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Print rules

Here's the modern, efficient way to kill a club: dump the printed newsletter in favour of an electronic one.

Probably ten years ago I suggested easing the ecnomics of producing the Skeptic by turning it into an electronic magazine. Several people disagreed with this idea. How right they were.

The theory is pretty obvious. Club saves money on paper, printing, and postage. Club member gets informed just the same.

The practice is less obvious. First of all, not everybody has email, and the ones who don't aren't going to buy computers and spend hours figuring out how to set up a Gmail account just to get the club newsletter. They will be effectively disenfranchised and will rely on friends among the membership to phone them if anything they should know about is going on.

Second of all, people use email in different ways. Some only read it at work. Now the club newsletter is on their work computer, but isn't available at home, where it might actually inspire the club member to join some activity or other. Some don't check it more than once every few days and don't respond when they do.

But third of all - and this can't be news to anyone - the whole point of email is that it's easily ignored. People join clubs because there's an activity they're interested in, but like everything else there's a core of obsessive active members and then a much, much larger group of discretionary members who need to be coaxed along to things. In theory the immediacy of email ought to galvanize those people into action, but the effect seems to be the reverse: they set the email newsletter aside "to read later" and forget all about it.

Though the club does save money - that part works. At least, until it starts losing members.

I'm not suggesting that clubs shouldn't use email. They should - for late-stage reminders, for last-minute changes, for calls for volunteers to help with a specific activity.

Before they do that, though, they should - as many seem not to - think through a standard format for those emails that make them quick and easy for recipients to parse. One of my clubs sends out a steady stream. None of them have meaningful subjects, and since they all come from the same person I can't easily search back later and find the one with the details I need. The messages are all formatted by different people (who send them on to the distribution point), and some think that GIANT FONTS filling the entire first screen with one word makes them look interesting. Others fill the first screen with words exhorting me to be inspired before getting around to tell me what the event is and when. This is a serious user interface error: if you are trying to get people to do something you need to make it as easy as possible for them to understand your request.

Scheduled distribution dates also seem to evaporate when the newsletter goes electronic. I don't quite understand why, although I suspect that outside pressures of printer deadlines, planned dates to go to the post office, and copy deadlines that gave time for layout are probably a lot of it. Printed newsletters provide regular confirmation that the club still exists as an entity; they provide, if you like, evidence that you still belong to it. I'm sure a steady stream of emails ought to do the same thing, but I'm not sure they carry the same weight as the newsletter magneted to the refrigerator.

I'm entirely prepared to be told that this is a generational thing, or maybe even a cultural thing (are things the same in the US? I can't tell). I'm sure today's kids, who are unaware that there ever was a time when there was no email, IM, or social networks, don't see the point of a printed newsletter they can't carry on their mobile phones. But even if that's true, most of today's clubs have a large phalanx of - let's say politely - "legacy" members who simply do not function that way. And I'm not convinced that it is true.

Some organizations do know this, most notably the Association for Computing Machinery, the leading membership organization for computer industry professionals. If any organization were most likely to adopt electronic publication you'd think it would be this group: they all had email in the 1980s. Instead, although the ACM has indeed begun issuing a digital edidtion of its highly respected and valuable Communications of the ACM, it has no plans to eliminate the print edition.

Why? Said ACM in an email announcing the digital edition, "Print continues to be a vital way for the ACM to reach its members and the computing industry at large." That ought to tell people something: when computer people themselves don't want to use computers in a particular way there's usually a good reason. (Note that the ACM also opposes electronic voting because they do not believe it can be made sufficiently secure.)

So: trust your local, native guides. Print is a proven technology. Abandoning it is false economy.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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