Communication consultant Paul Barton wrote a cute blog post last week titled, "10 Ways You Know You're an Old Newsletter Editor."
2. You still refer to the first paragraph of an article as a "lede."
4. You know how many points are in a pica.
5. You once thought a proportion wheel was a mathematical wonder.
9. You secretly miss smelling blue line proofs.
10. You still end your articles with -30-
I appreciate Barton's piece, and actually wrote one my own fond paean to print a few years ago.
What Barton doesn't get into—maybe because he doesn't think this way—is how the slow death of the house organ led to a kind of spiritual death of employee communication.
To understand what I'm talking about, you first have to know that when I was editor of the leading weekly newsletter covering employee communication in the mid 1990s, the surest way to draw letters to the editor was to refer to an employee publication as a "house organ."
"You just set the profession back 30 years!" came the inevitable cry in unison of a couple dozen letter writers. "House organ" connoted the employee newsletters of the Forties and Fifties, dominated by grip-and-grin photos, shots of employees posing with fish they'd caught or deer they'd shot, and "cheesecake" pictures of pretty women employees in bathing suits. (Yes, seriously.)
By the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties, self-respecting employee publication editors were pushing management as hard as they could to make employee publications that seriously discussed business strategy and fortunes, that represented in words and pictures the life and culture of the organization and that even allowed employees to sound off on important issues.
From glossy employee journals to mimeographed newsletters, the excellence of these publications varied widely and sometimes hilariously. For every provocative feature story like, "Employee morale: Who's fault is it?" there was a feature that still recalled the musty old days. I still remember a headline over an employee profile in a utility rag: "Lloyd Lubbers: Our kind of regular guy."
But most employee publication editors were trying to make their rags more serious, more meaningful, more democratic and more true.
Unfortunately, little of the same could be said about the intranets that in the late 1990s gradually replaced print publications as the de facto hub of formal employee communication.
Because intranets—like websites—just don't share the burden and virtue of being a tactile symbol of the society they cover. Their editors—or "content curators," as they're more likely to call themselves today—don't feel a true responsibility to balance proportion and provocativeness, taste and daring, reliability and surprise.
You don't like what I posted on the intranet? It's easier to take it down than to defend it.
You don't think we should have the "employee feedback" button anymore? Fine, I'll talk to IT.
Some nitwit in the screen door division wants us to put the crap press release at the top of the intranet home page? What's the harm—it'll be buried under a bunch of other stuff in a couple days.
Electronic communications mean less because they don't seem permanent, no matter how much we're reminded they are.
Print communications mean more because they do seem permanent, no matter how crustily we say they'll line the bottoms of bird cages tomorrow.
And perceived permanence demands professional morality, just as surely as impermanence allows us to call it good and turn our minds toward happy hour.
We're not going back to print for employee communication. The lead times alone are impossible to imagine. You've been reporting the story for a month, you're going to press today, and employees will get it in their mailboxes three weeks from now? No, not in this world.
But I want to remind Paul Barton, if he needs it, and the rest of us too—there's a legitimate reason we miss print, beyond our regret at no longer being paid to play with x-acto knives and glue.
Print demanded our best, and we're not sure all this other stuff really does.