I’ve been reading Breaking the News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now, the memoir published in 2018 by Alan Rusbridger. From 1995 to 2015, Rusbridger was editor of The Guardian, if not Britain’s largest newspaper, then perhaps its most influential. Part memoir, part newspaper history, the book is largely about how The Guardian recognized and then started coming to grips with the digital world.
Part of what fascinated me about the book is that it covers approximately my own experience with the digital world and how I helped (or tried to help) a corporation’s communications department come to grips with it. My journey started slightly earlier that Rusbridger’s – in 1993. But it ended the same year his did, in 2015, and for the same reason, retirement. What he was doing with The Guardian and digital communications is almost a mirror image of what we were doing in corporation communications.
In1993, a colleague returned from a conference in Toronto and said she’d seen a presentation by AT&T on its email newsletter for employees. It sounds old hat and rather quaint today, but in 1993, not many people had email accounts. At our company, roughly 5,000 employees were on company email – out of a total of 30,000. We thought that 5,000 just might be enough to start our own email newsletter. We talked with AT&T and with a small insurance company in Canada, the only two companies which at the time had email newsletters for employees.
The technology was available and functioning. The will to use the technology for an employee newsletter was not. It was an uphill slog, often steeply uphill. The people managing the computer systems predicted doom, as if an all-text newsletter would permanently crash the servers, cause the collapse of the global financial system, and usher in a new Dark Age. The communications bosses were skeptical, saying no one would care about company news from across all divisions. We plodded on, stymied at every step, until the day of a Eureka moment: No one could prevent us from doing it, short of shutting the email system down. So, we did a test. We sent the first issue to all communications people in the company worldwide, about 90 in all.
The test was (unintentionally) brilliant. It crossed numerous kinds of operating systems and computer hardware. It crossed widely disparate commercial and manufacturing operations. It also crossed cultures, native languages, and time zones. And it crossed another potential barrier. Since it was just a test, and only with communications people, we decided we didn’t need legal or Human Resources approval. The plan was to publish twice a week for two weeks, and then consider what, if anything, happened. And we wanted to get some sense of how people responded to and interacted with a digital newsletter.
We told the 90 communications what we were doing, and then we immediately launched the first issue, in case someone objected and tried to stop it.
Initially, we had no response. Then a colleague is Europe asked if he might forward it to a few people in his region. We said yes.
By the end of the first week, we’d received more than a thousand requests for adding a name to the distribution list. By the end of the first month, virtually everyone on the email system had requested addition to the distribution. The newsletter contained very basic items: news from the company, news about the company, and letters from employees. Yes, they wrote letters. We received them from all over the world, and we soon found ourselves moderating debates. It was a curating function, but we used a light hand.
Something about our email newsletter had connected with people around the world. One employee explained it this way: “It’s cool to see it by email, but it’s cooler because of its voice. It respects its readers. It sugarcoats nothing. It allows employees to have their say, and we’re educating each other. It lets employees see the company as the world sees it, and we can see where the world is right and where it’s wrong.” Surprisingly, by crossing divisional lines, it allowed people to see what was happening commercially in other areas and even created sales opportunities. But the biggest surprise was to learn that sales reps, researchers, and others were forwarding the newsletter to customers, academics, trade associations, and other outside parties. (We kept that news to ourselves, but we had to be mindful of how outside people would react.)
Our twice-a-week newsletter, written to be read in at most five minutes, had opened the door to the digital revolution at my company.
Next: Understanding what was happening, and here comes the worldwide web.
Top photograph by Online Printers via Unsplash. Used with permission.