Newsletter 62: In an Age of Instant Publishing, A Remembrance of the Thrill of Print
I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from July 2017, about the first piece I ever had published, back in August 1993.
The first day I ever had anything published, anywhere, was August 23, 1993. My first day at the University of Illinois, after my parents had moved be in and drove home, I had dinner in the commons area downstairs and then walked over to the old Illini Media building on Green Street, the old bug zapper. (The building is now, inevitably, a liquor store.) I knocked on the door for about 10 minutes until someone finally answered. I told them I wanted to write for the paper, they laughed and told me to come back when the office was open, weirdo. I returned 12 hours later and signed a sheet, with my phone number, that said I wanted to write about movies and sports.
Two days later, the editor of the entertainment section called me and asked if I’d seen the new Woody Allen movie yet. I said yes, I’d already written a review of it on my computer at my dorm and that I’d be at the office in 15 minutes. I sprinted there, greeted a totally freaked out editor, handed him my draft and we were off. I ended up covering a fraternity basketball game that week too, so on Friday, August 23, 1993, the Daily Illini had two stories by me, a piece about the Pikes’ win and a review of Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.
I stayed up all night waiting for the Daily Illini delivery boy to bring that Friday’s paper to Florida Avenue Residence Halls. I think I hugged him.
Perhaps not surprisingly, I quickly became obsessed with the Daily Illini, coming to the office immediately after I got out of class and, eventually, just skipping class to go there all together. You got paid 85 cents per column inch back then, and I needed every penny I could rustle up. So I wrote like crazy, about sports, about movies, about anything they would let me. We used old Microtech computers. They looked like this.
And I looked like this:
I worked so much that, even as a freshman, they couldn’t help but notice me. So, at the end of my first semester, my editor, a man named Brian Dietz, asked me if I wanted to write a sample column. A column! I’d been covering Illinois women’s tennis, which was one thing, but a column? You got a picture with that and everything. I asked him if I was supposed to write about anything in specific. “Surprise me,” he said.
My Word file was named “A Series Of Observations About The Basing Sport of Ball In The Year Of Our Lord 1993.” It was just a bunch of bullet point jokes that showed off zero information about baseball but did everything in my power to show that I could be funny. I didn’t know if I *could* be funny, but that was sort of the only club I had in my bag.
Brian took me aside the next time he saw me at the office. “We loved your column,” he said. “I’m not sure you know anything about baseball, but we loved this one joke in particular. Once we saw that joke, we decided to give you a column.”
Yesterday, during a Twitter conversation with Time television critic Daniel D’Addario, an opportunity to re-use this joke came up. I had my heart set on getting a column back then, and I always wonder what would have happened if Brian would have said no, you’re no good, go get an econ degree or something. In a way, I have that one joke to thank, or to blame.
So, if you don’t mind, here is the joke:
I pinch myself every day that I still get to write for a living. It is the only thing I have ever wanted to do. I’m fully aware it could all go away someday. I’m the luckiest schmuck on the planet.
But let’s be honest: The joke that started all this is not that great of a joke. I think I can finally admit that now.