News magazines have fallen on hard times. The big, photo-heavy publications such as Look and Life used to be part of the American landscape as they chronicled the important world events of the day. Our guest was a reporter and editor for one of these publications and talks about what it was like to work there, recalls some of the stories he covered and tells us why the magazines were pushed off the newsstands by modern technology and what we miss with their demise.
Gerald Moore, former reporter and editor for Life author of the book, Life Story: The education of an American journalist
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The Demise of News Magazines
Marty Peterson: Back in the 20th century – before the internet, cable television and the ubiquitous cell phone – almost everyone read the newspaper and often subscribed to news magazines. Time, Newsweek, Look, and Life magazines were on every newsstand, and brought the public in-depth stories and amazing photographs of the biggest events of the day. Time, which owned Life, is still printed, and Newsweek is available online but the weekly large-format publications are gone. What was it like to chase a story for these publications in the 1960s and 70s? And what have we lost in understanding the news because of their demise? Gerald Moore was in the thick of it during the heyday of news magazines. He’s a former reporter and editor for Life and he’s written about his adventures in journalism in his book, Life Story: The education of an American journalist. He came to Life from a New Mexico newspaper as an entertainment reporter. He didn’t think he fit in with the seasoned journalists at the magazine who seemed to know everything about culture and the arts. But no expense was spared in his education in that field.
Gerald Moore: I arrived in the entertainment department as a young reporter and was, you know, anxious to go out and do stories, and of course, the department was staffed by these absolutely wonderful people who knew everything there was to know, Mary Letherbee knew everything there was to know about movies and Tom Prideaux knew everything about plays and we had people who knew everything about music, so there was hardly any place for me to fit in. What they did was they sort of gave me options to become a culturally educated person. I went to every play that opened on Broadway, I must’ve gone to several dozen concerts, they would occasionally fly me up to Boston to see a tryout of a play. It was just this huge cultural buffet, and I was kind of free to wander around and ear from it. Eventually I felt quite guilty because I wasn’t really producing anything until I made a fuss about letting me go do something until the shipped me off to Los Angeles.
Peterson: Moore wasn’t sent to L-A to cover Hollywood, though. It was an assignment to look into the use of a little-known drug called LSD, which was still legal at the time.
Moore:People thought that it was going to change human nature. That if everybody took LSD they’d be the end of war and strife and so forth. There were a lot of people taking LSD in California, people of a certain age, but the general public didn’t know about it until we did a big, big story in which we pretty much covered it from the time it was invented through various medical experiments with it to the time that is became a kind of popular, pop culture drug as it were. I think we sort of broke the story though, I’d say, in many respects.
Peterson: Back in the 60s, it wasn’t just the hippies who were taking LSD. Moore says that Time, Inc. founder Henry Luce and his wife Clare Boothe Luce tried it themselves.
Moore: They heard about it from a friend and they called a researcher in Los Angeles, Doctor Sidney Cohen, and had him fly out to their place in Arizona and give them both LSD. Henry Luce talked about it quite openly after he was asked about it. He described his afternoon staring at a cactus in his Arizona garden. I think Clare Boothe Luce said at some point that she thought it may have saved her marriage.
Peterson: The hard part of covering the story was that there wasn’t much happening that you could photograph or illustrate.
Moore: We were surprised, I guess, by the fact that when you go to a place where people are using acid, nothing is happening that you can see. Obviously, it’s a psychoactive, psychedelic drug and so there’s a great deal going on in the mind of the person who’s taken it, but in terms of trying to photograph something, they sit in a chair and stare, basically, which presented us with a pretty big problem in terms of trying to illustrate what an acid trip might be like. But the truth, the story took us in different directions to Timothy Leary was being tried on drug charges in Laredo and we went down there and covered that trial. There were some very wealthy people who were supporting Larry, supporting his research; we went to visit their place in upstate New York. We took in all the different aspects of the drug, including the medical aspects and the research part of it, so it was a pretty comprehensive story about LSD at that time.
Peterson: Another story where Moore and his photographer were having a little trouble finding something to take pictures of was one on sonic booms in New Mexico. The Concord supersonic airline was just coming online, and many people wanted it to fly across the United States to shorten the time it took to get from New York to L-A. There was a feat though that it would do a lot of damage with its sonic booms as it flew over land. The government wanted to prove that sonic booms were no threat, so they built a little city at White Sands, New Mexico and invited the press to watch as a military jet flew over at supersonic speeds.
Moore: They were trying to build, and you could imagine, it was like a small Midwestern village, and they invited the craft to come out and spend the day there and they would fly an F1-14 across the village at supersonic speeds to demonstrate that everything was okay. They sort of did that all day and they board the crafts and the TV guys from the networks were getting pretty anxious because there was no story, really, for them. The photographer I was working with had lined his cameras up against a window in the hope that when using a slow shutter speed the window would vibrate from the boom and it would distort the photograph. So, toward the end of the day when not much had happened, I think it was NBC, said, “Could you have the plane fly over the village at a low altitude so we can at least get a picture of the plane and the village in the same frame?”
Peterson: The officials granted the request, and as the day was wrapping up and the press was being briefed about how sonic booms wouldn’t bother any buildings or people on the ground, the fighter jet made its low-altitude pass.
Moore: And at just about that moment, the pilot flying over the village, misunderstanding his instructions, came over the village at about 500 feet at Mac1 and it just blew windows out yards away from where they were. It almost deafened us. It felt like it was going to knock us down. My photographer got a fabulous picture because he had the motors on his cameras were running, so the shards and sparks and glass are flying out into the sky and this big airplane above it. It didn’t work out the way that the FAA and other people had hoped it would.
Peterson: As any seasoned journalist knows, those reporters who leave a story early because not much seems to be happening often miss the big event altogether. Moore had this experience as an editor at Life. It was in September of 1971 when prisoners at the Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York rioted and took over the prison. He sent a photographer and reporter up to Attica to cover the story.
Moore: They spent two or three days up there and they called me and said, “There’s absolutely nothing happening up here,” and one of them had an important social engagement, and I’ve kicked myself ever since for caring that he had an important social engagement, but I said, “Well, okay, if you really think that nothing’s going to happen, then come on back.” Well, of course, about twelve hours later, the police swarmed the prison and killed many people and shot people and it was a huge mess, and we completely missed it because my guys had an important social engagement and left.
Peterson: Moore says that in the 1960s, the news magazines like Life were really feeling the pressure from television news coverage. Most Americans would turn on the tube when a big story broke, leaving photojournalistic publications to play catch-up.
Moore: We began to feel it, I think, in the late 50s as television became more available. Once every house had a television, we were aware that we had a competition, certainly for news stories, with television. By the early 60s, we were quite aware of it because television had begun to have things like instant replay and they had color. By the mid 60s they had good color, and the advertisers were grumbling about, you know, they’d say, “Gee, you know, we’re spending this much money on an ad and lights, and we’re getting 8 million circulation when we can spend the same amount of money at CBS and we’ll get 20 million.” So, we were struggling with it. I would say the struggle began in the late 50s and it became intense in the 60s, and I think it was really television that did Life in in the early 70s.
Peterson: By 1972 the economic situation at Life was bad and getting worse. Moore says that it was time for him to say goodbye to the magazine and the colleagues that he had grown so close to over the years.
Moore: I felt that the magazine had to make so many compromises in quality and in the way it did things that I just didn’t feel that I could work there. My instincts were wrong for that condition. I couldn’t make good judgments about news because what I had thought was news they would say was too expensive, maybe, to cover or we’re not going to cover so much news anymore, we’re going to try to do other things. I was just completely out of sync with the, I guess, the economic necessities that the magazine was facing at that time. It just seemed better to leave then to drag it out. And it turned out I left just weeks before it folded.
Peterson: Life published its last regular weekly issue in December of 1972. Moore says that its demise along with the closing of many other news magazines and newspapers leaves a void in the in-depth coverage of big stories. It also leaves readers without much guidance in deciding what the truly important events are.
Moore: When I pick up the New York Times, the editors at the News York Times have made some decisions about what’s important, and they’ve made a three column headline on the front page or they’ve done a one-column headline on page ten, but it gives me some sense of what they think is important and what I should pay attention to. When the newspapers are gone, that’s gone, and I don’t know how an ordinary reader decides what is important. Unfortunately, I think what a lot of people are doing is they’re just reading about things that interest them and nothing else. There is this fracturing of public opinions and why I think, though, that people watch the cable TV station that reinforces their beliefs and they read the blog that reinforces their beliefs and all these things are isolating. I don’t know the answer.
Peterson: During his career at Life magazine, Gerald Moore covered many stories in the 60s and early 70s, and you can read about them and how news magazines contributed to our culture and society in his book, Life Story, available in stores and online. He invites listeners to visit his website at author Gerald Moore.com to find out more about him and to read his blog. For more information about all of our guests, log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Emily Parker and Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Ronnie Szudarski and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.