The death of 'Life'

As technologies shift and media giants merge, a reporter concludes that old journalistic values are being trumped by infotainment.

THEY WERE ALL there—photographers, reporters, editors, sales people, secretaries—as many as were fit enough to travel, that is. They were older now by some 30 years, yet still full of that unbridled vitality and enthusiasm that once translated itself into perhaps the best worldwide news gathering organization in the history of journalism. They were all that remains of Life, the Weekly News Magazine, which in its heyday ran as many as five editions worldwide and brought the entire pre-Internet planet into the nation's living room for universal—and pleasurable—scrutiny.

They had gathered at Florida's Ponte Vedra Beach for a final hug and a handshake shortly after the announcement that AOL-Time Warner would close Life's monthly version with last month's May edition. Former Chairman of the Board Andrew Heiskell, 80, when greeting this last assemblage of good companions, reminded them that they were "energetic and exceptional people who believed in each other and worked together for the good of the organization, with a sense of oneness for the group."

There were presentations that took us back to the Glory Days. Dick Stolley (the gifted correspondent who found the Zapruder film of JFK's assassination), who after a remarkable career still remains on deck as Time, Inc.'s senior editorial advisor, summed up the old magazine concisely: "Life," he said, "wasn't simply about taking great pictures that knocked your socks off, but taking pictures of human contrast and emotion. We saw violence beyond human comprehension and outstanding incidents of human compassion, and we recorded it all for the reader with such skill that pictures we've seen a hundred times still evoke exactly the same emotions as they did when they were first published."

No doubt about it. I review those pictures today with the same heady mix of gut reaction and goose bumps. Life photographers understood what French photographer Willy Ronin once aptly dubbed "The Decisive Moment." They could shoot spot news with the best of the ambulance chasers, but their gift was to season their work with a shrewd subtlety that enhanced its drama and emotion. Who among us cannot comprehend the awful toll of combat in David Duncan's haunting portraits of those exhausted Marines in Korea, or the tragedy in Bill Eppridge's heartbreaking picture of Bobby Kennedy lying near death on a kitchen floor seconds after he had been shot?

Few contemporary sound bytes or moving images evoke that sort of intense reaction. As former Life photographer John Loengard observed: "Television doesn't really show much at all—it's mostly somebody talking about the news." Where's the sensitivity, the interpretation? Life bred in its journalists an independence and initiative that inspired all of us to act largely on intuition without checking with the front office first—to break the rules if we had to. This in turn earned our respect for the company and contributed considerably to the "oneness" that Heiskell referred to, and Life got what it paid for in terms of loyalty and selflessness. Money for many of us was a secondary consideration. We moved print and photographic techniques and technology years ahead in the race to be first with the best—but it cost us dearly. We went to the wars willingly with the kind of dedication that often wrecked our marriages and obliterated any semblance of normal family life—and several of us didn't come back.

WHY THEN, WITH its huge, inordinately faithful readership; its devoted staffers; and its undoubted clout in the marketplace; did Life fail? Was it the onrush of technology—essentially the shift from the still to the moving image—that ushered in the end? That certainly seemed to be the case as management groped to find a way to deal with the impact of television. It shut down overseas subsidiaries and bought the circulation lists of other failed magazines to boost its own circulation, up to 8 million at one point. That pushed up production and postal costs so radically that they could not even begin to justify the magazine's low cover price. And when in the late 1960s the $60,000 cost of a one-time four-color ad page in Life matched the price tag of a one-minute commercial on network television, the ad agencies rushed to the new medium that offered sound and motion. As one former Life correspondent saw it, "the public was drawn away from print by the instantaneous response of TV, and Life lost its sense of direction, becoming somewhat ponderous with an emphasis on lengthy text pieces which, no matter how brilliantly written, could not counter or substitute for the power and prescience of Life's pictures."

There is no doubt that the flood of technological advances often drowns the undeserving in its relentless flow, even as it clears the way for more immediate solutions to problems that did not even exist a decade—or even days—ago. But the price paid by the profession is the loss—or the loosening— of those hard-won journalistic essentials for which there is no substitute, and in Life's case, the destruction of an exceptional organization that gave the public tangible information—not conjecture—from correspondents and photographers on the scene long enough to ask those probing questions so often overlooked by the daily press in the rush to file their stories.

Technology is also diminishing the essential human factor in reporting. There are no "decisive moments" for your current clickers—their self-focusing automatic- exposure motorized gear can capture a whole sequence of events in a microsecond on a digital camera that relays the images directly to newsroom computers—and I cannot help but feel that the resourcefulness of contemporary reporters and photographers is sapped by the very technology that helped make Life obsolete. We had no satellites, no cell phones, no laptops, no digital cameras. So what did you do if you were deep in the bush in the middle of a fire fight, with all communication lines down, no transportation, words to file, and film to ship? You used initiative, you found a way. I sometimes wonder what today's reporters would do if all their batteries were to expire at once.

INEVITABLY, TECHNOLOGY also lessens standards. The sound byte has shortened the national attention span, resulting in abbreviated copy—much of which is poorly reported and badly checked, hence the ubiquitous correction boxes. The public wallows in the opiate of the Talk Show, which drives us away from the problems of the real world and into the maw of infotainment. And what happens when technological breakthroughs force television to cede to the Internet its role as the public's ultimate news source? Who will determine the essential difference between entertainment and news, personal analysis, and opinion—all of which is beginning to creep into the columns of The New York Times under the guise of news reporting? Can we trust the Net not to manipulate the material at its disposal to its own advantage? In the absence of such policing, will there come a time when we might not know what the truth is or where to find it?

Dick Stolley has faith that the Net can adapt to follow the example of the old Life, which he believes might come back one day, spurred by an elite group that will always demand solid graphic and reportorial coverage. "People are still going to want to see the still image, to read dependable words," he says. "We can't let that go because we'll run the awful risk of being uninformed." Personally, I'd settle for a Life revival with new technology (the ability to print high-quality four-color images on newsprint cheaply, perhaps?) enabling it to parallel electronically the enormous impact it had at its peak. And there are several million readers out there who would doubtless say Amen to that.

Kenneth Gouldthorpe, a former Life correspondent and editor, is also the founder of Washington magazine. He lives in Seattle.

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