In conversation with Tim Fisher, 2018
Tim Fisher is an editor at ABC Life, on the board of the Emerging Writers’ Festival, and the former Editorial Director at Broadsheet. I met Tim for a conversation about what literature means to him, and was led on a series of unexpected tangents which prompted a few extra tabs in my browser, and resulted in this conversation, which is best enjoyed in full. MB: What does literature mean to you today? TF: Before I talk about what it means to me, I might start instead with what it represents. It means making time to read, at the exclusion of all other things. We are always distracted and we have never been more able to be distracted. These things, these smartphones mean we never give ourselves the chance to be bored. We never give ourselves the chance to be alone. Literature to me means making the decision to sit with one piece of art, one piece of writing, and to really be with that one thing only. That’s the short answer. MB: Does that mean putting your phone on aeroplane mode? TF: I think it depends on your self-control, and the work you’re engaging with. If the literature is absorbing enough, it doesn’t matter what mode your phone is in. MB: I find it hard because I have to actively push myself to sit and continue to read for another five or ten pages. Have you found that you’ve had to try harder as well? TF: Absolutely, no question. MB: It is like exercise isn’t it? You are exercising your brain, so it’s about retraining ourselves. With that in mind, and the 24/7 news cycle, do you have any work or writers who have recently stood out to you? TF: I should say that I currently have literally hundreds of tabs open in my browser right now, articles that I’m meaning to read. I probably won’t get around to reading them all. A long piece of copy to me is 5,000 words. I don’t read books often anymore, I’ve got tiny kids and so the time I have to read is limited. I lie in bed reading in the morning with my kids. Putting that aside, Jia Tolentino, from the New Yorker, may be my favourite writer right now. She writes really thoughtfully on culture. She’s really good at putting herself in the right place to absorb what is happening. There is an editor at the Atlantic magazine, he’s actually a doctor, and I think he’s got a really interesting take on lifestyle and wellbeing stories. [Tim later writes “James Hamblin” in my notebook.] MB: Do you subscribe to these publications? TF: I don’t and I should. They give you five free articles a month and every time I hit that limit I aim to subscribe, but I will eventually. I do buy the New Yorker every now and then. I think we have forgotten to pay for media. We don’t expect to anymore. We used to have to. People have got such short memories. When you hit the paywall you leave, you don’t automatically pay. MB: Do you think that’s because it’s not tangible anymore? Paid media in most of our minds is a hardcopy? TF: I don’t think people necessarily want tangible things anymore. I mean, when was the last time you walked into a newsagent? MB: Me, personally, quite frequently. I go once or twice a week maybe. TF: I don’t remember the last time I walked into a newsagent. I don’t expect many people are either. It’s not about having something tangible, it’s that you have so much competing out there for your attention. Why would you pay for media that you might not even get to [read later]. MB: To me, that’s the solution. I’m endlessly distracted. The Monthly is a good example. I tend to buy an issue every now and then. If I’m online I’ll get distracted by a pop-up, or another link or tab in my browser, and to me it’s actually an immersive experience, to sit there with the piece. When it’s at your disposal on your phone it is easier. But it probably comes down to how disciplined you are to distractions. With something like Lindsay in mind, that shows me people do appreciate print and having something tangible. TF: A small number of people, for sure. MB: Even something like Frankie, with their massive circulation. It’s the best example I can think of that’s created a huge readership. TF: I think the days of a print publication reaching that scale are over. I think Frankie was the last great Australian magazine. MB: What would you say the case is for Lindsay? TF: Not with print, with a combination of print and online, quite possibly. When I was in high school, everybody bought magazines. I bought surf magazines, music magazines, that’s how I stayed in touch with the culture that I most closely identified with. You don’t need magazines to do that anymore. Rolling Stones Australia went bankrupt this year. It tells you that people don’t need Rolling Stones anymore to feel like they’re a part of that culture. Now you can find your tribe online, you can find it for free. That’s why magazines aren’t essential to people’s lives anymore. MB: I suppose Broadsheet is another good example. They’ve recently re-released their quarterly print newspaper. It was a very specific business decision. TF: I just want to clarify one thing you said there, you called it a business decision, to release the Broadsheet paper edition. Having a physical presence, you can’t beat that as a marketing tool. But it won’t make them money. Advertisers aren’t interested in being in print anymore because they don’t get the reach. You can tell Facebook exactly who you want to reach. You can’t beat that. MB: I want to go back to the writers you spoke about before. Are they both exploring culture and place? What’s the differentiator between these writers? TF: Jia is a mixed race woman in America, so she’s coming from a very particular vantage point. James is a young white man and he’s very precocious and he’s very aware of his privilege, but what I appreciate about both of their writing is their curiosity. If you’re doing any sort of writing, you need to engage with it and be genuinely curious. There’s something really childlike about that, which I find super appealing, and I don’t use childlike as a dismissive term. I think being childlike in your approach to the world is really important as a writer. A lot of journalists are jaded or wear their cynicism as a badge of pride and it is a real shame because if you do that you’re going to start making assumptions about how the world works and miss stuff. You really want to be alive to being surprised. You don’t want to think you’ve seen it all. You don’t want your prejudices to harden to the point where you can’t be convinced that you’re wrong. Being a good writer means staying open. MB: I like that point about childlike curiosity. It’s about being able to walk into a room and have the same curiosity you had as a toddler or on your first day of school. I remember on my first day of primary school, I wrote the letters of the alphabet and thought, here, what’s next? But I always want to try and see the world in that same way. Do you think we can replicate that childlike curiosity? TF: I think we can. You’re never going to recapture that newness or repeat that first day of primary school, but you can definitely be open. MB: Do you find that in your field of work, or in what you read – do you gravitate towards other content, or go on tangents? TF: It’s one of my favourite things. MB: What’s the best way to stumble? TF: If I read something I like, I will find other ways to engage with that writer, like finding them on Twitter, or tracking down other stuff they’ve written. MB: What would you say about spaces like Readings, who’ve opened new stores, and refurbished their Carlton store to host events, book launches, talks – what about those spaces where people can congregate and take that online experience of finding new work? I find those events can be quite stilted, for example, Creative Mornings. It’s advertised as a networking event, and I spoke to the people next to me and by the end of it I thought we would exchange some sort of contact details but they got up and left, so I was a bit surprised. Do you find it is hard to replicate the experience of finding new content, writers and information in real life? Can we replicate that online experience in real life? TF: That’s a really interesting question for a bunch of reasons. First thing is, they might have wanted to talk. Most creative people work on their own; they’re not particularly extroverted. With smartphones, it’s easy to forget to engage in real life. Everyone feels anxious, self-conscious; we’re all human. I feel like everyone would’ve gone to that event as you did, in the hope to engage with people, but perhaps it wasn’t quite right. Because we can engage with people whose work we’re interested in very easily without having to step up to them, we’ll take the easy option. Even as recently as recently as ten years ago, before we were carrying around this sum total of knowledge in our pockets [lifts his phone], we didn’t have that option, so you had to put yourself out there, and we don’t anymore. MB: Do you remember doing that? I was too young ten years ago. TF: I was one of those people who was generally too intimidated to put my hand up. I went to a lot of writers’ festivals and now I’m on the board of the Emerging Writers’ Festival. I really appreciate those opportunities and I think it’s much easier to do it in a small group. One of the nice things about getting older is that you do get more comfortable with yourself although everyone is marginally self-conscious, but you do get better. MB: One thing I can’t believe is how much we’re talking about this device [lifts smartphone], you can’t even separate it from what you’re doing anymore. I personally find it, I don’t want to use the word distressing, but, it agitates me. Even when I’m reading something, and someone uses the word ‘iPhone’ or ‘Apple’ in a book, I’m annoyed by it. TF: That’s a really interesting reaction. MB: There are so many new writers out there that I absolutely love. Jennifer Down perfectly captures anguish and issues everyone goes through but without mentioning a buzzing smartphone or a laptop. She’s one of the few that can do that really well. Rachel Cusk also comes to mind. She’s been writing for years but in the last twelve months or so her trilogy took off. It’s a collection of different conversations, and she does mention things like conferences, flights, and yes, smartphones, but she doesn’t label them. And maybe it’s that labelling, describing it as a brand, maybe that’s where the agitation comes from, because as soon as you brand something, you’re taking the essence of the thing out of it. Even in writing content for online media, you constantly have to cite something, quite often you’ll mention another brand or another company’s work, or another person’s work. It’s really hard to capture something when you’re constantly alluding to another brand or other marketed content. Do you think it’s still possible? Can we produce quality content without constantly referring to some sort of company or brand name? TF: Yeah, of course you can, it’s not easy. You’ve got to make the choice. It’s interesting working for the ABC because they have very strict editorial policies which we need to adhere to, around not referring specifically to brands. At the ABC, if I interview a lawyer for a story, I will think twice about whether I include the firm they work for. Part of the ABC’s charter is to not display particular bias, or endorse brands, and unless it’s crucial to a story, you might not say IKEA, you might just say ‘multinational furniture chain store’. But if you choose to engage with the world now, brands are so pervasive. I hear what you’re saying, but it’s very difficult to avoid it. MB: Do you think getting non-readers to engage with what’s going on around them, by using brands or influencers is a way to get them to engage? Do you try and drive traffic from those people? TF: Our job as writers and editors is now not just to write and edit, but do what we can to help our work find an audience. We do have to be proactive about distribution. Not necessarily spending money on advertising, but you do need to engage on some level with helping your work find an audience. Maybe social media, or Facebook groups. Now that people aren’t by and large buying newspapers, or watching the same things, it’s so diffused. You need to find your audience, or go to them. You’ve got to put the work in, which looks like lots of different things. MB: Do you think people are still craving content that’s well crafted, well researched, and not just looking for something that’s on ninemsn or tabloids? TF: There’s a couple of things I want to unpack there. The short answer is yes, some people will. The majority of people, and this is me sounding cynical – but most people don’t want to work to understand media. And that means lots of different things. Most people have a lot of concerns, they work hard, they don’t want to work hard to be entertained. That doesn’t mean that content in places like ninemsn aren’t well thought out. A lot of it is quite tabloid, but I don’t dismiss sites like that because it’s just a different kind of thought to what you and I are talking about. I think it’s important to look back and realise tabloid media has always been dominant, they’ve always been hysterical, or inflammatory, or pitched to the lowest common denominator. That doesn’t mean people aren’t still craving an alternative. But the people who want an alternative are the ones who are willing to put a bit more work into being entertained, and that is of course a smaller percentage of the population. Another thing I want to say is I find the word ‘content’ difficult. If someone asks you to fill a website with content, that evokes a different feeling to “I need you to fill a website with stories”. Content, to me, it productises writing. It turns it into a commodity. And I find that a shame that we don’t have a better word than ‘content’ to sum up media as a whole. You can say stories, but not everything is a story. You can say journalism, but not everything is journalism. There are words that describe one specific thing, but there is nothing that describes every little thing that media does, because it can mean video, art, writing, journalism, fiction, but it still turns it into a product. And that is a shame. MB: It really is. At the end of the day it is stories, isn’t it? Going back to the term literature as a whole, I feel like it has changed and you’re the perfect example. You regularly engage with work of other journalists who explore things like culture and place. You are time strapped, you have a young family, you work full time, you still find ways to engage with literature, stories. People are always going to seek out stories in any shape or form, whether they love the tangibility of a book like me, or someone who reads online like you. Do you see the media, which is so fragmented, and niche publications are everywhere, but perhaps in Australia, we don’t have as much? In Melbourne, for example, we only have two daily newspapers. TF: But at least we’ve got two. MB: Yes, at least we’ve got two. So many European cities have five, or ten. TF: Europe still has a relationship to print that we don’t have anymore. MB: Why do you think they still have it in such excess? TF: That’s a good question. I don’t know. MB: Have you ever worked in Europe? TF: I worked in London for three years, during the first ‘dot-com’ boom. I was there for the boom and I was there for the bust. I got made redundant, I was working as a website editor, and this is in the early 2000s. It was long enough ago that it’s hard to compare it with now, because magazines meant something very different then to what they mean now, and then it was still possible to launch a new magazine and find advertisers and a readership quite easily. MB: What did they mean then, and what do they mean now? TF: Well, those were still relatively early days for the Internet, we’re talking almost twenty years ago now. If you wanted to connect with a sub-culture, magazines were still the way to do it. Some of the best magazines in the world were coming out of London. Magazines like The Face, or Dazed and Confused, which is still around now and is very different to what it was then. i-D, Sleaze Nation, and if you’re into dance music, Jockey Slut was an essential magazine for that subculture. You don’t need them anymore. MB: Do you think their value has diminished globally, or has the sum of your media experience mainly in this country, and in Melbourne, Australia, influenced your view? TF: I think everyone in the world is having these problems. Advertisers are harder to come by everywhere. When I was in high school everyone who was into music bought magazines. If you liked pop, you bought Smash Hits. If you were into punk, you bought (or made) zines. And everyone bought Rolling Stone from time to time. But you didn't think twice about paying money to connect with that world. I'm embarrassed to say this, but I'm part of the problem. I probably value media more than most people because I make it for a living, but like most people, I don't pay for it often. As much as I talk about how rarely people go into newsagencies and how nobody buys print any more, now I think about it, the only time I pay for writing is when it's printed. I still buy the occasional magazine, but I don't have online subscriptions to any of these websites I really, genuinely value. I don't have a good answer for what's behind my personal barriers to paying for online media, other than the fact that like everyone else, I've grown up not having to. Maybe this is the conversation that will finally shame me into regularly paying for online media, but knowing how common my attitude is, I can't be cynical about advertising or brand partnerships. Realistically, they're one of the few ways that online media can actually keep the lights on. The fact that so much of what you find online has always and continues to not require you to make a financial contribution makes this an incredibly difficult problem. In her letter about ending Rookie magazine, one of the things Tavi Gevinson spoke about was her reluctance to ever ask her readers to pay for it. She had her own very unique reasons for that, but I think what she said speaks to what might be a lack of confidence in a lot of media at this particular moment in time. You might work incredibly hard and be intensely proud of what you produce, but when it comes to expecting people to pay for it online, it's another matter entirely.