The personal computer — and the dynamic duo of the Macintosh and LaserWriter in particular — revolutionized print publishing by making it easy to whip up a brochure, flyer, or newsletter. The Internet extended our individual publishing capabilities even further, enabling anyone to send bulk email, start a blog, or set up a Web site. Heck, the combination of the Mac and the Internet is why TidBITS exists. Without them, could a pair of 22-year-olds have started a publication that would reach tens of thousands of readers on a nearly non-existent budget?
Much has been said about how desktop publishing resulted in near-criminal uses of ransom note fonts, and similar criticisms have been heaped on amateurs putting up truly horrific Web sites. But thanks to clever programs and templates, it’s now easy for anyone to produce something that’s passably attractive. However, that doesn’t mean that these publications — for that’s what they are — succeed at their primary goal of conveying information.
The elimination of visual design as a significant hurdle has made it clear that most amateurs also lack the overall mindset of a professional publisher, which results in publications that fail to include essential details, are continually out of date, can’t easily be found online, and so on. A common refrain at the start of this school year among our middle-school parent friends has been how impossible it is to find essential details about our children’s classes, clubs, and sports teams. For instance, at the introductory dinner for cross-country parents, we were warned to ignore the race schedule on the official school Web site on the grounds that it was completely incorrect. Then we were handed a paper version that had discrepancies between the dates and days of the week, which is an easy mistake to make when updating schedules. I’ll continue to use Tristan’s cross-country team as an example throughout this article, since the many “publications” that are associated with it make for great (and generally successful) real-world examples of the challenges you’ll likely face.
Keep in mind that I define “publication” extremely loosely. If you’re sending email to your book club about the next meeting, that’s a publication, as is your class blog if you’re a teacher, or the signup form you were asked to make for the community center’s swimming lessons. Any time you create information for consumption by others, particularly people you don’t know personally, you’re acting like a publisher, and to communicate successfully, you need to think like a professional publisher. Don’t worry, it’s not hard.
Put Yourself in Your Audience’s Shoes -- The most important part of this task is to put yourself in your audience’s shoes and make sure your publication meets the needs that you would have if you were the reader. This can make for more work up front, as you imagine the questions that you might receive and attempt to head them off at the pass, but it’s far more efficient to provide complete and accurate information to start than to answer individual questions (or be forced to issue corrections or addenda) later. I mention this up front because it’s something you should consider at all times, starting with the next step: distribution.
With regard to Tristan’s cross-country team, the audience is almost entirely parents of the runners, and they’re most concerned about logistics — times and locations of practices and meets — and other parent-related details such as buying team uniforms, taking and viewing photos of the races, volunteering at home meets, providing food for the runners, and so on. Since much of the organization is handled by parents who know what their concerns are, the cross-country team does a fairly good job of this. But Tristan has also been involved in organizations that are managed by an adult who lacks the parental mindset, and those organizations have sometimes proven tremendously frustrating when assumptions are made about what the parents know or are expected to do, even though we’ve never been told.
Use Multiple Distribution Methods -- Here’s where you really need to act like a professional publisher. Remember, publishers make money only if people can read, hear, or view their content, so publishers put a great deal of thought into how content will be distributed to the widest possible audience. In many cases, your audience will be bounded — all the parents of cross-country runners, all people in your book club, anyone in the area who might join the community center, etc. — but you still want to reach as many of them as you can.
Do not fall into the “Field of Dreams” trap: if you build it (a Web site, a mailing list, a Facebook group, whatever), they won’t necessarily come. You need to seek out your audience, and make sure you’re providing the information they need in the form they want. That may be a Web site, mailing list, public Google calendar, Twitter feed, Facebook group, text messages, traditional paper handouts or flyers, and even an old-fashioned phone tree or other form of word-of-mouth. It’s absolutely essential to use multiple approaches — what works for one person may not work for the next. Obviously, there’s a point of diminishing returns here, but it’s best to have at least a basic Web site for details that don’t change often and a mailing list for communication, since almost everyone has Internet access and an email address at this point. (In our experience, Facebook and Twitter aren’t nearly as universal as email outside the tech industry.) But I said almost everyone, and until you’re certain that you’re reaching everyone you need to, paper and word-of-mouth can play an important role.
If you do choose email as a distribution method, unless you want to send a document that needs to be printed out or one with a strong visual component, just type (or paste) your information directly into the email message. That way, your recipients don’t have to download the attached document, which may not always be possible or within their capabilities.
In the case of the cross-country team, almost all information comes via a parent-run mailing list, and everyone is encouraged to join via a handout that goes home with kids the first week of practice. Plus, one of the coaches maintains a blog with a schedule on it; the link to the blog was also on that paper handout, making that handout essential. In an ideal world, it would be possible to subscribe to the blog posts via email; many blogs offer such functionality, and it enables people to stay up to date without visiting the blog regularly or using an RSS reader. (RSS isn’t used much outside the tech industry.)
The problem is that because the main school district Web site has out-of-date information, it’s extremely difficult for a parent of a student who wants to run cross-country for the first time to find out what’s necessary in terms of medical forms, when and where practice will be held, and so on. Because of that, runners trickle in for the first week or two, and the latecomers sometimes miss getting the paper handout that explains the importance of the parent mailing list (or the kids lose it on the way home). When that happens, their parents are often left with information being conveyed only via a 7th grader’s often faulty memory; getting accurate details is entirely hit-and-miss. It’s worth putting some effort into making sure people don’t fall through such cracks.
The Five Ws -- Once you’ve gotten into the heads of your audience and set up your distribution methods, it’s time to take a leaf from the notebooks of reporters, who are trained to ensure that every story covers the five Ws: who, what, when, where, and why, plus sometimes how. You may need to pivot the five Ws slightly, if you’re not reporting on a past event so much as providing details about the future. Also, consider the fact that once you publish any details, changing them later is not helpful, so you want to get it right on the first try. For example, if you send email saying that parents should drop their kids off at 6:00 AM at the airport, changing that at the last minute to 5:40 AM at the school is going to cause consternation. Let’s look at each W in turn:
Who: If you have a bounded audience, who anything is aimed at may be quite obvious: the people on your mailing list, for instance. But if not, be very clear. For instance, the cross-country mailing list serves all the teams, but sometimes the varsity goes to a different meet than the JV and modified (7th and 8th grade) teams. You don’t want anyone asking, “Why am I receiving this?”
What: For everything there is a purpose, and you must tell your readers what that purpose is. If it’s an application form, be sure to say for what. If you’re sharing details about an upcoming event, be sure that’s obvious. Again, you want to head off that “Why am I receiving this?” question.
When: Times are key, particularly with meetings. For local events, it’s best to give both an arrival time and a start time — even a 15-minute window will prevent people from walking in on an orchestra recital in progress, for instance. If you’re organizing an event online, be sure to state the time zone and link to the Every Time Zone Web site, which lets people see how your time converts to theirs. I’m a big fan of shared Google and iCloud calendars (and I just started one for TidBITS — see “Subscribe to the TidBITS Events Calendar,” 14 October 2012), but it’s likely that not everyone in your audience will be able to subscribe to such a calendar.
Where: Obviously, this applies more to real-world events than anything else, but if there is a real-world component to your information, provide directions in at least two ways: a link to an online map that people can refer to and print out if need be, and a normal postal address for entering into a GPS. I’ve even created saved locations in Google Maps for things like where my running club’s carpool meets so I can send someone the link rather than assume they can locate the southwest corner of the Vet School parking lot.
Why: As with audience, the reason why you’re communicating some fact may be obvious, but if not, be painfully clear. For instance, on that paper handout for the cross-country parents, it was essential to convey the importance of joining the mailing list, plus provide the meet schedule. Again, try to answer that “Why am I receiving this?” question up front.
How: This last item is always a bit of an outlier, not the least because it doesn’t start with W, but it’s often tremendously important for people trying to think like publishers. That’s because it’s common to want people to take some sort of an action, but you cannot assume they know how to do this, and it’s imperative that you provide instructions. For instance, for the cross-country team, I set up a photo-sharing site called Yogile for the parents to upload photos they take at the meets for all to see. It’s not hard to use, especially for simple uploading, but the first time I wrote about it on the mailing list, I explained carefully how to use it. The second and third times I posted to the list with blank albums into which people could upload, I included abbreviated instructions. And while I don’t do even that any more, I copy and paste my message each time, providing updated URLs and email addresses, so the other parents don’t have to parse the message each time to figure out what to do. A perhaps more typical example is a form that must be returned. Make sure it’s obvious where the form should be returned to, and when it’s due. If possible, offer more than one return method — scanned in email, fax, regular mail, and so on.
Fact Check Everything -- You’re going to hate this because it’s work, but you need to fact check everything. I spend most of my day on Mondays going over the articles in the TidBITS issue with a fine-toothed comb, and while I may not be perfect, I catch a lot of tiny mistakes in those edit passes. Most are so small that few readers would even notice, but every now and then I catch a whopper that slipped past previous edit passes.
You must do the same thing. If there’s a date in whatever you’re sending out, make sure it’s right, and make sure the day matches the date. If there’s a location, make sure you’ve got the right one and that your information is up to date. (Last year, we were told to pick the kids up at practice at “the big rocks” by the track; no one had checked, so no one realized the rocks had been removed over the summer. A Google Maps pin would have been helpful.)
The most important things to fact check are any instructions you provide, because if you get the instructions wrong, or if they are confusing, you’ll be helping everyone work through problems individually.
Be Consistent -- Ever notice how the morning paper comes out every morning? Or how TidBITS looks the same each week? That’s because professional publishers know that people are creatures of habit, and consistency helps people pay attention. There are two main ways you can be consistent:
Publish on a regular schedule. I try to send the email with new blank photo albums to the cross-country mailing list a few days before each meet, and I never send email about multiple meets at once, since that could cause confusion. Similarly, the coach’s blog is updated every week, so you know if you check it on a Monday, that week’s schedule will be there.
Stick to the same format each time. Figure out what information you need to convey, and make sure you’re doing it in the same way each time. That way your audience won’t have to think as hard about the structure of what you’re conveying and can focus on the relevant facts.
Measure Audience -- Publishers generally make money either via advertising or via subscriptions, but in either case, it’s of paramount importance to measure the audience. You may not care about the overall size of your audience the way a newspaper publisher would, but it is still important for you to determine how much of your audience you’re reaching, because if you’re missing some people, that could be a problem for your organization (or at least for them, and later for you) in the future.
For instance, since some parents of the cross-country runners never made it onto the mailing list, some of them didn’t realize they had to pick their kids up after the first home meet, and when their kids called from the meet, the parents didn’t know exactly where to go. Had the coach worked to make sure every runner had at least one parent on the mailing list, she wouldn’t have had to spend as much time on the phone, guiding annoyed parents to where the race’s finish line was located.
Making sure you’re reaching everyone often requires communicating in a different way — send email to make sure everyone knows about the Web site, calling people to make sure they know about the mailing list, and so on.
Get Help and Plan for Succession -- Lastly, it’s always best to create systems rather than do everything as a one-off. This is another secret of professional publishers: their goal is to build publishing machines that can spit out content from any number of sources. The more you build a machine, even if it’s just a set of instructions for someone else to follow, the more you can ensure that your publication will continue beyond that point when you can handle it all yourself. That point might come because it’s too much work for one person or because you don’t want to coordinate your group forever or your kid graduates from a school or leaves a team.
It’s important to keep the technical capabilities of those who might contribute content or take over from you in mind. One problem the school district Web site has is that it relies on Joomla, a common content-management system. Unfortunately, whether it’s due to problems with the old version of Joomla that’s in use, or setup mistakes that were made years ago and never addressed due to updates not being installed, the site is so hard to use that many teachers and coaches and administrators either can’t or won’t use it, thus ensuring that the information it contains is incomplete and out-of-date.
In the end, publishing isn’t rocket science, it’s just a matter of thinking like your audience, paying attention to details, and being consistent. Do that, and whatever you publish will convey its information successfully.