Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
April 1st, 2007

Three Deaths of a Media Icon

Last week it was announced that Life magazine would cease publication, again. This is the third death of the magazine since it was founded in 1936. Life was a weekly from 1936 to 1972, when it first stopped publication. It was revived as a monthly in 1978 but then shut down again in 2000. It was resurrected as a newspaper insert in 2004 but never really took hold in that iteration which was an incredibly misguided strategy to begin with.

Life was, simply put, the greatest showcase of quality and historically important photographs in the middle part of the 20th century in America. Many of the greatest photographers in the country dreamed of being a Life photographer, and in fact became great because, in part their photographs appeared in the magazine. I remember as a young boy the thrill of coming home from school on the day that Life magazine was delivered by the mail man. It was a thrill to sit down and spend an hour looking at every photograph and reading every caption. At a time when there were only 5 TV stations coming into the home and newscasts were 15 minutes with no video, Life magazine was truly the window to the world. Why write about this in a place with a tag line “A Future Look at Today”? Well the story of Life magazine is a story about the last 75 years of media and also a story about the failure of media executives to look to the future rather than hold on to the past and a view of media no longer valid.

When Life magazine came out in 1936, radio and newspapers were the dominant mass media. Life was created to be the first mass visual media product in the U.S. It was the place, other than the newsreels in theaters, where America got its’ visual images. It visually documented the Great Depression and WWII in such a powerful way that Life photos are still our visual references to those two great events. It was one of the two great media properties in the empire of Henry Luce. It was sarcastically stated that “Life was for people who can’t read and Time is for people who can’t think”.

Life achieved a circulation in excess of 7 million during the 1950s and led the dominance of the large weekly picture magazines that included Look and The Saturday Evening Post. Together, more than 20 million people read, or looked at, these three magazines every week, a number unmatched since in US magazine publishing.. Then something happened: broadcast network television. Between 1948 and 1955, this new medium literally exploded onto the landscape of America, and slightly later, the world. Broadcast network television became, in historically record time, the most culturally influential media in the country. Newspapers were still the dominant news source, but in terms of entertainment, and the transmission of visual images, television won the day. It had sight, sound and motion. How could Life magazine, which just had one of those three, compete? It couldn’t.

The circulation of Life declined steadily from the late 1950s through the 1960s. Elvis and the Beatles were better on TV. The 1960 debates changed the political process. The Kennedy assassination weekend created the global village. Vietnam was the first war that was brought into the living room. Why wait for the weekly pictures in Life when there were moving pictures with sound available every day on network television? People didn’t, so Life shut down in 1972.

Time-Life brought the magazine back as a monthly in 1978, but somehow it was never relevant again. It was no longer the visual story of the world, it was just another magazine. More than anything else it felt like a piece of nostalgia. Its’ time had passed. Television had destroyed the picture magazine, as later, the 24 hour news channels made Time magazine and the other news weeklies less relevant. Why wait a week for news or news analysis when it was availably every day, every hour?

The part about the historical insularity of media executives is pointed out by the way Time Warner re-launched the iconic magazine in 2004. They tied it to the oldest, most rapidly in decline media, newspapers. These were print executives only seeing the media landscape for a magazine as being a print product. The obvious choice would have been to become the photographic standard on the Internet. Particularly in 2004 when it was clear that the next explosive medium would be broadband. What an opportunity lost! Think about the daily pictures you see on your home page, whether it is Yahoo or some other source. If Life had staked claim to the daily picture, the week’s best pictures, the Life web site for great photographs, it could have been slightly ahead of the curve and could have easily become a profitable, new iteration of an American icon. Now, these same executives who jumped on the dying media of newspapers are finally going on-line as a free resource for pictures, joining an already crowded field and without any brand clout to anyone under the age of 50. A sad ending to a glorious media vehicle.

Television, and executives with blinders, killed Life magazine. As the Internet now seriously threatens newspaper and television, let us hope that the executives in these two industries look toward the future and understand that the media world now is now a place of multi-platforms and that having ‘a future look at today’ is essential for survival, let alone success.

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