The Digital Journalist
Where There's Life There's Coupons
November 2004

by Peter Howe

I really wanted to like it, because I thought it was a brilliant idea, and one that Henry Luce himself would have applauded: Take the world's most famous media brand - Life magazine - and turn it into a weekend insert to be carried by newspapers across the nation. Why is this brilliant? There are several reasons, not the least of which is the cost of launching a new magazine and nourishing its circulation. As an insert in, according to Time Inc., 70 newspapers, the fledgling publication would get an immediate circulation of 12 million readers. Samir Husni, a professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi, has estimated that it would take the company 50 years to achieve a similar number independently. While he did not reveal the parameters of this calculation, even if he's off by 50 percent, that's a long time for any bean counter to be patient.

But for me the most riveting aspect of this bold move can be summed up in one word - relevance. During the four years that I was director of photography at the monthly, one of the biggest problems we faced was making each issue relevant not just to our committed readers, but to those we were trying to attract, which unsurprisingly meant a younger demographic. Although that red and white logo is one of the most recognized in publishing, and was identified by Brand Marketing magazine as one of the "100 Brands That Changed America," this strength was also its greatest weakness. The core readers were people who remembered the weekly magazine of their youth, and they were getting old. Not only that, they had unrealistic expectations of the monthly when they compared it to their rose-colored memories of the old, great flagship.

Although Luce gave it one of the most memorable mission statements ever ("To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things --machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man's work …"), in reality it was never that noble a magazine. What it did best was to blend world events to make them palatable to Middle America. It gave earthquakes the same significance as tips to women on the correct way of smoking cigarettes. They once had a stripper instruct the same women who now knew how to smoke in the best way to undress in front of their husbands, which, while amusing, hardly comes under the heading of witnessing great events - although it could be watching the gestures of the proud, I suppose.

One of the interesting aspects of the Life exhibition presently running at the International Center of Photography in New York is that many of the classic photos that we associate with the magazine either didn't run at all in its pages, or were given marginal display.

In the age of the Internet and 24-hour news channels, it is very hard for a general-interest publication to have relevance to its readers' lives unless it's weekly. Vanity Fair is the one monthly magazine that is successful and comes even close to being general interest, as well as being the only old title that successfully redefined itself. Life, through being a newspaper insert, has the potential to reach a wider audience, and by being distributed on Friday, rather than Sunday, actually read and used as well. If you're being honest, how many of you actually read the Sunday magazine on Sunday? Or at all? But a Friday insert with the right mix of general-interest and service journalism really might actually be used, because it's one thing to distribute 12 million copies, but if nobody opens them you're only in the fish-wrapping business.

One of my other adventures in publishing was as a consultant to Modern Maturity magazine, which still has the highest circulation in the world with a bi-monthly distribution of 20 million. However, the biggest challenge the ad salespeople faced with advertisers was to convince them that anyone opened its pages. I know that mine generally never even makes it from the mailbox to my apartment, there being a conveniently placed trash container between the two.

So I was excited that this stroke of marketing genius would get the poor old lady not only back on her feet but actually tap-dancing to the rhythm of modern life. Then I got the first issue, and the second and the third, and my heart sank with each succeeding offering, as did the number of pages that they contained.

It's not that the magazine's bad exactly, but it's not really anything. It has no identity; in fact it has no life. There's no compelling reason to linger over its pages, which are a mixture of bland features and unimaginative service items, many of which are already available in its sister publications of Time and People Weekly. While I really didn't expect to see controversial subjects dominating the content, this combination is so inoffensive it's offensive. While I applaud Director of Photography George Pitts for resisting the temptation to recycle the old Life photographers - I think it's the only variant of Life in which, so far, Harry Benson has not appeared - his alternative choices have yet to prove that they are an improvement. Furthermore, because it is such a small magazine the opportunities for photographers are restricted in two ways. The first and more obvious of these is that there will be very few assignments, and it is unlikely to become a major component in anyone's revenue stream. The second is because of the very few stories per issue the likelihood of tackling controversial subjects is limited.

In the monthly Life, we could send Eugene Richards to photograph the drug culture of Red Hook, Brooklyn, or James Nachtwey to reveal the tragedy of famine in the Sudan, or even give several spreads to Sebastião Salgado's story of a slaughterhouse in North Dakota that showed you carnivores out there the reality behind those neat little packages of meat in the supermarket. We could do this because Barbara Bush was on the cover with Millie's puppies or Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith grinned at us in marital bliss from the newsstand. Inside there was enough variety over many articles that the tough stories didn't jar, and didn't make the whole publication seem overly negative. Even the first, and so far, fattest issue of the insert only had 22 editorial pages, and this slipped to 18 very quickly. Within that narrow framework the balance of the magazine is tricky, and safety is the wisest course.

If I had one wish in my professional life it would be to be proved wrong in my contention that the future of photojournalism isn't to be found in the pages of magazines. I had hoped that the new reincarnation of Life would be, if not a beacon, at least a glimmer of hope. Not only does this seem unlikely, but I also got an e-mail recently that would seem to reinforce my position. It came from the coffee maker Illy, and the text of the message ran:

"This very special, limited-edition collection is the second cup of In Principio (In the Beginning), a collaboration between renowned humanist photographer Sebastião Salgado and Illy, based on their shared interest in promoting sustainable development and improving the economic situation of the men and women who grow coffee. Conceived as a photographic journey through the world's coffee-producing areas, this second stage celebrates life on the coffee plantations of Karnataka in southern India."

Yes, folks, you too can own a coffee cup with one of Sebastião's photographs on it, and each time you sip from its delicate rim, remember what I told you about the future of photojournalism. While Life the insert is brilliant marketing that is so far unsuccessful journalistically, Salgado the industry is brilliant marketing that is successful beyond anything that I ever dreamed. I know that it's sometimes fashionable to dis the master, but I applaud Sebastião for not only the quality of his photography, but also for the fact that he has taken the reality of the state of our industry and run with it in directions that lesser mortals can only, and should, imitate. Instead of waiting for the telephone to ring offering that great assignment, he, or more likely his wife, was on the same instrument calling the public affairs departments of corporations who had no history of supporting photography. By doing so successfully, he was breaking ground that should prove to be fertile for all of you with a commitment to, in Henry Luce's words, "see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things."

Will Life the insert be the answer to Time Inc.'s perennial question of what to do with the most famous logo in publishing history? I somehow doubt it. The insert field is already crowded with three established versions: Parade Publications' Parade, Gannett Co.'s USA Weekend and Publishing Group of America's American Profile. Furthermore, advertising in all of these is fairly flat. If Life is to take them on and survive, never mind win, it will almost certainly have to become more celebrity and entertainment focused, because, like it or not, we live in an entertainment, not information, age.

The chances of Life becoming once again the standard by which we judge photojournalism are slimmer than - well, I was going to say than the Red Sox winning the World Series, but now I'm going to have to find another metaphor. What do I know? I'm a Yankee fan.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor