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Why We Switched to a Web-Only Newsletter (Again)
2007, Q3 (April 13, 2010)
By Rick Sapir, Chapter Webmaster

Rick Sapir
Rick Sapir

What Goes Around Comes Around...

Back in 2001, the editor and staff of Carolina Communiqué, the newsletter of the Carolina Chapter of STC, made a bold decision. Instead of continuing to distribute copies of the quarterly newsletter to chapter members (by mail), they began producing a web-only newsletter. A complete PDF of each quarter's newsletter was posted to the chapter website. Selected articles were also converted to HTML and made available on the website online viewing. 1

This change meant that we were no longer restricted to black and white, or to a four-page folios. We were able to reduce costs and be more creative. We took this opportunity to rethink the focus and design of the newsletter, too.

Although this change was generally successfully, one downside of the process was the amount of time and effort required to format the newsletter each quarter. Articles that were submitted in various formats (a MS-Word file, text file, email, etc) had to be copied into a single layout program in order to create a complete PDF. Then, select articles were converted to HTML for online use. Even though we created a usable single-sourcing process,1 there was still room for improvement.

In 2006, we converted the Carolina chapter website from a static HTML site to a wiki-based CMS (content management system).2 This new CMS provided lots of features (a wiki, RSS feeds, dynamic content, etc.) in a single, unified package. It seemed like the perfect time to, once again, rethink our chapter's newsletter.

What Did Readers Want?

First we wanted to determine what readers wanted (and expected) from the newsletter. We created a short survey asking, among other things:
What is your preferred method for reading the newsletter: HTML, PDF on screen, or PDF printed out?

Responses were equally divided. Readers seemed to want complete freedom: the ability read online and print a hardcopy for offline reading.

Another useful question we asked was:
What non-STC newsletters or news sites do you read?

Responses were extremely varied, ranging from traditional newspapers to blogs to RSS feed subscriptions. We reviewed each of these "newsletters," noting their features.

What Did Editors Want?

In addition to soliciting input from readers, we needed to address the newsletter's other audience: its editors. In discussions with the newsletter staff, it became apparent that the editors wanted to:
  • Build a uniquely-branded website.
    Although the newsletter is an publication of the Carolina chapter, we wanted it to be able to stand on its own.
  • Provide the ability to print a single, complete issue.
    As indicated by our reader survey, although readers not only wanted HTML for online viewing, they also wanted to be able to print articles. We needed to ensure that readers could easily print a complete newsletter at once—not one article at a time.
  • Allow better searching.
    Previously, only a handful of articles from each edition were converted to HTML. Only these articles were accessible from the website's search. We wanted all articles to be searchable. The newsletter's archive page, while useful, can only help you find an article if you already know its title.
  • Make it easy to navigating the online content
    In the former PDF-only newsletter, the reader could easily select a bookmark to go from one article to the next or click the navigation buttons to display the next or previous pages. We need to make sure that the online version allowed users to easily get from article-to-article.
  • Edit and update articles after publication.
    It happens... sometimes things slip through the cracks and we discover errors only after publishing; or an author may want to include an additional reference or link in their article. With everything online, updating articles is easy.

What Did We Do?

The newsletter editors, chapter leaders, and webmaster held several discussions to plan the "new" newsletter. We explored several options, including continuing to use the existing publication process and starting a newsletter/blog. In the end, we decided to use the same CMS software that powers the chapter website to create a newsletter-specific website.

Next, we began detailed planning of the newsletter website:


Considerable effort had been spent designing the original newsletter—and its design had won several STC awards. We wanted to retain as much as this design as possible including the color scheme, logo and other design elements like:
  • Sidebars
  • Pull quotes
  • Multi-column layout
But the overall design also needed to adhere to web standards (such as XHTML, CSS and WAI).


To give readers a way to provide feedback to authors, we implemented a number of enhancements that are available only to an online publication:
  • An email link (encrypted to foil spammers) is included at the end of each article. This lets readers contact the author directly.
  • Feature articles can be "rated" by readers.
    Sample article rating box
    Sample article rating box.

  • STC Carolina members can discuss articles on the Carolina chapter website's forum.
    Sample discussion link
    Sample article discussion link.


To increase the visibility of published articles, we implemented other features, including:
  • The website publishes an RSS feed that can be used to syndicate Carolina Communiqué articles on other websites. The CMS automatically generates RSS feeds in many popular formats including RSS, Atom, and OPML.
  • Submission links to popular social bookmarking sites (such as del.icio.us, and Digg) are provided at the end of each article. This lets readers share articles with their friends.
    Sample social bookmarking links
    Sample social bookmarking links.

To make it as easy as possible for readers to find their way around the site (and each edition) we created:
  • Simplified navigation menu that provides links to common pages (current issue, print page, RSS, newsletter information)
    Sample main menu
    Sample main menu.

  • Full-text search engine
  • A "table of contents" at the bottom of each article
    Sample table of contents
    Sample table of contents.

Authoring Process

The basic authoring process is very straightforward. Draft articles are stored on the wiki but only accessible by the author and the newsletter staff.
  1. Authors first review the Article Submission Guidelines.
  2. Using a web-based form, authors can submit their idea (or completed article) to the editor.
  3. The editor then creates a wiki page for the article. At this point, this page is categorized as a Draft article and is not accessible by the public.
    • For articles that have not yet been written:
      1. The editor creates a website login for the author (which allows the author to access draft articles) and sends this information, including the URL for the draft article, to the author.
      2. The author uses the wiki to write their article.
    • For articles that have already been written:
      1. The author sends the article to the editor.
      2. Editor copies article to wiki page.
      3. The editor creates a website login for the author and sends this information, including the URL for the draft article, to the author.
Once the article is on the wiki, the editor and author can, collaboratively, edit and review the article. Changes are made directly to the wiki page. Because the CMS tracks changes, retains version history, and creates backups, it is easy to see who-changed-what or to undo an edit.

Production Process

Once the articles are written and edited, it is time to publish the newsletter. This production process, which was once the most labor-intensive part of publishing the newsletter, now takes only minutes.

To publish a new edition, the editor:
  1. Creates a new Category for the new edition (such as 2007, 3Q).
  2. Adds any "extras" to the article (such as the rating box, social bookmarking links, graphics, etc.) for feature articles.
  3. Updates the home page to display the newly published category. The listing is generated automatically, based on the category. The editor simply changes the ID of the category to be listed.
  4. Removes the articles from the Draft category and adds them to the newly created edition. The articles are now viewable by the public.

Where are we Going?

The Third Quarter of 2007 edition marks the third publication of Carolina Communiqué in this new web format. As we (and our readers) become more accustomed to this "new" newsletter, there are more changes we hope to make:

Complete the Archives

Currently there are more than 200 articles available on the newsletter website. However, our chapter's newsletter has been continuously published for more than 10 years and many of the newsletters are in PDF-only format. Much of this information is inaccessible in its current form. In the future, we hope to make all archives available and fully searchable.

Increase Author Adoption

Rolling out new technology and a new process is always a slow process. For the First Quarter of 2007 edition, the first that used this wiki-based website, two authors used the wiki to write their articles. In the Second Quarter of 2007 edition, 4 authors created their articles on the wiki. For this edition, 5 authors wrote their articles online, using the wiki—a slow (but steady) increase.

Allow WYSIWYG Wiki Editing

One of the barriers to author adoption has been the perception that wikis are difficult to use. One reason for this perception is that authoring on the wiki requires the use of wiki syntax—a specialized markup language, unique to the wiki. In the future, we will introduce a WYSIWYG editing system, to make wiki editing similar to any other word processor or content-creation software.

Make it Easier to Get Authors Online

Currently, editors must manually create a web account for each author, and then configure the account to allow the author access to their wiki page. In the future, this process will become automatic—authors will simply register on the website on their own, without requiring editor intervention.

Provide Better Syndication

Like other chapter newsletters, Carolina Communiqué often reprints articles from other sources (and allows our articles to be reprinted). Currently this is a manual process, involving coping the article from one format to another. Through RSS (really simple syndication) we hope to make this process automatic. Reprinting an article from Carolina Communiqué will be as simple as syndicating the site's RSS feed.

Easier Importing of Non-Wiki Articles

When authors submit an already-written article (or choose not to use the wiki), the editor must copy the article into a wiki page, and reapply the formatting (based on the wiki syntax). Creating import scripts that would convert articles from their native document format (such as HTML or MS-Word) and preserve the formatting would greatly simply the process.

Dynamically Create PDFs

Although users have the ability to create printer-pretty versions of the newsletter (or specific articles), some readers continue to request PDFs. In the future, we hope to introduce the ability to create a custom PDF—much like the current ability to create custom printer-pretty articles.

Final Thoughts

The response to our new newsletter has been overwhelmingly positive. Some of the feedback we have received includes:
I think it's [the site] truly exemplary. Congrats to you on creating such a great model.
— E.V.

I love the new format, it makes reading the newsletter much easier.
— A.D.

As our chapter newsletter continues to evolve and more forward, we hope to implement even more features.

Rick can be reached at webmaster at stc-carolina dot org. You can visit the "new" Carolina Communiqué at: http://newsletter.stc-carolina.org. End of article.

For updated information about our transition to a web-based newsletter, read Happy Birthday Communiqué, published in the Second Quarter 2008 edition.


1. Read more about the initial switch in "Why we switched to a web-only newsletter" from the 2002, Q1 edition.
2. Read more about the conversion of our chapter's website in "Welcome Home (Page)" from the 2006, Q3 edition.

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