Examples of successful newsletters abound in the Northern Catskills, with a wealth of variation — from the semiannual Schoharie County Historical Review (5.5 x 8.5, 40 or more pages) to single-page flyers or emails reminding people to attend a forthcoming meeting.
The appearance and quality differ based on the purpose of the publication. The articles in the Schoharie County Historical Review are in-depth local histories presented in an academic manner and they set a fine standard for writing history (historiography). The one-page reminders of upcoming historical society meetings entice people to come and listen to a speaker addressing items of local interest.
The purpose of most monthly newsletters is to remind members of an upcoming meeting and to motivate them to attend, generally by teasing members with information about the upcoming speaker. To get this information, the program chair should ask the speaker to provide the basic information for a promotional blurb.
If the speaker responds with a bare-bones description of the talk ( “Walt Disney will address the meeting talking about the early days of cinema animation”), feel free to add a little zip to the words — and to get the speaker’s approval
What’s Up Doc?
“Our monthly meeting will present a talk by the creator of animation in cinema — Donald Duck (aka Walt Disney) will talk about the trials of his feathered nephews (Huey, Dewey, and Louie), his neighbors Mickey, Minnie, and Pluto, and hunter Elmer Fudd. The talk will begin at 7:00 in the _ _ _ _ Town Hall on Tuesday, February 30. Refreshments follow.”
Make sure you fill in all of the time and location particulars, and then run the result past the speaker.
You will be sending this out to your membership by snail-or e-mail, and it will cost the same whether you add other information to it or not. Therefore, you might want to add a thank-you to people who might have performed a special service for the society in the last month or to mention important features of past meetings.
We have received a sizeable gift from John Smith and Mary Jones for the purchase of local historical artifacts, and we will have the details of this for you at the meeting.
In addition, we will be making plans for a personalized field trip to the _ _ _ _ _ County Historical Society on June 31 (mark your calendar!).
Check with your readers: they might want to receive a simple reminder like this, or they might like to have additional local history “meat.” The only way to judge is to try adding local history and asking for feedback. For example, you might want to use letters from the Virginia Theater of the Civil War at northerncatskillshistory .com to see if your members call for more.
Remember, the purpose of a monthly newsletter is straightforward — do not spend a great deal of time making a “pretty” presentation.
Semiannual newsletters (especially 2-or 4-page ones) run two risks — speakers and future events may not be finalized and stories about society activities tend to expand to fill available space.
To me, the best semiannual newsletters are ones like the Schoharie County Historical Review — solid, complete, and devoted to well-researched historiography. The stories can be longer, the research more complete, and the value to the community more significant.
The challenge for the editors of these newsletters is to cultivate authors who can produce a stream of high-quality articles at a rate that will populate the pages of the journal. Difficult, but obviously not impossible.
The most popular formats for newsletters from historical societies seem to be the monthly reminders and longer quarterly letters with broader goals, including:
- to promote upcoming events;
- to attract new members (numbers & demography);
- to use local history threads to maintain readership.
Promoting of Upcoming Events
Some historical societies are blessed with program chairs who are able to get really good speakers and schedule them well into the future. In the 3+ years of publishing the Gilboa Historical Society Newsletter, I never had to delay publication or omit detail waiting for the schedule of upcoming events. Thank you, Connie Ruehle, not only for that record but also for providing thoughts on the selection process for program organizers (see Nonprofit management at northerncatskillshistory.com.)
As the editor, emphasize the need for advance planning for speakers, recommend northerncatskillshistory .com ’s Speakers Directory, and remind the program chair of upcoming deadlines. If you are confident that information is indeed forthcoming, you can reserve space in your newsletter (but make sure that you have content to use as filler in the worst-case scenario). Delaying publication pending calendar information is negatively enabling — set a publication date and stick to it!
Attracting New Membership
Use the newsletter to remind your membership about their membership status. One society quadrupled membership simply by reminding people that their membership had expired!
Every newsletter should include a membership application so that members can extend their membership and others can join for the first time.
If your membership records are in a database or Excel spreadsheets, use the formula utility to automatically add an asterisk or expiration date to the member ’s name on the address label of the newsletter, and draw your reader ‘s attention to this status feature.
The content of your newsletter will attract new members. Genealogical content will appeal to a slightly different audience, and coverage from nearby communities can add members beyond your core constituency.
I am not an ageist, but realistically seniors tend to be joiners, interested in historical events, and more tied to their local communities than younger people. Thus, your own historical society might well be “gray.” Take advantage of this predisposition, but also make sure that your newsletter is seen as hospitable to younger populations — use your newsletter to present topics that attract younger people: music, dance, technology, sports, outdoor activities, hiking, etc.
A social studies teacher who is interested in local history organizes the content and has arranged for the actual design and layout of the newsletter to be done as projects at the school by graphics students working under her direction. This win-win situation earns students educational credits while providing them with hands-on experience in local history, graphic design, and meeting deadlines.
Increasing Readership with Threads of Local History
Your selection of articles will increase readership.
I think of this process as pulling on the threads of our history. If you devote a full issue to only one thread (genealogical techniques, for instance), you may find a few people avidly interested and the majority may be snoozing. However, you can offer one relatively short article in sequential issues and find that your entire readership will find them interesting. Threads that are useful in this regard might be agriculture, archeology, documents, genealogy, area hamlets, hiking, letters, music, preservation, technology, reminisces of the early twentieth century, and watershed activities.
Nearly all of your readers may be interested in multiple articles on any humanistic theme. An issue on bringing power to the Northern Catskills (articles on engines, motors, acetelyne gas, commercial electricity, etc.) may be fascinating for the majority of your readers regardless of age or gender.
Human-interest articles that are presented in pairs are also sure winners — an article on hops farming and the music played at the harvest, for instance, may appeal to people with either interest and draw them into the related topic to broaden their knowledge of an earlier lifestyle.
This article, is available as a download.