Newsletter Editing: Present and Future
January 16, 2003
For the editor who likes to work alone or with a small team and to significantly influence the finished product, newsletters represent rewarding work. Furthermore, the newsletter editor frequently works for a committed audience of enthusiasts. The five panelists at our January meeting are all current editors of newsletters and represent a variety of markets, from volunteer and nonprofit work through technical business editing.
Margot Comstock, founder of Softalk, a magazine for early Apple computer users, has designed, edited, and published newsletters for Marin NOW; Marin Hadassah; and the Women's Caucus for Art—both the national WCA's Artlines and the Northern California chapter's ArtBeat. Comstock also developed a course in creating effective publications for the College of Marin.
Kathy Kincade has been in high-tech trade publishing for 20 years and has served as editor of several business newsletters, including Laser Report, Medical Laser Report, Telemedicine Business Report, PACS and Networking News, and Health Networking News.
Kathryn Eustis has worked with Bay Area nonprofit organizations as a publicist, writer, and editor. She has created newsletters, magazines, brochures, and annual reports, and she brings a public relations perspective to her work. Currently she works for the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association, for whom she produces Update, a monthly newsletter, and Sealetter, a quarterly magazine.
Roulhac Austin is a retired attorney who currently edits the Cow Hollow Church News. She is also involved in the San Francisco Ballet Auxiliary and volunteers in a public school.
Mary Ellen Hannibal has worked as a freelance writer and editor for both nonprofit and corporate clients, but considers her expertise to be environmental nonprofit work. She is currently the editor of Treescapes, the newsletter for Friends of the Urban Forest, and the Leaflet, the newsletter for the Strybring Arboretum and Botanical Society.
What are the facets of the newsletter editor's role? The most basic role is assigning editor—coming up with story ideas and hiring or otherwise recruiting contributors. Other jobs might include writing, copyediting, production—which includes working with designers and the printer—and actual design and layout. Panelists concurred that at least two editorial people are needed for copyediting and proofreading, as a single editor is unlikely to catch all errors.
Kincade edits business newsletters and needs a fast turnaround. Her team consists of two editors and a designer. She gets much of her content through research on the Internet, as she is writing about such breaking news as market trends, mergers and acquisitions, lawsuits, and other developments of interest to company employees in the optical laser industry.
Comstock not only assigns stories but also does rewriting, copyediting, design, layout, and production.
Austin's operation includes writing, editing, production of a calendar of events, and coordination with a production team.
Both Hannibal and Eustis work with designers. Eustis calls herself a "heavy-handed art director" who assumes much of the responsibility for the look of the publications she directs, while Hannibal is more comfortable letting the designers come up with a look.
Panelists agreed that dealing with contributors is the most delicate aspect of the work, especially when working with volunteer contributors who are not necessarily professional writers. When giving assignments, Eustis is specific about what she wants. She writes some of the content herself and heavily edits or even rewrites. The results of the extra work are rewarding; "You can make people feel so good about their writing with good editing," she said.
Does the printed newsletter still have a place in the Internet age? Panelists agreed that the printed newsletter remains the best medium for fulfilling most organizations' needs. Firstly, there remains a perceived value difference between tangible printed communications and the more ephemeral electronic form. Secondly, most organizations still have members without Internet access. Furthermore, Hannibal said, the newsletter remains the main communication that the Strybing Arboretum has with its membership because, with its balance of news and features, it gives an organic and comprehensive overview of the organization's activities—"the whole gestalt."
Kincade pointed out that membership organizations choose one of three strategies for newsletter distribution: members receive the newsletter automatically as part of their membership benefits; members who wish to receive the newsletter pay extra; or the newsletter is a promotional tool given out to members and nonmembers alike. For many who join nonprofit organizations, receiving the newsletter is a major attraction of membership, and thus it serves to sustain a sense of community. For membership organizations which need, first of all, to retain members and often to have them speak out, donate money, or volunteer services, the newsletter delivers news on current projects, encourages political activism, tells people where their donations are going, and advertises the existence and mission of the organization.
Finally, the printed newsletter allows the organization to present information to those it wants to see it, rather than relying on an audience to choose to log in.
Nevertheless, the relationship between online and printed media is frequently symbiotic rather than competitive, and the advent of the Portable Document Format (PDF) has changed matters. With the full version of Adobe Acrobat, a completely formatted PDF document can be delivered as an e-mail message. Asked if people actually do print out PDF files they receive, the panelists agreed that they often do so themselves. One advantage of online delivery is that the update process is much faster, a feature that is especially useful for calendars.
What software is used to produce the newsletter? QuarkXpress, Adobe PageMaker and Adobe InDesign 2.0 were all mentioned as layout programs used by these panelists. Comstock highly recommends InDesign, which, she said, combines the best of Quark and PageMaker while seamlessly integrating with Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and Acrobat. Comstock discussed upgrading from PageMaker to InDesign, and recommends Adobe InDesign 2.0 Classroom in a Book.
An alternative is to buy Adobe Acrobat and use its Distiller to transform virtually any type of file into print-quality, print-ready PDF.
Any pointers on layout? Consistency and predictability are of utmost importance, panelists said. Comstock also pointed out that people normally glance to the upper right portion of a page first, then move their eyes to the upper left, the lower right and finally to the lower left, and that information can thus be arranged to take advantage of this natural tendency.
How do you find work—what is the entrée to newsletter work? Hannibal said that most of her work has come through relationships with designers. Kincade entered newsletter work after having been in magazine work for many years, as did Comstock. Since competition for work is especially keen at present, the panel suggested that expertise in a specific subject area is always an advantage.