"Let's publish a newsletter!" a committee member suggested during a meeting of an activist group. Whether or not this is a good idea depends upon the situation. Was the committee simply looking for projects to keep busy, or was it looking for solutions to a problem? Whether or not to publish should always be determined by need, not just a desire to create activity.
Newsletters are efficient vehicles for communicating with a group's members. They may include meeting announcements, funding needs, job openings, new staff appointments, articles pertinent to the group's interests, and a myriad of other tidbits important to members.
While the purpose of all newsletters is to disseminate information, the kind of information communicated should be determined by who receives the newsletter.
When we started the Freedom Writer in 1984, our sole purpose was to alert citizens to the dangers posed by the emerging radical religious right. As we grew into a membership organization our function changed only slightly. In addition to news about the radical right, we now include practical information for activists, make available important books and tapes, and occasionally print organizational news for our members.
If your group is a local chapter of a national organization, the national office will most likely provide you with plenty of valuable material. Be careful not use too much material supplied in this way, as your newsletter will lack originality and local flavor.
Many newsletters are written entirely by one person. That's fine, but it's better if several members can provide a variety of material and articles. At the Freedom Writer, besides our own staff-written articles, we solicit articles from our members across the country, and from the staff of other like-minded organizations. This gives us a wider range of material, and helps our readers to learn of other worthwhile groups.
The technical aspect of publishing may, at first, seem overwhelming. However, it's now easier to publish than ever before. The days of typewriters and mimeograph machines are over; desktop publishing is now the only way to go. With electronic mail, articles can be submitted from anywhere right over the phone lines.
Of course, to take advantage of desktop publishing, your group must have a computer, desktop publishing software (we recommend Pagemaker), and a laser printer. Desktop publishing software ranges from the easy-to-use to quite complex. Your choice depends upon the sophistication of your newsletter and the look you wish to achieve. With a little practice, anyone proficient with a computer can learn the art of desktop publishing.
With desktop publishing, your entire newsletter is crafted on your computer monitor and then printed without any physical cutting and pasting. If you plan to use photos, you can even use a scanner to put them on your computer's hard disk, then automatically insert them into your pages.
We prefer handling photos the old-fashioned way, by bringing them to our local printer and having them either reduced or enlarged, and then screened and printed as "half-tones." This is the process that turns a photograph into tiny dots easily observable with a magnifying glass. Screening photos greatly improves their quality when reproduced on a printing press. (By the way, color photos work just as well as black and white photos.) Next, we cut out a window on the page where we want the photo to appear, and tape the photo into the window from the back of the page. After the pages are laid out in this way, the print shop takes over.
Our first newsletter in 1984 was two pages — both sides of an 8 1/2 x 11 sheet of paper. Gradually we increased to 16 or 20 pages. Increases in the number of pages should always be done in increments of four. It is more economical to print an eight-page newsletter than a six-page one.
The type of printing press used depends upon the number of pages and how many newsletters you want to print. A hundred copies of a two-page newsletter can be done on a photocopier. A four-page newsletter with a print run of 1,000 copies is done on an offset press. These small presses are available at any print shop. A larger run of, say, 10,000 copies at 16 pages, is best done on a web press. A web press prints on a continuous roll of paper instead of individual sheets. It also prints on both sides of the paper simultaneously, and, as with the Freedom Writer, collates the pages and binds them together with glue, automatically.
Frequency of publication depends upon several factors: How often you need to reach your audience; your budget; and how much material you wish to include in your newsletter. Sometimes it's better to cut back on your publication schedule and wait until you have plenty of good material.
Besides sending your newsletter to your current members, there are numerous ways to expand your audience. As examples: anyone requesting information from your group can be added to the mailing list; and, when members of your group make public presentations, a sign-up sheet for the newsletter can be made available.
Consider the costs before launching a newsletter. Are you going to pay writers or use volunteers? Who will do the desktop publishing? Is this person a volunteer or a paid staff member? Do you have the necessary equipment?
Printing is expensive. When you decide the specifications for your newsletter, shop around for a print shop. Don't assume they all charge the same, because prices vary greatly.
Use mailing list software to manage your membership list and to print labels. Many such programs are available. As with desktop publishing software, these vary in cost and complexity, so shop around.
Mailing is your other major expense. If your organization is tax-exempt, you can obtain a nonprofit mailing permit from your local post office. You'll need your IRS letter of determination to do this. With a nonprofit mailing permit you can mail at a greatly reduced rate. Otherwise, you should opt for a Third Class mailing permit. Similar to a Second Class permit used by most magazines, the Third Class permit has fewer restrictions.
At present, all mailing permits cost the same — $85 per year. The actual rate you'll pay per piece is determined by its size and weight, and how precisely the pieces are sorted. There is mailing list software capable of adding bar codes to your labels, and sorting by ZIP codes and carrier routes. Contact your post office for the most current rates and regulations.
We have our Freedom Writer labels produced by a certified independent contractor who specializes in mailing labels. These labels are produced "four up," that is, printed four across on computer paper. The automated print shop cuts and applies them. The shop also bundles and sacks them.
Before our list grew to what it is today, we organized volunteer parties to peel off labels, affix them, and bundle them by ZIP code. This is a good project for well-supervised volunteers.
After you create a budget for your newsletter, determine your financial resources. You might simply designate a portion of your organization's membership contributions for the newsletter. Perhaps you have a patron among your members who will either provide e seed money, or long-term financing. Many newsletters are subsidized out of the pockets of the individuals who produce them. Some groups offset expenses by selling subscriptions, or advertising space. (If yours is a tax-exempt organization, check with the post office about the latest regulations concerning advertising when using a nonprofit mailing permit.)
The Internet now makes it possible to publish your newsletter electronically through your own web site. In fact, some newsletters are not printed at all, but available only on the Internet.
Publishing a newsletter is well-worth considering. While hard work, it can be exciting and rewarding. If your group has something worth saying, you should definitely consider publishing a newsletter.