Ed Driscoll

You Kids Today!

Young’ins today (or younglings, for you Revenge of the Sith geeks) just don’t know what it was like back in the old days, when we had to walk five miles in the snow just to snail-mail out our query letters hoping to impress an editor high atop a far off office tower to maybe–just maybe–publish our wares. Of course, “the old days” means as late as about 2002, so I can absolutely vouch for what Robert Stacy McCain writes here:

Politically, Andrew Sullivan is erratic, and his attacks on Sarah Palin have been wildly irresponsible, but in two sentences of his latest article for The Atlantic Monthly, Sullivan makes a huge point:

If you added up the time a writer once had to spend finding an outlet, impressing editors, sucking up to proprietors, and proofreading edits, you’d find another lifetime buried in the interstices. But with one click of the Publish Now button, all these troubles evaporated.

Younger people — i.e., those under 35, who have started their careers since the online explosion of the mid-1990s — have no appreciation for how instantaneous Internet communication has transformed the world of the professional writer, of which blogging is the ultimate example.

I’m 49 and Sullivan’s 44, so we both began our careers when there were no Web sites, when the Internet was something known only to academics and technogeeks, when editorial “gatekeepers” stood squarely between the writer and the reader, and when the only way to gain access to mass readership was to present yourself and your work to these gatekeepers, in person or via mail (I would say “snail mail,” but that term did not exist).

Of course, Sullivan started his career at a much higher level — I used to read his articles in the New Republic when I was a staffer at the Rome (Ga.) News-Tribune — but in recalling the limitations of journalism in the pre-Internet age, he echoes my own memory.

Applying for a staff position, you would “send clips and resume” or, if you were a freelancer, mail out manuscripts in hope of finding a publisher. It required the commitment of an enormous amount of time and energy, with a lot of time spent waiting for replies, if any. Mail out a clips-and-resume package on Monday, which might be delivered to the editor on Thursday or Friday, and if you were lucky you might get a phone call the next week.

On my desk is a book, The Proud Highway, a collection of Hunter S. Thompson’s letters from 1955-67. Reading it, you get some sense of the difficulties a writer faced seeking assignments in the Bad Old Days. The young Thompson was a genius (and arrogantly aware of it), but had to spend an enormous amount of time pitching articles to editors, at a time when that meant typing letters on a manual typewriter, and most of the time getting rejected.

All this tended to limit a writer’s career mobility. If you got a staff position, you tended to stay wherever you were and work your way up (rather than hop from job to job, as many young journalists do now) since the process of applying for jobs was so laborious. And once a freelancer found an editor who’d publish one of his articles, he would keep pitching that editor, trying to establish a regular outlet for his work. For example, Thompson regularly freelanced for the National Observer, and when he sold a feature to the national men’s magazine Rogue in 1961, he kept pitching them for future assignments (without luck).

Though I’m not sure, as Robert writes above, that “blogging is the ultimate example”–or at least text blogging. Because the Internet has also opened up podcasting and video blogging, allowing anyone to do his own one-man radio or TV show, in addition to traditional text-based journalism. It goes without saying that not everyone will alchemically fill those vessels with brilliantly transcendent content (just poke around YouTube for 30 seconds or so)–but the platforms are readily available to virtually anyone. Which is why those with aspirations of becoming the next fill in the name of your favorite superstar pundit here are well advised to read the whole thing.