on ‘life itself’ and the power of digital media

on ‘life itself’ and the power of digital media

A couple days after seeing Life Itself, a wonderfully inspiring documentary about the life of Roger Ebert, I continue to be struck by seemingly conflicting emotions: nostalgia for old media and an appreciation for the opportunities brought by new media.

As the film chronicled Ebert’s career, I longed for a time I was never really part of—the romantic era of print journalism. I grew up in the two-newspaper city of Chicago, where Robert Ebert, Gene Siskel, and the other writers featured in the film were indomitable forces. This strong media environment had a big impact on me. I declared myself a journalist at the age of 11, when I began to write opinion columns for my elementary school newspaper, and would go on to become a professional journalist for the early part of my career.

As Ebert’s friend William Nack flipped through the print archives of the Daily Illini, recalling the many great pieces Ebert had written as a student—and as the narrator read excerpts of Ebert’s best work from the Sun-Times—I recalled that prideful feeling that came with reading my old clips and that sense of camaraderie that came with working in a newsroom. I was saddened to see that several of the film’s interview subjects were simply given the title, “Chicago Newspaperman,” yet it felt accurate—most of these old-school journalists are probably now out of work or have been forced to retire.

But the film also made me incredibly optimistic for the future—it reminded me why I love digital media. As Ebert lost the ability to speak due to cancer, he turned to his blog, Twitter, and other forms of social media. The Internet gave Ebert a voice when he feared he no longer had one. This approach is consistent to the way Ebert lived his life and pursued his career. He’s an innovator who brought movie criticism to the masses and published his reviews to Compuserve in the early days of the Internet, after all.

In the film, Ebert described the ways that his blog fueled him, providing him a channel to the outside world at times when he was confined to a hospital bed. Just two days before his death, he published a piece providing updates about a KickStarter campaign he was planning, the 15th year of his film festival and the re-launch of his website, which provides access to his life’s work so that future generations can enjoy everything he’s written since the 1960s. This wouldn’t have been possible 20 years ago—just as his rise as a dominant voice in the film world likely wouldn’t be possible in today’s fragmented media landscape.

In a world of hoaxes and comment trolls, I can easily be jaded by the trappings of our online world. Stories like Ebert’s remind me of the power of digital media—the power to tell one’s own story on one’s own terms, the power to connect across continents and across generations. It is these stories—such as an Auschwitz survivor’s use of Facebook to search for his long-lost twin brother or a puppeteer connecting online with those who need his 3-D printed prosthetics—that remind me why I love working in this field and why I’m happy to live now, surrounded by it all.