Commentary

Life

Can we get a ruling on whether the Sunday-supplement reinvention of Life counts as a magazine? Sure, it has flippable mag-sized pages, stories that more closely resemble long-lead magazine tripe than local newspaper frivolity, and airy, colorful graphics. On the other hand, it arrives every week with the Friday or Sunday newspaper, leaves incriminatory ink smudges on readers' fingers, and reads like it was assembled in the face of a particularly severe deadline.

Since Life bills itself on its cover as "America's Weekend Magazine," I'm granting it clearance for Magazine Rack evisceration... um, I mean, consideration. The semi-new Life is a trifle of a publication that has been shrinking with every passing week; the Nov. 17 "issue" offers a whopping 16 pages, six of which are ads. This means two things: first, that this column should clock in at somewhere around 38 words, leaving my whip-smart readers a few extra minutes to see what Ziggy's been up to; and second, that Life probably ain't long for this planet. I mean, six ads? Ouchie-pie.

I should first state that despite my self-identification as a deep, deep, deep thinker, I almost always find a few minutes to check out USA Weekend or Parade when I come across a copy. No, I rarely find myself intellectually enriched by the exercise, but I'm almost always informed and -- gasp! -- entertained. Pubs like these are the bread before the meal.

Life, however, doesn't seem to have much of a grasp on what readers want from such an entity. Like a baby to a blanket, it clings to its previous-life celebration of American beauty, such as it is. The cover story, on the childhood homes of folks like John Edwards (sexy!), Steven Spielberg (sexier!) and Bob Dole (sexiest!!!), is lifted from Edwards' most recent book and supplemented with precisely four data nuggets. The "Thanksgiving Confidential" spread, on the other hand, travels the recycled-trivia path, attributing its info to those well-fed research stallions at the National Turkey Foundation and the American Pie Council.

The "Your Weekend" page promises "great ideas for your next 48 hours," but instead presents a Q&A with country siren Gretchen Wilson (one of the questions alludes to Life's "millions of readers"), asks readers to vote online for one of two old Sophia Loren covers, and offers wildly incisive warehouse-club shopping tips ("shop from home," "buy dry goods"). There's a Soduku puzzle, quickie book/movie/DVD/TV recommendations (every blurb for "House" should be mandated by federal law to read "Dr. House solves a tricky medical case and acts all ornery and whatnot"), and a picture puzzle.

And that's it. That's the entire issue. I could critique the back-cover Dell ad if you'd like.

When Life reemerged as a Sunday-paper supplement, many pundits lamented the devolution of the supposedly venerable Life brand. "Remember what it used to mean to readers?" they chirped sadly. "Remember that one cover, the one with the guy on it? You know, the guy with the hair?"

Guess what? Readers don't give a hoot about magazine brands; they want content relevant to their lives presented in a way that's visually appealing. I'm not reading Rolling Stone again because I have fond memories of checking it out while stoned and listening to "Fables of the Reconstruction" during high school; I'm reading it again because it has abandoned its we-are-cultural-trendsetters-and-you-shall-respect-us-as-such 'tude in favor of provocative writer/subject pairings, like sic'ing Maureen Dowd on Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart. Brand names are all well and good, but they don't mean a whole heck of a lot without the brand attributes that lured readers in the first place.

To expect anybody to casually peruse the weightless piffle that is today's Life owing to his or her fondness for its previous incarnation is borderline delusional. The most honorable thing Time Inc. could do in service of the Life brand would be to take it behind one of the oh-so-Americana barns depicted on its past covers and put it down.

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