40 years in publishing--a look at "back in the day".
College students are going Clean for Gene and Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" is topping the charts.
And then, by month's end, LBJ announced his retirement (living in a D.C. on-campus apartment, I could hear students cheering in the street). In another major Washington development, I wrote my first newsletter story for money.
Forty Years Writing for Newsletters or, How Time Flies When You're Meeting Deadlines!
What did a business newsletter operation look like in 1968? Capital Publications was then in its third year of operations. Its flagship Economic Opportunity Report covering the then-sexy Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO) was a successful weekly and Cap Pub was launching a second title.
The founding partners, an ad copywriter and a newsletter editor, had quit their day jobs and ran the place with a motley crew of part-time college students (and one ex-naval officer--me).
They had moved from the original office, a third-floor walk-up over a bar, to swankier quarters that had once been a group dental practice (every cubicle had its own spit sink).
During one previous cashflow crunch one partner had driven a cab days and worked on the newsletter at night. When better times returned and he came back to work, he kept his hack license framed with a caption, "In case of Emergency, Break Glass."
Still an elusive industry
Cap Pub was working pretty much in a vacuum. We knew about The Kiplinger Washington Letter, of course; the big, bad Bureau of National Affairs a few blocks away; and the mighty McGraw-Hill in N.Y.C. But we had no idea anything like a newsletter industry existed. There was no association and we didn't even subscribe to NL/NL yet.
I wrote stories about the Poor People's Park. Eager students covered other beats; one chased OEO director Sargent Shriver into the men's room at a hotel function and shouted questions to him over the stall door.
We wrote stories. Thursday and Friday the editor edited and a succession of lovely mini-skirted Kappa Kappa Gamma receptionist-typists produced camera-ready copy on the impressive, new IBM Selectrics. One of those ladies irritated the partners by needing time off repeatedly to be a "Princess" at various festivals--Azalea, Cherry Blossom, etc. Behind her back we called her "The Watermelon Queen," but she was very good looking.
Cap Pub owned its own press
Cap Pub owned its own press, courtesy of a former partner. The key employee, a moonlighting printer, arrived Friday evenings (and often well into the night) to print. EOR was eight pages, four single sheets, because that's what the press could produce. About that time, in a great technological leap, we acquired a folder and inserter to work with the press. It cost, the publisher noted, about the same as a new Triumph TR-4 "and was about as reliable."
A year or so after I left, Cap Pub launched Education Daily. The publisher told me that when you publish a daily, but not before, does the convenience of owning a press outweigh the hassles and headaches.
The founding price was $65 and had gone to $75 by then, but for a number of years thereafter debate raged over whether you could ever go over the imagined major price point of $100.
Marketing in the late sixties
On the marketing side, we were making a seismic change from the early age of sending a sample issue and an order card to the new era of a long, meaty sales letter with an order form, reply envelope and maybe a buckslip describing the free special report premium.
It really wasn't a matter of adopting marketing "conventional wisdom," because we honestly didn't know there was "conventional wisdom."
The largest mailings I remember were about 15,000, and we found that a crew of high school students did a much better job inserting than the fraternity boys--although the music they liked was a trial. I don't remember, but I don't think we bothered with bulk-rate mailings, because first class was then a nickel.
Mostly we compiled our own lists. Renting large lists, especially from organizations, was a newish thing. For one group, the publisher later recalled, "I had to date the secretary three times before we got the list." (Years later I quoted him in the NAA's Hotline and received a snarky note from NOW. "Could have been a male secretary," I thought, "Who's making the sexist assumptions here?")
Our house list of subscribers and prospects was maintained on Addressograph plates and envelopes were run off by a service down the street. The old lady who ran that died suddenly and our financial guy literally ran down the street to grab our drawers of plates lest they be seized by the estate and await probate.
Most memorably, the day after Martin Luther King's assassination was a deadline day. We worked away, as smoke began to rise from the fires blocks away on 14th Street and lines formed across the street at the liquor store. By the time we put the issue to bed, fires engulfed parts of the city and National Guardsmen were patrolling the intersections.
A hell of a lot of fun
But in all, in those prehistoric days before personal computers, cell phones, desktop publishing, the internet and so much more, we were putting out a good newsletter and having a hell of a lot of fun in the process.
I left after three months to take a "real job" (one with benefits and my own typist) with a trade association.
I soon launched their Washington newsletter and those first golden, paid-for words of March 1968 have been followed by--I just calculated--4,670,400 more for a variety of subscription and non-subscription newsletters.
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|Title Annotation:||Newsletter history|
|Publication:||The Newsletter on Newsletters|
|Date:||Mar 7, 2008|
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