. 

That's time with a small "T" you understand. 

Peter Howe

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