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New magazine's a Shock

It features lurid pictures and stories built around them. The editor calls it the Life magazine of the future.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times Media Critic
Published June 3, 2006

It features photos of a woman who set herself on fire, celebrity model Kate Moss smiling next to four lines of white powder and time-lapse photos of a corpse rotting over 12 days.

But don't suggest to editor Mike Hammer that his new magazine, Shock, has more in common with splashy tabloids such as the National Enquirer and Weekly World News than Look magazine.

"The big difference between us and the National Enquirer is that we're news based ... the news stories are led by the photos themselves," said Hammer, former executive editor of the sex-drenched "lad" magazine Maxim, who calls Shock the "Life magazine for the new millennium.''

"We search the globe for images and then craft the story around them," added the editor, hailing the edgy content as a new way of hooking the title's 18- to 34-year-old target demographic. "Americans already get their entertainment and news information from places like Comedy Central's The Daily Show, (E! Entertainment's) The Soup and SportsCenter on ESPN. So the idea isn't as heretical as you might think."

Debuting this week, Shock is a magazine designed to provoke, developed by the U.S. arm of French conglomerate Hachette Filipacci Media, publisher of conventional titles such as Elle, Premiere, Woman's Day, Road & Track and Popular Photography & Imaging.

But the first controversy facing Shock turns on the less sexy topic of copyright infringement - as a blogger/photographer has demanded the company recall 300,000 copies of its debut issue over the cover photo, which he says was used without permission.

Pro-military blogger Michael Yon has threatened a lawsuit because Shock's inaugural edition features his photo of a soldier cradling an Iraqi girl bloodied from a bomb blast, taken while he was embedded with the military last year.

Hachette officials said they purchased rights to the picture from Polaris Images, a New York photo agency. But Yon denied Polaris had the rights to sell.

And because the image adorns a feature comparing the Iraq war to Vietnam - the headline screams "War Is Still Hell! Jarring proof that Iraq is the new Vietnam" - the cover has incensed pro-military fans of Yon in the blogosphere.

"I first learned about it when angry readers discovered (the cover) and thought I authorized it," said Yon, a Winter Haven native now living near Branford. "They released the magazine just after Memorial Day, and that section is very derogatory to military people. (The picture) is more than just my property ... it's iconic."

Hachette spokeswoman Anne Janas could not explain why Polaris thought it had the right to sell Yon's photo, saying the matter was in negotiations among lawyers. A phone call to Polaris was not returned.

Yon said Friday he was close to negotiating a settlement with Hachette, despite their initial resistance.

"(Hachette is) huge and they're trying to scare me into submission," he added. "It looks like they're not taking us seriously."

Some experts say it's Shock magazine they have trouble taking seriously, after seeing the first issue.

Alongside the larger features on Iraq and toddlers indoctrinated as racists (headline: "KKK Kids"), is a grab bag of sensational visuals. One page sports a feature on a tap dancing transvestite with polio named Sandie Crisp, while another features notables such as Cher and Jessica Simpson flipping obscene gestures at photographers.

Samir Husni - a professor at the University of Mississippi whose expertise in periodicals brought the nickname "Mr. Magazine" - said Shock is more like a magazine version of MTV's shock stunt show Jackass.

"It makes the National Enquirer and Weekly World News look like glossy magazines of the future," said Husni. "They may find an audience ... but with teenage boys, rather than their 18-to-34 target."

A Hachette press release calls Shock a "first of its kind, multiplatform media property," touting a Web site (www.shocku.com) packed with more edgy material, including video clips of Crisp's awkward dancing and a newscaster nearly hit on the head by a falling studio light.

Advertisements inside the magazine and on the Web site encourage the public to submit photos and video footage, which editor Hammer says will make up at least 10 percent of future content.

But Shock's current controversy raises a crucial question: How can editors be sure the material they present is genuine and authorized for their use?

"Many more people are citizen reporters today, and some publications have ... (developed) vigorous attempts to share citizen coverage," said Kenny Irby, a photojournalism expert at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times. "But those images have to be vetted through journalism's prism. For accuracy's sake, a lot of newsrooms are saying: How do we verify the authenticity of this?"

The magazine industry hasn't been as hospitable to new titles as in the past. Already this year, Hachette closed down its Elle spinoff ELLEGirl, while other companies have shelved titles such as Radar, Budget Living, Inside TV, Celebrity Living and Cargo.

Despite slight increases in advertising revenue, Husni has estimated just 38 percent of new magazines survive 12 months, down from 50 percent several years ago.

So purists are left to wonder: Is Shock an example of what it takes to succeed in today's competitive magazine world?

Husni says no, citing high profile launches such as TV chef Rachael Ray's new magazine and a cooking title from Reader's Digest.

"Like the movies, you have the gems and every now and then, you have a movie like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," he said. "You can shock the people once with this, but will the people then come back for more?"

Shock's Hammer noted the French version of the magazine sells more than 300,000 copies twice a month. In America, Hachette will distribute 300,000 copies monthly (priced at $1.99 each, or $14.99 for a monthly subscription).

"Clearly, there's a ravenous appetite for visual stimulation ... and there's lots of people interested in getting their news in vast, visual terms," said Hammer.

But Husni, looking at just over four pages of ads in a debut magazine of nearly 100 pages, wondered how such extreme content would play with advertisers.

"Does Land's End want an ad next to the decomposing corpse picture?" he said. "They are generating a lot of press and a lot of disgust. But ... at a time when Americans are looking for magazines to dial down the blood and guts, I don't want these images on my coffee table."

Eric Deggans can be reached at (727) 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com See his blog at www.sptimes.com/blogs/media.

[Last modified June 3, 2006, 06:41:05]

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