The genius of Life
The genius of Life was that, as a high/low general-interest publication, its editors knew precisely when to go dark and when to go light. The magazine covered more than its share of starlets and matinee idols, but it never shied from war and suffering either. Consider the 1969 "Faces of the American Dead in Vietnam" cover. In Life.com's own words:
"Life's June 27, 1969, cover story on 'One Week's Dead' in the Vietnam War is one of the milestones of the era, credited with awakening the public to the horrors of a war happening half a world away and turning public opinion against it. However, the article could not have been more straightforward in its presentation: The names and hometowns of the 242 servicemen who died during the week of May 28 to June 3 ran over 12 pages, along with photographs of most, supplied willingly by their grieving families."
In the age of TV, though, Life struggled, circulation eroded, and it was ultimately shuttered as a weekly in December 1972. But Time Inc. didn't want to abandon the brand entirely, so it puttered along as an irregularly published series of one-off "Special Report" issues until 1978, when it was relaunched as a monthly.
Once again it effectively mixed both darkness and light. But it quickly grew more and more frivolous (the May 1, 1989 "Puppy Love" cover, showing Barbara Bush cradling newborn canines, was a low point) and service-obsessed (the new Life was more concerned about flabby bodies -- "Help for Heavy Teens" -- than about the body politic), until finally Time Inc. euthanized a publication that had become a mere ghost of itself.
Cruelly, three years ago the company decided to exhume the body, make it dance, and then -- last week -- shoot it all over again.
The headline on the comeback cover, dated Oct. 1, 2004, read "Sarah Jessica Parker: SHE'S BACK! (and so are we)." The "Sex and the City" star, her hair in a long, brown shaggy cut, looked entirely unrecognizable -- and so, save for the logo, did the nearly substance-free magazine, distributed as a weekly newspaper supplement.
Ms. Parker was an oddly apt choice, in that she wasn't really back. Post-"Sex," of course, she's mostly just been cashing in on her legacy (her career has wobbled between taking grating roles in cheesy movies and doing endless shillery to capitalize on her rapidly fading reputation as a fashion icon). Likewise, Life wasn't really back; Time Inc. suits just figured they could cash in on the legacy of the once-great brand without actually having to honor that legacy.
If Life during its waning days as a monthly was Life Lite, then the new weekly Life was Life Less. Or Anorexic Life. Some weeks the Sunday coupon inserts literally had higher page counts.
Reduced cultural ambitions
But the saddest thing about the latest incarnation of the magazine wasn't that, as an ad-starved quasi-pamphlet, it felt doomed from the start. It was truly sad -- heartbreaking, really -- because of what it said about the vastly reduced cultural ambitions of Time Inc.
Now, finally, the company is doing a smart thing: In shuttering the print edition, it's announced that it will be putting 10 million of its archival images online at its advertising-supported website -- a much more noble way to make money off Life's stellar history than keeping the name alive on a sorry imitation.
It'll be a nostalgia shop -- and a memento mori for a company that, increasingly, has been losing faith in journalism. Browse it and weep.