The State of Magazines and Photojournalism

The question has been on the lips of every publisher, editor, reporter, agency and photographer that works in the business of supplying visual information to the public in the form of magazines. "Do magazines really matter anymore?"

Over the past decade, magazines have been beleaguered by rising postal rates, competition for newsstand space, a declining advertiser base and most importantly, a sense of uncertainty about their mission. Magazines that used to pride themselves on the prestige they brought to their corporations, found themselves disrespected by the new vertically integrated conglomerates that had acquired them.

Cultural tastes, especially those in the United States, had moved away from curiosity about the rest of the world. One could no longer see photographs of great events in the pages of their favorite news magazines. Instead, magazines turned to celebrities and fluff. Convinced they could not compete with the TV networks on coverage of major events, magazines came up with the idea of the "walk up." Rather than blanketing a major event with coverage, and running the pictures the following week, they would anticipate the event, and do the story for the magazine the week before the event happened. That way, the magazine could get an "edge" on the story and it would cost less to produce the magazine without photo coverage. Once the imperative to cover worldwide events no longer existed, the first line of survival for magazines was to cut expenses as quickly as possible. Since publishing and distribution costs were fixed, photographic assignments became dispensable. Unlike editors and desk-bound reporters, photographers had to go into the field. Getting them there cost money. Keeping them there cost even more. Film costs, couriers and lab costs mounted. Even digital, which was supposed to save money, cost even more. Suddenly photographers needed computers, satellite phones, wireless, and other devices that cost money. Editors simply shrugged their shoulders, and began to shut down their assignment system. Once the prime market for photography dried up, agencies that had themselves been consolidated into content warehouses, such as Sygma, Saba and Liaison, virtually disappeared.

If photojournalism was dead, would anyone even care?

Then came the events of September 11th. We described in last month's editorial how photographers distinguished themselves in those canyons of death and debris. Time published a special edition made up almost entirely of photographs that will probably be remembered as one of the best in its history. Jim Kelly, the editor of Time, said, in an interview with Advertising Age: "The World Trade Center, shall I say, clarified all our goals, both personal and professional. That's what something like this does. My publisher made a decision in 2 seconds to send the special issue to every subscriber. This is not a newsstand-only special. So every subscriber got it. And that costs money. There's no way 48 pages without advertising is a way to make money, when you send it to every subscriber. So since September 11th, the folks that I deal with most directly have not cared what it cost to put out the magazines we're putting out."

Up until the mid 70s, the editor of Time did not have a budget. It was Henry Luce's mantra that editors should only be concerned with the quality of the magazine they were putting out. It was the job of the publisher to make sure profits stayed ahead of costs. It was considered the rule to give a new magazine five years of operating in the red until it broke even. With this kind of funding available, great magazines ultimately emerged. In the past two decades, that make-or-break line has shrunk to months.

The closure of Life in 1972 set the stage for what would happen to the relationships between photographers and the magazines. In the Life days, photographers were the stars. Their constantly recurring credits set the tone for the most successful magazine in history. In the mid-1960s, Life had a circulation of over 8 million copies a week. Some of the greatest writers who worked for the magazine such as John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway, found themselves lugging camera bags for legends of the lens. Alfred Eisenstadt, Robert Capa, Gene Smith, Carl Mydans and Margaret Bourke-White rivaled the fame of today's Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, Leslie Stahl and Andy Rooney. In fact 60 Minutes was built to emulate the Life star system.

Several years later, when Life was revived by Time Incorporated, it was with two big differences. First, it was to be a monthly, and not a weekly. Second, there would be NO photographers on its staff. The message from Time Inc. was clear, and with the exception of Sports Illustrated, lingers to this day. Photographers would be held at arms-length. Everyone else would be on staff: reporters, editors, art directors. Only photographers would be discouraged from considering themselves a part of the team. For a while, at publications like Time, which was facing competition from Newsweek to take over the photographic void left by the closure of Life, editors continued to indulge photographers with contracts that gave the illusion they were important to the magazine. But as the nineties wore on, the pressures from the business side continued to squeeze out these relationships.

As we moved into fall of this year, the situation had become untenable for all but a handful of photographers. Their bargaining position had been virtually wiped out. Contracts demanding an ever-increasing assumption of photographers' rights by the publication and parent corporation were put on the table on a "take it or leave it" basis.

As bad as the damage was to photographers, without realizing it, magazines inflicted more permanent damage on themselves. Unlike newspapers, magazine content is contained between two covers. The reader judges each issue based on what they see in those pages. As important photography was sacrificed, it showed in print. Readers began to question the value of the subscription.

Most importantly, in an ever more competitive advertising market, the jig was up. The reality is that in our economy, one magazine derives advertising dollars from another's loss of advertising revenue. Number one magazine gets the money, number two does not. The only way to avoid this process, and keep long-term advertisers is to continue to publish at a level of quality that makes advertisers want to see their products on the pages of that magazine.

Photographers with long-term relationships to publications have traditionally supplied the look by which the publication could position itself with both readers and advertisers. This was one of the prime motivations behind the decision by Life to create the Alfred Eisenstadt awards for magazine photography. It was an acknowledgment of how important the work of individual photographers was to magazines. The "Eisies" were discontinued after three years, on the basis that the ceremony "cost too much." The editors who conceived of the awards had long since moved on.

We have stepped into a new world following September 11th. Perhaps it would be wise for the publishers and editors of magazines to consider the second chance they have been given. We have a hunch that Eisie is watching.

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