Remembering the beginning of Life, as Newsweek’s on the block



Newsweek is up for sale, after two years of staggering losses. After a redesign hoped to reinvigorate the weekly magazine in the era of internet-speed news delivery, the publication saw declining ad rates, declining circulation, fewer pages and pictures in each issue, much less original reporting, and substantial staff cuts. James Fallows, of the Atlantic, has a great perspective of what place Newsweek holds in the news magazine ecosystem and why an Economist- or Atlantic-like strategy won’t work for the magazine.

The current problems faced by the newsmagazines remind me of an item published on the New York Times’ Paper Cuts blog about the founding of Life magazine, ‘The Show-Book of the World’: Henry Luce’s Life Magazine Prospectus. Of particular note in the prospectus is the second section, which addresses the need for thoughtful visual journalism, and it rings even more true today:

Pictures have become a dynamic power in the Fourth Estate of the Twentieth Century. But, although people demand and get pictures in nearly every periodical; although the gravure section of the New York Times is the section most “read” by the distinguished clientele of that journal; although pictures have made FORTUNE famous; and although the superlatively successful Daily News is commonly regarded as a picture paper…

Nevertheless, people are missing relatively more of what the camera can tell than of what the reporter writes. With more or less success they “follow” the news–i.e. the written news. They scarcely realize how fascinating it can be to “follow” pictures–to be for the first time pictorially well-informed.

For this there are many reasons. Pictures are taken haphazardly. Pictures are published haphazardly. Naturally, therefore, they are looked at haphazardly. Cameramen who use their heads as well as their legs are rare. Rarer still are camera editors. Thus, many a newsworthy picture which can be taken is not taken. Thus, too, only a fraction of the best pictures of widest interest are brought to the attention of any one alert U.S. citizen. And almost nowhere is there any attempt to edit pictures into a coherent story–to make an effective mosaic out of the fragmentary documents which pictures, past and present, are.

The mind guided camera can do a far better job of reporting current events than has been done. And, more than that, it can reveal to us far more explicitly the nature of the dynamic social world in which we live.

-Henry Luce, June 1936 ‘The Show-Book of the World

Change a few words here and there, mention the ubiquity of photos on the internet, add a bit about the shift of news reporting from facts to opinion, and Luce’s prospectus could easily describe something missing and much-needed in the current mediascape.

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