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The aim of journalism is to inform the public with general knowledge about the world around them. In the early 20th century, when photography became easier to do with the invention of the 35mm camera, a new way of storytelling was brought to light. A medium where photography meets journalism: photojournalism. “Pictures have become a dynamic power”, Henry Luce would say (prospectus). He was convinced a good cameraman could tell more with his camera than a reporter could achieve with his writing. People could more easily follow the news with pictures, become better informed – even the people who were unable to read (prospectus). After years of progress, Henry Luce and those who were involved published the first issue of Life on November 23 in 1936. Published weekly, the pictorial newsmagazine introduced its readers to the photo essay and started the beginning of modern magazine publishing in America. The following paragraphs will discuss how Life became one of the most powerful and innovative mass communicators in American History.
Henry Luce had a purpose for his pictorial magazine from the beginning. Driven by his ambition for America and his eye for journalism, he wanted to achieve many with Life. His desire was not only to create a new art of communication; he also believed that a newsmagazine could attract a broader audience—and by that, blur the lines between classes, ethnicity, race and religion. He wanted to produce a magazine with “mass appeal”. With those inspirational thoughts in mind, he wrote an interesting piece of journalistic writing for his prospectus, to introduce Life to its future readers and advertisers:
“To see life; to see the world; to eyewitness great events; to watch the faces of the poor and the gestures of the proud; to see strange things—machines, armies, multitudes, shadows in the jungle and on the moon; to see man’s work—his paintings, towers and discoveries; to see things thousands of miles away, things hidden behind walls and within rooms; things dangerous to come to; the women that men love and many children; to see and to take pleasure in the seeing; to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed (prospectus Life).”
There it was, a notice of the power within the language of pictures, that early sense nothing quite compares the potential of what a single photograph could do to tell a story. Life was launched in the middle of American Depression; there was a collective hunger not only for information, the same hunger was applied for a loyal voice—and Life became that loyal voice.
Even before the first issue of Life appeared, there were already 235.000 subscribers – that was almost the entire planned circulation including the newsstand sales. “Life’s first issue reached the heavies demand, of any publication ever known (The publisher, p.233).” In 1938, Luce inducted a group of prominent researchers to scope the amount of people who were actually reading Life. Continuing Study of Magazine Audiences (CSMA) – funded by Life but technically independent – (The publisher, p.233) found out that Life’s impact was actually beyond the expecting circulation. On average there were as many as fourteen readers for every single copy published, which comes down to 17 million people who saw actual each issue (publisher). This was a powerful theorization, not only for Henry Luce. The whole publishing world is now adopting the so-called “pass-along rate” to target their audiences; to adapt more profit out of advertisements (media now). Around 1950, Life reached his golden age, reaching 36 present of all U.S. families, with a pass along rate of 12 million men and 10 million women. With this knowledge, advertisers remained to invest more dollars in Life than any other magazine; Life was worth 137 million dollars based on advertising sells (Life book p.204).
Despite the fact Life was adapting a new concept to inform an audience, it was certainly not the only photo-centric publication around that time. Even before it was published, there were already examples of picture-based magazines In Europe. Also in America, the pictorial magazine named Look was launched several months after Life’s first issue (academia). Nevertheless, Life was the most remarkable instant success in the history of magazine publishing (The magazine in America p.169). Many of its readers saw Life as their loyal and smart neighbour, with a romantic spirit at the peak. The magazine was relaxing, easy to follow and informative, what made the magazine for a mass audience. Life brought its readers behind the scene, to show them the human element behind everything. Life remained an inspiration for many especially in time of depression. However, how great its contribution was to American Life and how significant its journalism was stays open to argument.