Improving Your Newsletter
By Jim Weller
At the 2001 Toronto Diocese synod delegates were asked what they thought were their
biggest parish communications challenges. In completed questionnaires nearly half
mentioned written material, and especially parish newsletters.
In light of this the Diocese Communications Committee felt newsletters could be a topic
for study with a view to assisting any parishes looking for help with their newsletter.
In Link, on the diocesan web site, Stuart Mann, editor of The Anglican called for sample
newsletters from across the Toronto diocese to be sent to the author of this article.
Response was limited but the request did yield quite a variety of newsletters. While some
are very good, others confirmed why many parishes find newsletters to be a significant
This article is largely based on newsletters received, and from information supplied by
those who produce them. The observations are, perhaps, somewhat subjective, but could
form the basis of more discussion.
It is probably no accident that some of the more striking newsletters, whether large or
small, are associated with progressive parishes. This correlation needs more study to
show newsletters' roles on the quality of parish life, but the advantage of giving them a
high priority in parish planning is clear, as is the need for guidance. "I would love to see
an exchange of newsletters between the churches of our Diocese" wrote Betty Tyndall,
editor of St. Paul's Lindsay's 'The Grapevine' , already one of our better newsletters. "I
know I have a lot to learn… an exchange is always a great way," she added.
A step towards sharing information between newsletter editors and publishers was partly
met through newsletter workshops in gatherings of the Trent-Durham and Credit Valley
Asking to be picked up
To state the obvious, the best newsletters visually ask to be picked up, with contents
carefully compiled for enthusiastic reading by their prime target -- members of the parish.
Sometimes these members generate additional readers as they proudly show or pass them
to the wider community with obvious benefits to the parish.
Cover treatment, which provides immediate impact on potential readers, varies greatly in
our newsletters. Some use artwork covers, others rely on attention grabbing headlines
and pictures. Artwork covers on coloured stock are a feature of The Church of the
Redeemer's The Gathering. "Our cover art is the work of members of our parish -- both
children and adults" says Ann Cope, coordinator of a 5-member newsletter team who
adds: "we are blessed with some tremendously talented folks." A striking artwork cover
is on a recent issue of Jacob's Ladder the 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 in. newsletter of St. Mark's Port
Hope, edited by Claire Mowatt (wife of author Farley Mowatt). A different approach is
taken at the neighbouring parish of St. Peter's, Cobourg, where Keynotes, produced by the
author of this article, features a top news story and a striking photo (not necessarily
related to the main news story).
A few newsletters feature covers consisting solely of a sermon-type articles written by
the incumbent of the parish. At the risk of offending some clergy, these ones are the least
likely to be picked up based on visual impact!
…. and then read enthusiastically
The old adage: "easy reading is hard writing and good editing" applies, in varying
degrees, to our newsletter editors. Some appear to contain material just as received,
regardless of its author's writing ability. This may be prompted by the editors'
unwillingness to offend the author, but it does not result in easy, enthusiastic reading.
Too often opening phrases such as: "It is hard to believe that Fall is here already. Where
did summer go?" present a barrier to getting at the meat of the article!
Some newsletters insist all submitted material must relate directly to the life of the parish.
"Our one hard and fast editorial policy," says Ann Cope of the Church of the Redeemer,
"is that we don't reprint articles, etc. from other newsletters. So you won't find the usual
'newsletter poems' that make the circuit." Keynotes has a similar policy (The editor has a
store of unused poems, cartoons and Internet jokes.)
Who are the editors?
In this major centre of national and international communications that our diocese serves,
people are used to receiving huge amounts of high quality printed material. Thus our
church newsletters need editors who know how to compete for reader attention.
Most parishes rely on lay members as newsletter editor, with church office staff used in
varying degrees. The involvement of the incumbent, while a key source of material,
varies greatly from almost total "hands-on" to almost total "hands-off." Much depends
on the availability of lay talent, and the level of comfort the incumbent feels with the
editor's judgement in meeting parish objectives. Similarly, a lay editor's comfort level in
the position can also be a major factor in achieving success.
Transformed by home desktop publishing
In these days of desktop publishing home computer skills can be especially helpful, and
have transformed newsletter production. Many of our newsletters are prepared in the
editors' homes using publishing software and the Internet. St. Peter's 28-page Keynotes is
entirely home-produced, including about 20 photos, on MS Publisher 2000 in two files of
about 38MB each.
Several editors request articles be submitted by e-mail, allowing them to be readily edited
and formatted to suit newsletter layouts. Betty Tyndall, of St. Paul's Grapevine, who
requests that material be sent this way, also has a team of typists to convert handwritten
or typewriter produced material to disc for easy input.
Our diocese is especially rich in all the talents needed to produce effective newsletters,
and in most cases these talents are available free of charge. Our larger parishes invariably
include active parishioners with publishing experience though much depends on their
willingness to be recruited. Where they have been, some of the results are quite
spectacular. St. Paul's Bloor St.'s 'The Good News Letter', edited by Janet Earle, is one
example from a parish with substantial resources. It lives up to its name in more ways
than one with its professional layout, clear illustrations, and tight writing.
Volunteers are not ideal in all cases. One church that solved editorial and production
difficulties by using a staff person instead is St. Timothy's North Toronto. Their
newsletter HearSay now uses their Associate Priest, David Montgomery. He states: "We
figured that having the Associate Priest be editor means consistent editorial policy, and a
centralized way of communication in a parish that is always 'communication-
challenged.'" At the Church of the Redeemer's 'The Gathering' two editors alternate
editing and proofreading duties and Ann Cope, the lay co-ordinator, chairs the editorial
Are good newsletters expensive?
They need not be. While ones like The Good News Letter get high quality appearance by
paying for professional layout assistance, other newsletters are quite inexpensive, or even
self-supporting. This is because they can attract paid advertising by the reader exposure
they offer. Betty Tyndall, editor of "The Grapevine" at St. Paul's, Lindsay reports; "we
have been successful through the generosity of our sponsors in making our newsletter a
financial success with no cost to St. Paul's." Keynotes of St. Peter's, Cobourg, attracts
some $3,500 per year -- much of it from advertisers who's only motive is self-interest --
towards the $4,500 cost of printing some 3,500 copies of the publication annually.
Perhaps it is significant that both the above newsletters are from churches offering the
only Anglican presence in small towns where sales may be easier than elsewhere.
Nevertheless "The Herald", the newsletter of Christ Church Deer Park in downtown
Toronto, receives $3,225 a year in advertising and St. John's York Mills, which produces
850 copies monthly of a 4-page newsletter The Link, includes two business-card size
advertisements at $52 per insertion. St. Paul's The Good News Letter contains no
advertising which means the parish is prepared to budget enough money to maintain
Display advertising obviously requires additional work and marketing expertise. It also
requires a firm resolve never to let it influence editorial content or deadlines thereby
compromising credibility. However, one observed by-product is that, apart from the
obvious advantage of enabling cost reduction, the purchasers have a direct interest in
promoting the newsletter themselves. This helps raise the profile of the church and its
activities in the wider community.
Size and frequency
Newsletters throughout the diocese vary greatly in size and frequency. These two factors
are, of course, inter-related with the higher-frequency publications more modest in size.
While many consist of 8 1/2 x 11sheets stapled in the top left corner, others staple 17x
11folded sheets along the spine for easier handling though, to achieve this, printed pages
must be in multiples of four. When printed this way they can be put straight into the mail
without need for folding or an envelope.
The January-February 2003 issue of The Beacon , the newsletter of Christ Church
Holland Landing, is four 8 1/2 x 11in pages while the Advent 2002 issue of St. Mark's,
Port Hope's Jacob's Ladder was 40 pages that are only 5 1/2 in x 8 inches. The winter
issue of Tidings, newsletter of St. James the Apostle, Sharon consists of 28 pages stapled
in the top left corner and the Christmas issue of St. George's Memorial Church, Oshawa
is a single folded 17 x 11in sheet though various loose folders, etc. are included. St.
John's, York Mills monthly newsletter Link is also a single, folded 17 x 11 in sheet.
Though some parishes publish monthly, most aim to coincide with major church calendar
events such as Pre-Lent, Easter, Pentecost, mid-September (when programs restart) and
Christmas. This lower frequency is usually offset by the regular inclusion of parish news
items in weekly church service bulletins. Our Cathedral publishes the 6-page, letter-size
The Cathedral Newsletter four times a year. The 16-page newsletter of St. Margaret's,
New Toronto, a well-produced publication, is published only annually in September at a
cost of about $500 for 200 copies.
Printing (in-house or out)
Deciding whether to print newsletters in-house or outside is a challenge. This is partly
because accurate costs (especially the hidden costs of printing in-house) are hard to
calculate. In-house printing on the church's office copier, besides needing suitable
equipment, also needs staff with the skills and available time for good printing quality
and punctuality. Thus newsletters can play a significant role in church office planning.
The Cathedral's six-page The Cathedral Newsletter, which has a print run of 1200 copies
is printed off-site at a cost of $1,500 per issue. The Church of the Redeemer, on the other
hand, recently changed to in-house printing. "Our parish was in the position to consider a
new photocopier late in 2002 and one of the deciding factors in choosing the one we did
was the ability to print The Gathering in-house at significant cost savings," says Ann
Cope. Her office copier is networked to the computer system and the quality is "as good,
if not better than the version done by a print shop." At St. Paul's, Bloor St. The Good
News Letter is printed from a website produced by the Brian Dench from far outside
Toronto. "The office downloads the newsletter directly into the memory of the copier and
each newsletter is printed as an original from the copier'" says editor Janet Earle. Other
newsletters, including St. Peter's Keynotes, changed to outside printing after weighing the
Getting newsletters to readers in a timely, economic manner is another major challenge.
Said one observer: "If all our membership came to church on the Sunday after
publication the problem would solved!" Reality dictates that each issue usually needs
teams of couriers or bulk mailing, often in combination. At St. Paul's, Lindsay, 30
couriers deliver The Grapevine to homes throughout the parish. St. Paul's Bloor St. does
not do any mailing: "We make the newsletter available at the back of the church and take
them to parish shut-ins," says Janet Earle.
These are just few observations based on newsletter experiences in the Toronto diocese.
There is no doubt the role of the Anglican church, and therefore the Gospel itself, in the
life of this huge geographic and population area can be effectively enhanced by greater
attention to this form of parish communication. And that, after all, is the bottom line.
About the Author
Jim Weller's background includes twelve years of producing engineering and industrial
magazines at Maclean Hunter and twenty years of association management as Vice
President and General Manager of the Canadian Nuclear Association. He "retired" to
Cobourg from Toronto in 1991. For the past ten years he has produced Keynotes, the
newsletter of St. Peter's, Cobourg. He is a member of the Communications Committee
and the Executive Council of the Toronto Diocese and of General Synod.