The Culture Beat

July 27, 2009

Magazines in Crisis

Filed under: Magazines — Alex @ 2:33 am

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Have you noticed your favorite magazine seems more like one of those thin mail-order catalogs lately? The long-discussed drop in magazine advertising brought on by advertiser unwillingness to pay for ads in the recession is best illustrated to me when I compared two copies of Entertainment Weekly (Weakly?). The first copy was the Nov. 24, 2006 issue that heralded the new James Bond, Daniel Craig. Total page count was 114, with 66 pages of articles and 48 full page ads, not counting partial pages advertisements.
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This year I’ve noticed that the magazine felt alarmingly thin and the July 17, 2009 edition indicated it wasn’t my imagination. Total pages count was 64 with 56 editorial pages leaving only–wait for it–eight full page ads. There’s no more dramatic way to see how some magazines have taken a big and painful hit and don’t be surprised if familiar newsstand magazines disappear before the end of the year. Newsweek is attempting a radical re-invention of itself by going to a finer paper selection and revamping its structure away from the classic newsmagazine departments to a series of big idea articles and essays. I doubt this will work but maybe it will find a new readership less interested in actual news reporting and analysis than the big issues behind the headlines.

At the checkout line the other day, I noticed one apparent bright spot: Picking up the new People magazine, I noticed it had a similar density of full page ads to the older Entertainment Weekly and thus seems healthy. Apparently readers can do without print news magazines and entertainment items, but they must keep up with, Michael, Jon and Kate and all the other train-wrecks gossipdom–and advertisers want to be among those pages.

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June 5, 2009

From Life Mag to YouTube

Filed under: General Pop Culture,Magazines — Alex @ 5:13 pm

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At the end of the spring semester at the university where I teach, one of the students in my History and Philosophy of American Media class gave me an old copy of Life magazine from February 9, 1942. She had found it in a local store that sold such old items that one would find in your grandparents’ attic. She didn’t fully realize just how much that meant to me as I am a sucker for any media from that decade, whether movies, radio, newspapers, and especially magazines. As I expressed my appreciation for her thoughtfulness, I talked about the how important the magazine had been for its readers and before I knew it, I said something like, “Life was sort of the YouTube of its day–it was something everybody knew about.” What exactly did I mean by that?

Life magazine was one of the most popular magazines in the country in its heyday from the 1930 through the 1950s. I remember seeing them on neighbors’ coffee tables as well as of course our family’s own copy. Started in 1936 by Henry Luce, head of Time Inc. and the chief media mogul of his generation, it proved its founder’s insight that photojournalism was now able to bring the world to its readers. Black and while images by such great photojournalists as Margaret Bourke White brought a wide-ranging flow of visualizations of news stories and entertaining features.
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Being a general interest magazine, one issue could feature, as my Feb. 1942 one did, a cover story on the “Versailles Chorus,” a set of beautiful women in evening gowns who entertained at one of the many New York City nightclubs enjoying renewed popularity during World War II and in the same issue, an in-depth portrait of our Pacific ally, Australia as a sort of mirror image down-under U.S.A.

To get an idea of the wide-range of Life’s topics, check out this site’s pages of covers. A regular feature, “Life on the News Fronts of the World,” brought vivid images of stories that illustrated what newspapers couldn’t show so clearly. Celebrity profiles, and other silly semi-cheesecake features describing the right and wrong way for a wife to undress in front of her husband were surprisingly adult for a family magazine.

My issue featured such disparate features as the “Movie of the Week” giving a four page illustrated account of the new Warner Brothers feature, Kings Row, one of Ronald Reagan’s better films, art by deployed US soldiers on the battlefront, how jujitsu was being taught to American G.I.s by “loyal U.S. Japs” and an account of a secret agent’s real-life adventures in Nazi-occupied Italy. All this plus war news and other features. This made for a far larger magazine than a typical weekly today. The cover price was 10 cents, that, even allowing for inflation was a steal. Luce was able to offer it so cheaply because advertising subsidized the production costs. And the advertising was as attractive or more so than the editorial content, if only because it was, at the time, the only color content. It’s fascinating to see beautifully rendered advertising for products, some long gone, like the liquor ads, or now rare, like cigarettes. Many of them had a clear war theme–I didn’t see any car ads, since, because of war rationing, factory resources were devoted to manufacturing the “arsenal of democracy” that would win the war. One General Motors advertisement was for their Allison division’s “liquid-cooled aircraft engines,” not promoting their sale of course, but part of the patriotic image-making that contributed to the collective struggle of free capitalistic nations against Axis powers.

As television rose in the 1950s to become the dominant medium, it drew advertisers away from other media, hitting magazine especially hard. Many magazines from this era died in the 1960s, including Life’s competitor Look, and the venerable Saturday Evening Post. Life itself had to cease weekly publication at the end of 1972–it’s pictorial journalism was overcome by television news’ immediacy and free distribution to the home. Today of course, many magazines are undergoing a similar crisis as ads revenues drop during the recession and the rise of internet media changes the fundamental dynamic of top-down distribution of content to whatever anyone wants to upload to YouTube or similar sites. Could British talent contestant Susan Boyles have emerged without YouTube? We have a much more complex media dynamic now, defined by niche interests, but less of a common culture that was disseminated by media giants like Life and other major general interest magazines. If you want to experience a sort of time travel, find yourself a collection of bound Life magazines in your local library and sit down with them for a couple of hours to discover the “screen” on which your parents or grandparents viewed the world around them.

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