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March 27, 2007


Yesterday, Time Inc. announced that it was suspending publication of the weekly Life magazine. Like some charmed and perpetually resuscitated being in a mystical Eastern rebirth cycle, the publication seems destined to occupy a limbo of near-death experiences and "eventual resurrection" rumors.


For some time now, media observers have been keeping a death watch over the latest incarnation of Life magazine, a pamphlet-sized shadow of its former self that for the last three years had been distributed as a color supplement in newspapers. The original Life, the pioneering American picture magazine, was founded as a weekly in 1936, and was considered one of the great triumphs in publishing history (reaching some 8 million readers in its heyday). It introduced photo essays to the culture; nurtured the careers of dozens of giants of photojournalism; took pre-war readers to the ends of the earth; covered revolution and the Spanish Civil War, World War II and Korea; chronicled the rise of Communist China and the Cold War, the atomic bomb and the space program; served as the platform upon which publisher Henry Luce formulated his notion of "The American Century"; gave the world its first glimpse of everything from President Kennedy's assassination to the miracle of birth, from tips on "How To Undress in Front of Your Husband" to the refurbished behemoths of Abu Simbel; explored the heartland with relish and Hollywood with wide-eyed affection; contributed to helping mobilize U.S. sentiment against the Vietnam War (through its seminal story "One Week's Dead"); and changed the face of journalism. It suspended publication in 1972--done in by the high cost of printing and postage, staggering overhead, and the migration of advertising to television.

Upon its relaunch in 1978, as a monthly, Life continued as a vehicle for quality photography--and for the lost art of picture story-telling. (I was one of the two youngest reporters on the staff of the start-up, continuing as news editor, directory of photography and new media, and assistant managing editor, over the course of 19 years.) Three years ago, after the magazine folded yet again, Life was recast and retooled, only to be rolled out as a feeble weekly, intended to be doled out by newspapers. Cover stories featured pick-up trucks and animals and the wonders of coffee (the better to appeal to the advertisers, presumably); stories inside were bite-size and wedged between food columns and puzzles. On April 20, this will all come to an end. And, moving forward, the rights to some 12 million images from the famous Life Photo Archive will be siphoned off to the folks at Google, presumably for viewers to have compelling imagery on their screens to gussy up Google's currently vanilla-white pages.

When a living, breathing Mark Twain heard that his obituary had appeared, prematurely, in a London paper, he famously wired a message to the publisher: "The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated."

When I heard the news yesterday that Life had finally died, I wondered, wistfully, "Really? How could anyone tell?"

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