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From the Editors' Association of Canada

Hooking and holding readers

By Jim Taylor

I started thinking seriously about newsletters a few years ago, when I was trying to edit six or seven at once — the numbers varied with my clients' finances — without making them all look and read as if they had come out of the same sausage machine.

Those views crystallized when I spun that experience into a seminar for EAC/ACR (then FEAC). A request to see newsletters brought in over 200 one year. Some were awful, some superb. Surprisingly, though, the quality of the newsletter bore little relationship to the money spent on it or the size of its readership. Some of the worst cost big bucks; some of the best were done on a shoestring.

So what makes a good newsletter?

First, it must be a NEWSletter.

I want to read it to hear about things I wouldn't have heard about otherwise. I don't want to read it out of loyalty to the editor or the organization that sent it.

It must be "newsy." I don't want to read a collection of opinions — I can get those at any pub. I want to know what has happened and what's happening.

Too many newsletters become bulletin boards. Everyone remembers the newsletter when they want to get the word out about the picnic, the fund-raiser or the work bee. And it's true — news about coming events is news. Unfortunately, few newsletters bother following up to inform their readers what actually happened at these events. Perhaps they assume that everyone who mattered was there. But in fact it's never possible for everyone to be there. And even those who are there often find themselves preoccupied with one small area of responsibility and don't get to see the larger picture.

A few newsletters — very few, in my experience — thrive on analysis. Usually such newsletters are a labour of love by someone with profound insights into politics or economics or some other discipline usually obscured by murky thinking and turgid terminology. An author who can cut through the crap deserves to be read. But the dozen or so newsletters I currently get from financial institutions don't cut through anything. They simply repeat what John Kenneth Galbraith once called "conventional wisdom" — the un-thought or ill-thought clichés of that particular trade, glitzed up with graphics and presented as valuable information. They contain neither significant news nor penetrating analysis and go into the recycle bin unread.

Second, it must be a newsLETTER. The news must be written as directly — and as personably — as a personal letter. When I read it, I should be able to imagine that it started, "Dear Jim…"

That's what makes the difference between a newsletter and a newspaper. The newspaper deals with a mass audience; the newsletter with a selective audience. And this is a known group. They all have something in common. They work for the same company, they live in the same community, they support the same charity, they share the same passion…. Whatever that common link is, I should be able to recognize it on every page and in every story.

And the stories should make me think they were selected and written for me. As a reader, I'm extremely egocentric. I don't care about self-congratulatory press releases from head office or the planning priorities of the association's president. I care about me, me, ME! I expect the editor to be on my side, culling and sifting the news to match my interests and writing it so that it will appeal to me.

Too many newsletters become corporate mouthpieces. They get all their content from the executive level of the organization. Their dominant pronoun becomes "we." I call these "little piggy" newsletters because they go "we, we, we" all the way home. They put a message from the party leader, the parish pooh-bah, the vice-president of corporate relations, on the front page. They're all about new products, new programs, new policies.

Would I send a press release to a sweetheart and call it a personal letter? Neither should I send the same kind of material to a reader and call it a newsletter.

Third, the newsletter needs a distinct IDENTITY.

Some of that identity will come from the stories, of course. A newsletter for birdwatchers will inevitably be about either the birds or the watchers. If one of those watchers also happens to be classic car collector, that's fine. But as soon as that newsletter starts running unrelated stories about Swiss watches, computer viruses or tax breaks for acne victims, it loses its focus and its identity.

But identity goes beyond content. As soon as I open my mail, I should know which newsletter I'm looking at. It should look like I expect it to look. I don't want to have to guess whether this came from the church, the water-ski club or the credit union.

Identity calls for consistent design. It may be a logo. It may be an unusual way of placing titles and stories. It may be a particular typeface or use of drop caps, a particular thickness of rule. One low-budget newsletter had the same artist draw sketches for every story. Another preprinted all its pages with a second-color frame.

Whatever it is, the editor needs to know what creates a newsletter's visual identity*and then avoid monkeying with it. Don't play around with weights and lengths of rules; don't juggle the spacing above or below items; don't experiment with new typefaces for titles.

Be consistent.

Newsletters are the poor cousins of the publishing world. They lack the glamour of magazines and the immediacy of newspapers. They're chronically short of money, staff and time.

But if a newsletter can provide news that I want to hear about, written so that I can feel it is addressed to me and presented so that I can recognize and welcome it, I won't care how much or how little it cost. I will read it.

And that's all any publication can ask.

Jim Taylor is an honorary life member of EAC/ACR and originated the Eight-Step Editing and newsletters seminars.


Our four cents' worth

We asked (begged, cajoled, pleaded with) Jim to write this article for us for one very big reason: We wanted to know. We also thought a lot of our members produce newsletters too and so it would have general interest and value.

Because while we agree wholeheartedly with all Jim has to say-and the way that he says it--there is one other thing we believe a newsletter should provide: value. Somehow it must enrich the readers' lives.

Maybe it makes them re-evaluate their beliefs or just…think. Perhaps it teaches them a little something that helps them do a better job. Maybe it allows them to increase their earnings. Or maybe something in the newsletter just gives them a much-needed chuckle during a day that is otherwise no laughing matter.

Whatever it is, when the reader is done, she must believe she has received something of value in return for her time.

And if by chance the newsletter is also engaging, interesting and useful, well, sorry. We'll do better if you start to contribute. Or at least let us know what you want in a newsletter.

Sheila Wawanash and Ron Jette, co-editors, Active Voice/La Voix active

How long?

Every newsletter is different, of course, but a good-albeit rough-rule of thumb might be this: Expect to spend an average of four hours on each page. This includes getting the material and writing or copyediting it, layout, proofing and delivering to the printer. Adjust accordingly if you perform more or less of these tasks.

One school of thought would be that you take that number of hours, multiply it by your hourly rate and charge accordingly. The other school believes in something called the value proposition: What is it worth to the client and how much can they afford? That's what you charge.

And, in truth, most newsletters are likely like this one: a volunteer effort.

Make a list, check it twice

o provide news
o make it personal
o develop an identity
o offer value
o use graphic images (photos, illustrations, pull quotes) to add interest
o apply contrast for visual attraction
o group similar items together
o use repetition (colour, visual elements, shapes, textures) to strengthen the identity (but don't be annoying!)
o pay attention to word d e n s i t y
o break rules with a purpose, not by accident

o use two logos with equal weights
o go overboard with typefaces
o be inconsistent in the use of drop and standup initials
o forget captions
o use tombstoned headlines (see below)*
o use dissimilar rules
o make everything symmetrical
o mix text alignments
o be inconsistent with styles
o overwhelm readers with visuals
o fill every bit of white space

* Okay, both co-editors had to ask Jim about tombstoned headlines so don't feel bad if you didn't know either. Here's what he told us:
"Tombstoning" is a term that probably betrays my age. That's when you have two headlines for separate items, but the headlines line up across the page (like tombstones in a cemetery, hence the name) in such a way that readers could conceivably read right across as a single line. The results can sometimes be hilarious.
Let's see if my fertile imagination can generate some examples

Two killed in   Secret liaison
traffic mishap embarrasses premier

Jean Chrétien voids Contaminated water
defence contract       hospitalizes hundreds

Mike Harris cuts Cock fighting
welfare rolls         on the increase


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