25 years ago today: the first printed words of Malcolm Gladwell

It’s a humble beginnings anniversary! In the spirit of looking at the early blogs of Tim Ferriss and Gretchen Rubin, let’s not forget about the wordsmiths of the world whose success predates the blogging era.  Specifically:

Malcolm Gladwell

You may know him as the former running champion and current staff writer at The New Yorker; you probably have a copy of Blink, The Tipping Point, and/or Outliers in your house. Next year, someone will give you a copy of David and Goliath, which by then will be on the nightstand of every high school coach and third-party political strategist in the country. But before he was able to charge $80,000 speaking fees because of his neatly-packaged counterintuitive insights, his writing was indistinguishable from any other journalist.

A search in the Washington Post archives reveals that his first byline was on July 30th, 1987–25 years ago today! Ready for the beginning of the 972 word article that appeared in the Financial Section?

Allied-Signal Aerospace to Reorganize

The move also completes the union of Garrett Corp. and Bendix, two advanced-technology companies that were acquired by Allied-Signal Aerospace’s parent company, Allied-Signal Inc., in a complicated series of moves during the past five years.

The reorganization will not mean an immediate expansion of the Allied-Signal Aerospace headquarters staff, [Robert L. Kirk] said. But he added that he intends to continue to increase the company’s profile in the Washington area.

William H. Savage, president and chief executive officer of Ameribanc Investors, said that second quarter results included the write-off of a $126,000 secondary reserve required by the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. Kay Jewelers Inc. yesterday reported a net loss of $492,000 (6 cents) on revenue of $73.2 million during the second quarter ending June 30, compared with profits of $390,000 (5 cents) on revenue of $54.0 million during the same quarter last year.

I won’t bore you with the rest (the full article is $3.95), but I will delight you with some of the other articles bearing Mr. Gladwell’s byline in those early days:

  • Shortage of Latex Gloves as AIDS Increases Use
  • Battle of Drug Firms Focuses on “Orphan” Law; Act’s Backers Fear Research Will Slow
  • Suit Accuses MBI Officials Of Making False Statements
  • MBI Loses Government Contract; GSA’s Decision Increases Computer Retailer’s Woes
  • Igene Biotechnology, Chilean Firm to Produce Pigment for Farm-Grown Fish
  • Harvard Scientists Win Patent For Genetically Altered Mouse; Award Is First to Be Issued for an Animal
  • FDA Approves Fat Substitute In New Imitation Ice Cream 

In an interview on Goodreads from December 2008, Gladwell stated: 

The one thing I learned from all my years at The Washington Post is how social reporting is. It is really about talking to people, having people tell you things. That will always be the most efficient and useful way of finding out new and interesting things. You have to expose yourself to as many interesting people as you can. There’s no shortcut for that kind of process.

Gladwell was fortunate for the early guidance he received at the Washington Post; even though many bloggers would tell you that comments and reactions can elevate blogging to “deliberate practice,” in my experience there is no substitute for having a professional editor looking over your shoulder. Even when you don’t fully agree with the suggestions, it forces you to become objective about your work, foresee arguments, and, at the very least, to engage in original reporting and research, rather than engage in the kind of “link journalism” that’s increasingly popular and accepted. (From the point of view of the publisher, it’s much cheaper to lock someone in a room with LexisNexis than to send them to a conference. But that’s another story.)

But how did Gladwell get all of that practice? By writing a lot, and about things that he may not have been overly interested in from the outset. Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a big change in the interns I’ve met in offices and the emails I’ve received from would-be freelance writers; they all want to know how to get plum assignments, to get paid to go to South America for a travel article or interview Pitbull. You don’t. You get there by polishing turds, befriending your editors, and developing a network of sources for ten years.

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