For the 124th episode of the Journalism History podcast, Former New York Times reporter, book author, and historian Andrew L. Yarrow shares the overlooked history of Look magazine, a photojournalistic rival to better-known Life that featured pioneering coverage of topics like civil rights and gender and that both reflected and helped build the American post-war consensus.
Andrew Yarrow: It was something that a huge, huge swath of the American population read. It was kind of like a grand hearth that people, you know, gathered around, in a way.
Ken Ward: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew, and the ones you were told.
Teri Finneman: I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains. And together, we’re professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available online at journalism-history.org/podcast.
We’ve done a lot –
– of research on Life Magazine. A lot. A quick search of our journals turns up dozens of articles focused squarely on that magazine, and its contents, its operations, and its impact on American culture and journalism. And we should. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. It was a major force. The question raised by today’s guest is why we haven’t given that same amount of attention to Life’s rival, Look Magazine. It ran during the same period, it lived just about as long, it sometimes even held the circulation lead, reaching as many as 35 million Americans with each issue. But it’s far less frequently referenced in our literature, and when it is, it’s rarely the focus.
With me today is Andrew L. Yarrow, a former New York Times reporter, book author, and historian. In this episode, he fills us in on just what this magazine –
– was all about, as we discuss his new book titled Look: How a Highly Influential Magazine Helped Define Mid-Twentieth-Century America.
Andrew, welcome to the show. So, you write in the book that Look Magazine slipped from the national memory, despite it being a really major force in American culture. And so, in a minute, I wanna get to the magazine and its contents. But first, how does that happen? Like, why, why isn’t there more historical appreciation for this magazine?
Andrew Yarrow: Now, that’s a great question, Ken. Uh, Look, which published for 35 years by the late-1960s, before it folded in October of 1971, had a circulation of close to 8 million, which meant that about 30 to 35 million people read each issue. So, it was a major, major magazine. It outsold Life –
– it was a huge, huge presence in American journalism, and American culture particularly, in the ’50s and ’60s. But it, it really did disappear from view and from memory after it folded, and I think part of the problem was that, unlike Life Magazine, which is often and correctly seen as its competitor, the company that published Look, Cowles Communication, did not do anything to sustain the magazine or its memory.
I mean, the company basically went out of business, unlike Time Life, which, you know, kept Life alive, even though Life folded less than a year after Look, in 1972. And as, as you know, I mean, it’s hard to go into a supermarket or a drugstore, these days, and not see one of the –
– uh, Life bookazines whether it’s on Mick Jagger or Queen Elizabeth, these sort of knockoff publications basically of photos from, from Life. So, unlike Life, Look did not have vehicles to keep it alive. And, you know, many of the forces that caused Look, and Life after it, to fold sort of overwhelmed the memory of, of Look. Um, and those forces included things like television, things like specialized magazines, whether Sports Illustrated or Psychology Today, which was actually edited by, or, by a former Look staffer, I mean, they really took over in the 1970s. And, you know, people were – and photojournalism also did not –
– there, there wasn’t really – there weren’t really great vehicles in print media for continuing photojournalism.
So I mean, to me, as, as an author and afficionado of Look, it’s very sad that, that Look disappeared from memory. And it hasn’t been digitized, unlike may other publications, including Life, so, it’s very hard, you know, to really find Look. Um, I mean, you can only find hard copies in some major libraries, like the Library of Congress where I did much of my research –
Ken Ward: Mm-hmm.
Andrew Yarrow: – or, you know, old flea markets or things like eBay, the flea markets that may have old issues. So –
Ken Ward: So, so, if, if someone were to come across one of these issues of this magazine, what, what exactly did they look like? What, what, generally speaking, was this magazine about? What, what was it that it aimed to do?
Andrew Yarrow: Sure, sure.
Well, Look was a large-format magazine, I believe this was an 11 by 14, or 10-something by 14. It was a biweekly, so it published every-other-week, unlike Life, which published weekly. And it was a general interest magazine, so it tried to cover everything. Though, being a biweekly, it did feature stories; it didn’t try to do news stories like Life did, or like the news magazines Time or Newsweek or US News. So, it did long feature stories, often long features stories; there were some short ones, as well, but that combined the use of photographs and, and text. And it and many areas did very pioneering journalism, particularly in its coverage of civil rights and racial –
– uh, racial justice and racial tension issues.
But also in foreign policy. Its coverage of the Cold War, its coverage of social movements like the women’s movement, second-wave feminism in the ’60s and early-’70s, the youth movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement the counterculture. Um, but it also did soft and fluffy features about – a lot of features on Hollywood stars and, you know, it did profiles of politicians, and it looked at it did sports stories. For example, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four began as an article in Look. It serialized books, like William Manchester’s Death of a President was serialized in four issues at 80,000 words.
And those issues were among the best-selling ones of – in Look’s history. Look claimed that about 70 million Americans, in a population of maybe 200 million, read some of that series.
So, Look covered a little bit of everything and had wonderful photographers and many talented and, in some cases, kind of quirky writers. And many of the writers and the editors of Look, after it folded, went on to other careers in journalism. Um, and Look also published essays by prominent Americans, you know, ranging from William F. Buckley Jr. to Ernest Hemingway to Eleanor Roosevelt to it published essays by all of the Kennedys, by Martin Luther King –
– a piece that was published, that was set for publication in April of 1968. And of course, King was assassinated in early April of ’68, and that piece came out, it hit the newsstands, sadly, just after his assassination. So Look was really, I mean, a look at America and the world, in the 1950s and ’60s, and before that, too, in the ’40s, and, and into the very early ’70s. And covered other popular culture, too, you know, rock musicians uh, you name it, really.
Ken Ward: Well, so you mentioned those early years, so I always like a publication that comes from a part of the country that I can recognize, as someone living in Kansas. And, and this story begins, if I’m not mistaken, in Iowa. So, can you help us understand, how, how did this magazine get started? What was its early –
– content like?
Andrew Yarrow: Yeah, absolutely. Um, it was started by a man named Gardner Cowles – uh, he went by Mike, so Mike Cowles – who was – his father had owned, or owned the Des Moines Register, and Mike Cowles had become, sort of inherited the Des Moines Register and became the publisher of the Register in his 20s in the late-1920s. And Mike Cowles thought of Look, initially, as being a spinoff from a Sunday supplement to the Des Moines Register. And he was influenced by a couple of things. There really were not picture magazines or picture publications in America before Life and Look, and he consulted with Henry Luce, you know, who was thinking of developing Life at the same time –
– in the mid-1930s. They initially didn’t think that there would be – they would be competitive, though of course they became big competitors.
But a lot of the impetus came from European magazines, German and French magazines, that had started to do kind of photojournalism, photo, photo magazines in the – after World War I in the 1920s. And another interesting tidbit about the origins of Look, George Gallup had been a Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa, and Mike Cowles, the publisher, knew or discovered Gallup. And actually Gallup’s early polling kind of found, or early survey research, found that, you know, stories told with pictures and text could incredibly appeal to readers –
– in a way that a lot of journalism wasn’t doing. So Gallup became – after Look debuted in January of 1937, Gallup kind of remained sort of on retainer with Look for many years, did some of his early, earliest polling from Look into the 1940s. But Look began in January of ’37, and its beginning was, perhaps, not – uh, it was a very rocky beginning. [Laughter]
But the first issue had sort of a terrible problem. The back cover of the issue had an image that some readers discovered if, when folded, the picture – I mean, this may sound ridiculous – it looked like a kind of pornographic image. [Laughs] And so, you know, there was a lot of –
– outrage, and people thought, “Oh, this is a terrible magazine. It should fold. It should be should end.” And, you know, many of the early issues had rather sensational and kind of ridiculous covers, even though there was sometimes interesting content. Of course, this was in the run-up to World War II, so there were stories on Hitler and fascism. But the cover would have – the covers would have these awful images of damsels in distress with, like, a dragon or a monster or something, really ridiculous things.
And but within –
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Andrew Yarrow: – [crosstalk] years – yeah, it’s kind of crazy – within a few years, Look cleaned up its act and, you know, got the first of a number of very good art directors and, you know –
– became – by about 1940, when it moved from Des Moines to New York City, became a much more serious magazine. And that development continued to the point, by the end of World War II, by the late-’40s, Look became the kind of recognizable magazine that it was for the rest of its history. No more of the sort of silly kind of offensive covers. It did thoughtful stories. You know, it still might have, and often did have, for better or worse, attractive actresses or other people on the celebrities on the cover, but it would also do powerful stories, as I, as I mentioned.
Um, you know, everything from civil rights to –
– birth control to, you know, issues in American politics to wonderful, wonderful coverage of the Cold War. It was really the first major magazine in the – or major publication to get a writer and photographer into Communist China. In the mid-’50s, for example it did some very powerful stories. It twice sent journalists along the whole length of the Iron Curtain from southern Europe up through beyond the Arctic Circle in Finland, and, you know, did, showed really showed the tensions in the Cold War in a very personal sense. And that was something about Look, too, that differentiated it from Life and from the news magazines, it tried to humanize many issues, whether they were foreign policy –
– issues or issues of racism or poverty in America, did many stories on poverty and economic problems in America. But would often do this by telling the story of – stories of a family or individuals, and, you know, what their lives were. Um –
Ken Ward: Well, so, you mention that in the book, right? Um, I think, I think the words, I can’t remember if they were yours or someone else’s, but you referred to Look as being kind of a poor man’s version of Life. Was this, do you think this was an intentional differentiation from Life? Were they doing this competitively? What, what led them to that, that style of coverage?
Andrew Yarrow: Well, I mean, the poor man’s version I think I put in quotes because, in many ways, Look was a more thoughtful magazine than Life. And I know, you know, this is not –
– uh, not a widespread view, but Look, as one writer told me – and I interviewed many of the surviving writers and editors and photographers for Look. And I’m actually working on a documentary film now about Look Magazine, interviewing many of these writers and editors. As one told me, Look’s stories ranged from the pits of the, of bad taste to the visionary. And its more powerful stories were really much more thoughtful than the kinds of pieces one found in Life or the news magazines. Um, Life, of course, Time Inc. publications were heavily edited, you know, and there was sort of one voice in Life, and then, in Time and, and the news –
But then, whereas, Look really gave its writers a lot of leeway and one could hear a writer’s voice, whether it was a figure like a writer like Ernest Dunbar, who was one of the first African American journalists on staff of a major U.S. publication in the 1950s, you know, writing about racial injustice. Or whether it was George Leonard, one of, really, the more visionary writers for Look writing about the new psychologies or psychological movements, humanistic psychology, the human potential movement. And George Leonard, for example, kind of helped popularize Esalen, the big sort of retreat center that, after Look folded, Leonard went on to become a leader of Esalen.
So, I mean, there was a lot to the, in terms of the voices of Look journalists, that really made it a more thoughtful magazine than Life. So I would push back and, you know, the idea that it was a poor man’s version of Life. [Laughter]
Ken Ward: Sure. You know, one idea that, that struck me as particularly important, and, and you returned to it repeatedly in the book, is that this idea of the post-war consensus. And that, that Look magazine played a really strong role in cultivating that post-war consensus. So, can you help us understand, just briefly, what that consensus was? And explain how it was that this magazine played such a powerful role in establishing that in the United States.
Andrew Yarrow: Sure, sure. Well, I mean, that consensus, which seems very –
– far away in our politics today –
Ken Ward: Right.
Andrew Yarrow: – was really that most Democrats and Republicans from the end of World War II up till the end of the ’60s really believed that, you know, the role of government, of public policy, of politicians in America, was, one, to kind of advance the prosperity and rights of all Americans, to improve the well-being of all Americans. And if whatever kind of economic or social policies it took, whether that meant expanding Social Security, which was done under Republican as well as Democratic administrations, you know, Eisenhower and Nixon, as well as Truman, Kennedy and Johnson, or advancing civil rights.
I mean, the first civil rights bill was in 1957 under Eisenhower, when Lyndon Johnson was majority leader. To the better-known and more historic ’64 civil rights and vote, ’65 Voting Rights Act, under Lyndon Johnson, which, you know, won bipartisan support. Or the creation of programs like Medicare and Medicaid under Johnson. So, and the housing policy, the GI Bill.
To again, things to advance all Americans’ prosperity at home, but overseas to fight Communism, for Americans, America to stand tall as a beacon of freedom in the world in fighting Communism. For better or worse. I mean, of course that got us in a lot of trouble in Vietnam and elsewhere, but there was broadly these parameters of policy –
– that most Democrats and Republicans agreed on, and Look really helped foster this. Uh, Gardner Cowles, Mike Cowles, the publisher, was a liberal Republican, even though, by today’s standards, he would be considered a pretty liberal Democrat, to be honest. [Laughter] But, you know, he supported civil rights, he supported a big, big internationalists. Uh, you know, when it’s maybe hard to remember or hard to think of today, that the U.S. was not only the principal founder of the UN, but a big supporter of the United Nations and multilateral institutions, which Cowles and Look’s longtime top editor, Dan Mish supported, believed that America had a role in advancing freedom and prosperity throughout the world.
So, Look –
– uh, did thoughtful coverage from Africa to India, all over the world. And, and kind of a final piece of that, which I talk about in my book, is that a phrase that I really like that Mike Cowles used. He said Look’s philosophy was toughminded optimism, and as he wrote, and I’ll read just a sentence here, “We believe that the problems confronting our civilization: peace, poverty, population, and pollution, just to name a few, can and will be solved, but only if more people understand what’s really going on around them, and why.” And I think, you know, that’s a great kind of description of what Look tried to do and Look’s philosophy. It didn’t – it didn’t sugarcoat problems. It highlighted problems, but there was an optimism that they could be solved.
And that was very much in keeping with the beliefs of political leaders of both parties during this two-and-a-half-decade period from the end of World War II through the 1960s.
Ken Ward: Yeah, sure. So, we’re starting to run short on time but I wanted to ask you, briefly, I couldn’t pass this up. In the opening pages of this book, you actually claim that this magazine may have had as big an impact on American culture in its era as Facebook has in the 21st century. Can that be true? Like, what, what is it that made it so impactful?
Andrew Yarrow: Well, I mean, one thing was the sheer scope of its circulation, of its reach. As I say, it, as well as Life, reached about as many as 35 million Americans with each issue.
And this was at a time, I mean, in the 1950s, America had about 175 million people; by the 1960s, 200-220 million people. And of course, today, America is much, much larger, we’re a country of 330 million people. No media have that kind of reach. I mean, you think of Fox News or CNN reaching, you know, 3-4 million people at most. But, you know, in terms of, I mean, the comparison to Facebook, and, and, in some ways, given Facebook’s many problems might pull back from that comparison [laughter] a little bit. Um, but I think the magazine, it was something that was found on coffee tables of people of all social classes, from –
– from executives to, to working people.
Uh, from you know, you’d find it influenced policy in Washington. You could find it in the proverbial barber’s shop or beauty shops of America. So, what I really meant by that comparison was that it was something that a huge, huge swath of the American population read. It was kind of like a grand hearth that people, you know, gathered around, in a way. And a phrase that, that I also mention in my book, that former president Obama used. He’s talked about how we’ve lost the ability to have a common national conversation, which I think is very true today, but –
– I think Look helped, Look and Life, too, helped facilitate that, and the three networks, simply by the fact that people of all sorts of different backgrounds and different political beliefs all read Look or Life or, you know, watched Walter Cronkite, and we don’t have that today. We don’t have, you know, that, that sort of shared information, that shared stories, shared ideas, a medium like Look provided.
Ken Ward: Sure. Well, we only have time for one last question, but I wanna make sure we get it in, because it’s one that we ask all of our guests. So, Andrew, in your opinion, why does journalism history matter?
Andrew Yarrow: Ah. Well, [laughs] gosh that, that’s a great and huge question.
Ken Ward: [Laughs]
Andrew Yarrow: I mean as a journalist, as somebody who has, you know been a reporter for the New York Times, who’s –
– you know, been a freelance journalist, who’s taught journalism, I obviously believe that, that journalism and media and getting information on the issues of and, and problems and successes of our country and world are extremely important. And getting, you know, multiple perspectives and multiple ideas, which is obviously a problem in much journalism today, are extremely important. And that’s why looking at media that did this successfully in the past, or did this differently, whether it’s a publication like Look, or whether it’s Fortune in the 1950s, or, you know, CBS News with Edward R. Murrow or Cronkite.
Even looking at how different, different publications or different media kind of successfully brought awareness of problems and needs in the world to the attention of the American people or, or people around the world in ways that led to better understanding of other people, and, and, in many cases, to policy changes for the better in society. I think, you know, it’s very important to see, see the successes of media in the past, as well as the failures I think can inform better journalism, better information today.
Ken Ward: Absolutely. Well, Andrew, that’s all the time that we have for this episode, but I wanna thank you –
– for being on the show. I really enjoyed our conversation.
Andrew Yarrow: Oh, thanks, Ken. This was great, I appreciate it, too.
Ken Ward: Well, that’s it for this episode. Again, the book is Look: How a Highly Influential Magazine Helped Define Mid-Twentieth-Century America. Thank you for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to the podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @jhistoryjournal – that’s all one word. Until next time, I’m your host, Ken Ward, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: goodnight and good luck.