Writing newsletters

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An advertisement in our local newspaper on Saturday reminded me of how community groups used to produce newsletters. Someone wanted to buy a Gestetner duplicating machine for a school in East Timor. Now virtually extinct, the Gestetner was the low-tech manual predecessor of the photocopier. A friend of mine had one that she made available to community groups to print their newsletters. Every month she would have the Mothers’ Club, the playgroup, the Boy Scouts and many others toiling away on the duplicator, producing bulletins to keep their members informed and in touch.

Printing entailed a high degree of manual labour. First, someone had to type the text onto one or more wax stencils. These were delicate and unforgiving, and typing errors were difficult to correct. To use the duplicator, the stencil had to be attached to a drum which had a reservoir for sticky black printers’ ink. The operator turned a large handle to rotate the drum, which spread the ink over the stencil and pressed it against the waiting sheet of paper. As each rotation was completed the ink would seep out through the letters cut in the wax stencil onto the paper and, as if by magic, the newsletter appeared. Each turn of the handle generated another copy of the page. When enough copies of one page had been printed the operator removed the stencil, replaced it with another, and started the process again.

It sounds simple enough, but there were traps at every stage. The ink seemingly transferred itself not only to the paper but to hands, clothes, walls and anything else within reach. The handle had to be turned at just the right speed, too slow and the print was over-inked and blotchy; too fast and the print was too faint to read. Printing pages back to back on one sheet of paper tested spatial awareness if one side was not to appear upside down. A multi-page newsletter for a large group was back-breaking, arm-aching work. And of course, at the end the machine had to be thoroughly cleaned and readied for the next group to use.

Printing the newsletter was only part of the process. The pages had to be collated and stapled (again all by hand), then addressed and prepared for mailing or delivery. All this work was done voluntarily, of course, and as we worked we would usually have our preschool children playing around us, wanting to ‘help’ by turning the handle or squeezing out the ink. Back then we had no access to maternity leave or child care centres and most of us had been forced to leave paid jobs when our babies were born. Community groups were an important part of our lives and printing newsletters was a social activity more than a chore.

Of course, since then technology has changed just as working conditions have changed for mothers. The manual duplicating machine was replaced by the photocopier, which could do the job in a fraction of the time and with much less mess. Many groups now send their newsletters by email, further reducing costs and labour.

However, one part of the process has remained the same since my days at the duplicator. Somebody still has to write the newsletter, and the information in it has to be relevant, up-to-date and accurate. I wrote many of the newsletters I printed. Contact me if you need someone to write your newsletter, or if you are looking for some new ideas for it.