Thursday, January 2, 2014

Walter Mitty and the Death of Print

I was surprised by how depressing The Secret Life of Walter Mitty was. I thought it was going to be an IKEA catalogue shoot of desolate Scandinavian landscapes fronted by an Arcade Fire soundtrack and (hopefully) minimal mugging from Ben Stiller. Instead we were treated to an opening half-hour about the closure of Life magazine and the downsizing of its staff.

It hit a little too close to home, although the resident photojournalist took it in stride and even managed to find some slight optimism in the ending. But to me it was a delayed elegy for a funeral that has already been done and dusted. The print industry was on its last legs when I was in polytechnic, and though I never did become a journalist - for unrelated reasons - as a freelance writer I have stood by its deathbed... and then decided not to stick around.

The film was calculated to invoke nostalgia for the analog past of media production, and on that level it was very successful. While watching it I remembered learning how to process film, in a temporary dark room on the top floor of a semi-abandoned 1970s' concrete block. I remembered shooting on film, which felt like breathing underwater - inhale, click, exhale, click - being completely subsumed in the small rectangle of focus and light. I never became good at it, never bothered to keep up with it after class ended. I was always a writer, more interested in the conception, construction and final layout of text and headlines and straps. I started writing freelance when I was 19. I turned 29 this past November.

In the last decade, working mostly for one publication, I have contributed my small part to the rise of advertorials (ads masquerading as news articles, right down to the headlines and font choices) and then sponsored editorials (still not quite sure what they are, really) alongside dwindling editorial work. My per article rate has risen and stagnated and fallen. The demand for quality has just fallen (face to face interviews only, then phone, then the directive saying email interviews answered by public relations personnel are now acceptable). I always shrugged and said OK.

I could afford to do that, thanks to my pathological fear of commitment to any one occupation. For the last five years I have also been an English tutor and as long as insecure Singaporean parents are willing to give their children a leg up in their studies, I will never see the death of the tuition industry (sorry kids, may it continue to live long and prosper). You could say I anticipated the death of print - not a particular achievement, anyone with half a brain saw it coming - and walked away before I ever got started.

But it still grieves me that print is dead, that the twin arts of writing and photography now lead diminished existences on Twitter and Instagram. Everybody is a pithy quote machine and everybody knows how to apply the right filter to their sunset photos, so why pay for an expert? Sure, there's still plenty of longform journalism and even a decent photo essay or two floating around - but the web doesn't pay well, if at all. Newspaper travel articles today are no longer commissioned, they are funded by the writers and photographers themselves or paid for by junkets. Today only the wealthy can afford to create.

What has died is not the business of communication, which is alive and thriving online. What is dead is a slower approach to creation, one that allows for freedom of thought and reflection, and is the patient refinement of a craft as opposed to the slapdash inspiration of a split second. I used to dream about starting a magazine. We would talk for hours about what would go in it, the issues we wanted to explore, the tone and impact we wanted to have. But magazines take a lot of capital and depend on a willing audience - and at the end of the day I am none too sure that even if I had the capital, if the audience would be so willing to pay for quality. It's not very promising that Mother Jones is always asking for money while Thought Catalog is surviving.

I saw on Facebook that an old schoolmate had recommended The Secret Life of Walter Mitty - "Very inspiring, good show, Ben Stiller deserves an Oscar" (OK, so he didn't say the last part). It wasn't inspiring for me. It was bittersweet, wistful, pensive - also, quite disappointing with the product placement and shallow writing. I couldn't help thinking that the ending was left unresolved. The magazine died. Nobody uses film anymore. There's nothing left to daydream about, especially if you're Walter Mitty, aged 42 and holding a severance check in a world where print is dead.