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.
Robert J Holland, ABC says
From one print veteran to another: Well said.
David, you’re a romantic — but I miss a lot of the same things, so I suppose that means I’m one, too. Good post, sir.
Eileen B. says
There is no better day for me each month than editing day for our employee newspaper. I love sitting down with a copy of our PDF from the designer, warm from the printer, and pulling out my red pen to edit. It’s calming, methodic and my favorite part of the job.
David Murray says
Thanks Robert and Glynn. Sure I’m a romantic. But Eileen’s point is crucial here. I’ve got a long and boring theory about how people need to use their brains and their bodies at work, and that the luckiest people in the world are those who have some element of both in what they do.
Proofreading a publication is the closest thing to manual work that we do. And when the proofing job is big enough to cause us to stop our relentless Tweeting and set aside some time … well, it’s a welcome friggin’ break in the action.
It used to be an important PART of the action.
It had cachet. Anyone can be a reporter/publisher these days, but back then…it was special. Also, remember the smell of the waxer?
Robert J Holland, ABC says
I remember the smell of the waxer. I also remember the smell of the pressroom. It’s one of those unmistakable smells that instantly takes you back to that place, much like the smell you encounter walking into an old church. And nearly as holy.
Eileen B. says
This summer I had my kids in tow when I dropped off my column at our local paper. while I went into a small room to do the audio reading of my column, the editor took my kids on a tour of the printing press. They were amazed, as was I, by the whole process. That should never die.
Tyler Hayes says
I’m 24 and David makes me miss something I never even had.
To Eileen’s point, I don’t think print will ever die as long as we keep remembering it and continue waxing nostalgia. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to berate. This nostalgia is helping us to sustain something beautiful.
Sure, print still exists. Sure, I was 10 when AOL started becoming popular. Even I remember life before the Internet. Certainly not as much life as some of you, but it still counts. Yet it frightens even me to think that I can have a real conversation with someone born after 9/11. Someone who will grow up thinking books are merely a backup source in case our digital servers crash. Someone who doesn’t understand the measurable difference in weight which words carry when printed on paper rather than on pixels, both emotional weight and literal physical weight.
You get the point.
Joanne Miceli-Bogash says
Again, well said! Many years ago, I worked closely with the editor and publisher of The Maritime Reporter in NYC, and relished being asked to “proof” the galleys with the Senior Editor, these huge sheets of paper with strange markings on them seemed magical. Having always loved reading, this is where I discovered that I really loved WORDS,and became fixated on proper vocabulary, excellent writing and of course, proofreading. That experience alone has seen me over the course of my career as a go to person to “once over” that document yet again to ensure it is perfect. Oh, and I also miss hearing the Publisher scream from his office to one of his writers, “What do you mean you didn’t know that Jackson Hole is in “*&^&*” Wyoming”!!
While access to unlimited information on the web has proved immensely invaluable, it has also brought on the arrival of much too quick writing, bad grammar, mispelled words, and a serious lack of editing — which I find is dumbing down our language.
mark ragan says
My favorite memories of the old print days come from my first reporting job on the high plains of North Dakota, in a border town named Williston.
Typewriters had just been removed from the newsroom, so everyone shared four terminals that sat on a plastic table across from our managing editor.
But my favorite memories conjure smell and sound: The smell of ink and the sound of the presses as they sprang to life about 20 feet from our little desks. The newsroom and the press were separated by a single unlocked door that swung open from both sides. And the graphic designer sat with her X-acto knife on the press side of that door, not with us in the newsroom.
She was a woman in her 70’s who lived in a ranch outside of town. When she wasn’t laying out the paper, she wrote a column about farm life. Her name was Jessie, and she was our newspaper Mom. Back then, these tiny newspapers served as training grounds for rookie journalists out of college. The average age in our newsroom was probably 22. So we needed a Mom, and we all loved Jessie.
To this day, whenever I smell ink, I am transported to the town of Williston and that cramped newsroom and memories of Jessie.
In a way, I feel honored to be among the last of a generation of newspaper reporters who experienced this way of life.
Thanks for helping bring it back, Dave.
Laura Mazzuca Toops says
As a print old-timer, I can relate. When I was getting my undergrad degree in journalism, I was lucky enough to be around when there were still neighborhood and community newspapers. I worked part time at Lerner Newspapers in Chicago, out of their funky headquarters in Rogers Park. My gig consisted of going around with the staff photographer and getting man-on-the-street interviews. But most of the time I proofread and sized headshots for the paper (yes, I remember the sizing wheel very well). And my first gig after college was for a weekly film industry magazine where the editor-in-chief was always changing copy, even right before it was ready to go, while we hung around til all hours waiting to get it to production. Good times…
Chris Born says
Great post. I’m in my mid 40s and sitting in a Social Media class. The “youngsters” talking about all the new tools out there are making me feel very old. But this article gave me a warm and fuzzy about the old days. thank you.
Robert J Holland, ABC says
Mark, you very well could have been describing the weekly newspaper where I started my career! It, too, was a well-respected training ground for fresh-out-of-college reporters. Our newspaper was housed in an old brick building, but the press was located in a separate building next door, which (appropriately) once was the ABC store.
I feel sorry for the current generation of journalists who might not have the same tactile/olfactory experiences as we did. They’re relegated to the sterile, homogenized world of online publishing.
As a former editor of a few community weekly newspapers, this made me smile. You obviously edited a national magazine, not a community newspaper, but sounds like some of the joys (and agonies) are very similar.