“There’s not one path anymore,” David Hirshey, executive editor of HarperCollins and former longtime deputy editor of Esquire magazine, said the other day. “Thirty years ago, you worked at a newspaper, you moved to a magazine, and then you wrote books or screenplays. Today you can be a blogger who writes books or you can be a stripper who wins an Academy Award for Best Screenplay.”
It all sounds so … uncomplicated, doesn’t it? Boozy lunches at Michael’s and evenings at Elaine’s, unlimited expense accounts, stories that took months to report and longer to write, maybe a ramshackle house in the Hamptons to complement the musty, book-clogged apartment on the Upper West Side. But above all, there was the sense that magazine writing was at the center of a vital intellectual universe, with New York as its capital, and vaunted writers and editors such as Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Willie Morris, Harold Hayes, Lillian Ross, Clay Felker, Norman Mailer, David Halberstam, Nora Ephron and the like as its reigning princes and princesses, with salaries and perks and moist-eyed acolytes to match. Not to mention scandals, sodden confessions and rumors that could be safely traded and tucked away among trusted friends, with no danger of being scattered like seed spores across cyberspace. Gossip was community-building, not community-busting.
What young Turk, as Esquire founding editor Arnold Gingrich called his up-and-coming editors (Mr. Hayes and Mr. Felker among them) in the late 1950s, wouldn’t want entree into this literary glam world? And until quite recently, landing an editorial assistant gig at Esquire or GQ or Elle, or the reporter-researcher job at The New Republic, or the two-year training program at Vanity Fair, or the (unpaid) internship at Harper’s, or the (nominally paid) internship at The Nation, or even, for the most well-connected and talented graduates, an assistant job at The New Yorker, was the ne plus ultra for the young, tweedy intelligentsia, those graduates of Yale and Vassar who had committed to memory the opening lines of “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
Of course, there’s more than a little romanticization that goes into any characterization of days gone by; nonetheless, there is a discernible sense in the air that, as one young magazine editor put it, “Those kinds of jobs exist, but just not for our generation.” This editor, who is 24, continued, “It’s weird, because I feel like there are certain people I’ve met who are young and super into magazines still, which is always surprising to me, because I don’t know why anyone who wants to be involved with the media would want to turn their attention to magazines.”
THIS DIDN’T HAPPEN overnight. But it’s been especially in the past couple of years that a confluence of factors has resulted in some young people turning their backs on magazines. For one, there is the industry’s notorious (some might say sadistic) gate-keeping, which keeps out a majority of those who would deign to think of themselves as worthy of the industry’s blessing, and which also requires an aspiring magazine writer or editor to commit to working in magazines, preferably while still in college, when an internship at a blue-chip publication (nearly any magazine at Condé Nast, Time Inc., Hearst or Hachette Filipacchi, plus, depending on one’s interest, most political magazines, low-circulation-but-high-influence downtown fashion or art magazines, plus a smattering of others like New York, Spy, Harper’s, Newsweek, etc.) could potentially cement one’s place in the firmament. (It could also leave the less talented, or more charitably, less lucky writers and editors to languish. “I guess my disillusionment is partly just that it’s taken me this long,” one 37-year-old editor told The Observer.)
A generation that is starting to see barely legal bloggers become more prominent in six months than even the most talented contributing editors may not see this path as necessarily the most appealing, or expedient, one.
One 23-year-old political journalist told The Observer that the New Republic reporter-researcher job—famed for launching the careers of Slate editor Jacob Weisberg, New Yorker Washington correspondent Ryan Lizza, Atlantic editor James Bennet and author Hanna Rosin, among others—is no longer quite the coveted position it once was. “Part of the reason why the TNR internship isn’t as big as it used to be is that if you were a young sharpie on the make in 1990 or even 1995, there just weren’t that many places where you could get your start,” the political journalist said. “But the rise of the kind of whole bloggy progressive thing has, I think, really kicked off the careers of some people, or at least for smart liberal college students.”
Another related issue is influence—whether the kind of buzz generated by a magazine story is the kind that young writers still want—that is, attention from a world in which someone may get news not from CNN but from a Facebook posting about a story on CNN. Nothing seems to live for more than a day without commentary; the contemporary version of “if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, did it make a sound” is “if an article gets written and no one blogs it, does anyone care?”
“It’s not like if you have a big magazine byline everyone is talking about you,” said the 24-year-old magazine editor. “People don’t really talk about specific writers anymore, in any sense, unless they work for The New Yorker.”
“How do you know you’re doing a good job?” asked a 29-year-old national magazine writer. “You have some general internal metric that says, That paragraph was well written. But you come out of fact-checking and editing, and you have no idea. It’s hard to get a sort of accurate gauge on how you’re doing. You have to just take it on faith that there is a real market out there and an appreciation for what you’re doing.”