A decade ago, I compared writing on the Internet to blabbing on the radio: Good ideas sent into the universe, never to be heard from again.
Now the sentiment sounds at once old-fashioned and flat incorrect. Now that I write mostly online, people are finding and reading my blog posts and articles from a year or more ago as frequently as they’re reading my new stuff. Meanwhile, the million-odd words I’ve written for print are rarely seen twice, even by my own eyes.
I guess I’ve gotten used to not writing as much for print. But you know what I kind of miss? Editing a print publication.
1. When you got a letter to the editor, it was a big deal. Of course online publications hear more frequently from readers, but no 20 comments online mean as much as one letter to the editor used to. Getting a letter meant that something you wrote moved someone to crank the paper into the typewriter, hammer out your mailing address, the day’s date and a return address, and then compose something literate and whole. And then sign it, fold it twice, find and address an envelope, lick a stamp and put it in the mail. Something you wrote cost someone a happy half-hour. (Because who wasn’t happy who was cranking out a letter-to-the-editor, however bile-filled?)
2. There was a tactile aspect to the job. Editors used tools—rulers and proportion wheels, X-acto knives, and two-sided tape. There were real deadlines to meet—I remember my boss proofing the issue with the printer’s messenger standing impatiently by his desk—and big machines involved. Once those machines started running, the time for tweaking was over (and the time for drinking had begun). That lent a sense of physical adventure to every issue of every publication. Whereas, editing an online publication is like farming without tractors; it appeals to a different sort of feller.
3. You served a social role beyond the content of the publication. Far-flung connections were harder to come by before the Internet, and you sensed that the people you quoted in your publication were often the only reminder the reader in Omaha received every week or month that her problems were shared by a person in Miami. Much has been made of the arrogance of publishers as gatekeepers of so much information; but it hasn’t been acknowledged how much more responsibility they felt.
4. There was a sense of institutional consequence. Being named editor of a publication simply meant more than being put in charge of a website. Print editors held meetings to debate changing the name of a department. It mattered a lot whether the column on page six was, “Up Close & Personal” or “Technology Corner” (maybe we could alternate weeks!). Print editors thought of their publication as nothing less than symbol of society—or of whatever sub-society they covered—and they didn’t change the tone or the size or the look willy-nilly, as we’re wont to do with online stuff.
5. Better yarns came out of it. This could be pure nostalgia talking, but do online publications generate legendary episodes? Like the time the assistant editor published a correction that repeated her original mistake—and then did it again in the next issue, until the magnanimous publisher advised her to stop trying, saying gently, “These things tend to snowball.” Like the furious fax from the language columnist calling the editing of his work “subfecal.” Like the time the phrase, “David Murray is a dickhead” slipped into the middle of a story and went to print and the terrified employees hid the issues from the publisher. Like time the circulation director "discovered" my newsletter had only 75 subscribers—and again, advised me not to tell the publisher.
I’ve edited or overseen maybe 20 print newsletters and magazines over the years, and the only one that still exists is Vital Speeches of the Day, which is more journal than magazine (the magazine-y stuff is on the Vital Speeches website, and so doesn’t offer many of the kicks described above.
I still love writing and editing, and I’ve been lucky that my skills have translated well to online publishing, which has many, many compensations.
Still, I’m awfully glad to remember those print days, and to remember them well.