By: Baroness Jehanne de Huguenin, OP
Sisyphus was the unfortunate dude in the Greek myth who was punished for various misdeeds by being eternally forced to roll a huge stone up a hill. Every time he laboriously pushed it to the top, it would roll back down the hill, and he’d have to start again. The labour of Sisyphus is not unlike the job of a chronicler: a recurring monthly task which seems never-ending. You roll the darned stone up the hill every month, get it to the top, print it out, give it to your subscribers, and blam! it rolls back down to the bottom and you have to do the whole thing again next month.
Despite this, however, there are not only local chroniclers in lots of groups, there are people (me included) who do it joyously for years at a time and actually have to be pried loose from the office with crowbars wielded by a respectable proportion of the local stick jocks. Pushing that darned stone can be amazingly fun and rewarding; it’s one of the most responsible jobs in the SCA, but also one of the ones that gives you very concrete rewards and a sense of accomplishment. This is not because your group is likely to shower you with praise, since a Chronicler’s work can sometimes be a bit taken for granted by the uninitiated, but because of the enormous satisfaction of that newsletter, all shiny and newly printed, the visible embodiment of all your work.
This article is an attempt to consolidate into one place the result of my varied experiences with producing a newsletter: as the editor of student role-playing magazines, Tolkien society journals and academic conference proceedings; as a Shire chronicler for three years and as a Kingdom chronicler for three and a half. In talking of the travails and rewards of this jolly old job, I know whereof I speak :>. At the same time, I am a fallible mortal chronicler dinosaur: I’d welcome discussion and comment from chroniclers who need amplification or wish to disagree with anything I’ve said. View this as a document in progress. Your views will probably be incorporated somehow.
So, you’re a new chronicler, facing the office with determined trepidation, or trepidacious determination, or something. What is expected of you? The basic obligations are laid out at various levels of the SCA’s administrative structures:
I’m not going to repeat that information, other than to summarise the basic elements:
- You must be familiar with the above policies;
- You must be warranted by your Kingdom superior (i.e. the Kingdom Chronicler must know about you, know what your newsletter is and how often to expect it, and know your membership details, and you must keep your warrant by regular reporting and newsletter production);
- You must produce and mail a regular newsletter, by the deadlines set by your group, and containing the required information set by the SCA Inc;
- You must send complimentary copies of it to the required Kingdom and Society level officers;
- You must send regular quarterly reports to the Kingdom Chronicler;
- You must keep good records of subscriptions and finances of the newsletter;
- You must take and publish business meeting minutes;
- If your group has a website, you are responsible for warranting a web minister, and overseeing the site’s content.
If you do all of the above, you will be fulfilling the functions of a local chronicler. However, there is a difference between fulfilling the functions, and fulfilling them well, and it’s the notion of doing things well that I’m particularly interested in here. If you are going to put all this work into a newsletter each month, it may as well be as good a newsletter as you can possibly or conveniently make it. Interestingly, it is not, in fact, a significantly larger investment of time to move it from the realm of the adequate to the realm of the outstanding.
The Best Possible Newsletter
Each year the SCA awards the William Blackfox Awards to local group newsletters in various categories - overall best newsletter, best layout, best artwork, etc. After several years of nominating Drachenwald newsletters to these awards, and seeing several of them win, I have a fairly strong sense of what constitutes a worthwhile publication.
Herewith, then, my personal take on the Top Ten Things which make a local group newsletter an excellent one. These are ranked in order of importance, most important first; again, this is in my opinion and experience, it’s not an absolute.
1. It’s regular and on time.
I cannot sufficiently stress the importance of this. It is a requirement of your office to produce a newsletter to deadline; it is also, tragically, the easiest thing to slip on; we all have mundane lives which can irritatingly interfere with our SCA activities. However, as group chronicler you have a responsibility to your subscribers; people depend on you for the information which allows them to play their game. The actual day of the month by which the newsletter must be mailed is set by your group: this is defined mostly by postage times. Basically, you need to have it in your subscribers’ hot little hands by the beginning of the month, otherwise the calendar info isn’t as useful as it could be.
You can give yourself a bit of leeway if you hand it out mostly at events. In a small group within one city, I used to like the newsletter to be out by the 28th of the month at the absolute latest; the 25th is better to give yourself some postage time. I would say that getting a short, quickly-put-together newsletter, lacking articles or sexy artwork, out on time with a full calendar, is preferable to getting a deeply sexy and article-laden one out late. You can always carry articles over to future editions, if you know one is coming in but it’s too late for your deadline.
2. It’s financially viable
It is up to you to make sure that subscriptions to your newsletter cover the costs of printing and mailing, without either shortfall or a large margin of profit which suggests you’re overcharging your subscribers. You need to set subscriptions at an appropriate level, and monitor finances to make sure they remain appropriate. In order to do so, you also need to keep good records of subscriptions and costs; this is also necessary so there is no ambiguity about subscription expiry. Reminders to the populace that their subscription is about to expire are a necessary aspect of this.
Also remember that you are obliged to send several complimentary copies, some overseas; you’ll need to factor this into your finances, either by adding a margin to subscriptions, or by persuading wealthier members of the populace to sponsor a complimentary subscription.
3. It contains accurate, relevant information
Your duty is to publish up-to-date, reliable and comprehensive information about the group’s upcoming activities, both for the month of publication and, in the case of particularly important events, months ahead. You are actually required to include a calendar of the month’s events. Without unnecessarily duplicating the Kingdom newsletter, you could or should also publish the activities of any nearby group which may be of interest to members; this need not be space-consuming, even an event name, date, place and URL can be useful. You are also obliged to publish a regnum for the group, i.e. a list of contact details for the officers; it’s up to you to keep this accurate.
To obtain necessary details, you will need to attend business meetings and work closely with your group officers, guild leaders, event stewards, neighbouring group officers, etc.
4. It has regular communications from officers
Your newsletter is the best way for your group officers (and, in the case of barony or principality, its crowned heads) to communicate with the populace. This is not only communication about important admin matters and SCA structural guidelines, but more day-to-day information and, hopefully, education: a local Herald’s letter, for example, is an excellent way to disseminate basic heraldic knowledge. You need to make local officers well aware of deadlines, and probably remind them each month.
5. It is restrained and well-balanced in its content
SCA rules specify that you may not print material which could be inflammatory or political. At the same time, multiple voices are also an important aspect of the SCA culture: this game belongs to all of us, and we all have opinions. Your newsletter is not the official voice of your crowned heads or seneschal, it’s the official voice of your group, and the notion of (courteous, positive, thoughtful) debate is central to keeping everyone as happy as possible.
I think one of the chronicler’s most important jobs is to perform the tricky balancing act which allows such debate to be heard, but makes sure it stays within the bounds of courtesy and positive contribution, and is never allowed to become personal. If you have doubts about any particular content, make use of your Kingdom Chronicler for an outsider opinion before you publish - it’s safer!
6. It publishes concise, accurate and coherent business meeting minutes.
This is an important aspect of an SCA chronicler’s duties which is too often overlooked. You are obliged to publish minutes of your group’s monthly business meeting. Your group members have a right to be informed about admin decisions which affect the group, even if they cannot attend the meeting themselves. Generally, the best way to make sure they are taken (and you can read them!) is to take them yourself; this also means you can make sure they are balanced, fair and do not omit important voices. Minutes can take up a lot of space, so it’s okay to summarise and use note-form, as long as the information is clear.
7. It publishes regular, worthwhile articles
The local newsletter is a great forum for education, knowledge, and showcasing the achievements and skills of your populace. You should try to publish at least one article a month, if you can possibly choke them out of the populace. Articles need to be relevant to the needs of the group, accurate and well-researched and to further the society’s ends in terms of historical re-creation. Personally, I like to encourage historical authenticity in newsletter articles, as the ideal of the Society - articles on “how to do it properly” rather than “how to fudge it to look vaguely period”.
If your group is madly non-article-writing, trawl the Web: lots and lots of SCA people have websites with excellent articles, and most have no objection to having those reprinted, as long as it’s in their entirety, and with correct attribution. (Always mail the writer and ask permission, though). I find that printing articles from people outside the group has the useful effect of shaming group members into writing their own stuff, too. I have also found that putting a general request for articles out by mailing list or in your chronicler’s letter is unlikely to elicit much response: it’s a lot more effective to approach particular people, and with a specific idea for an article in an area you know they are proficient in. A lot of people panic if simply asked for “an article”, and have difficulty in coming up with something specific.
8. It’s properly edited
As a central aspect of quality and readability in your newsletter, it must be proofread and checked for grammar and spelling errors. You are producing a publication which represents the SCA, an educational organisation: you have an obligation to make sure it darn well educates instead of proliferating sloppy writing.
If you hate proofreading, or don’t tend to notice errors (it’s quite easy to get too close to the material you’re working with), find yourself an assistant whose only task is to proofread your newsletter. And don’t be shy about changing stuff. The most important skill I have learned as a chronicler is the cheerful ruthlessness to edit contributions when their grammar is sub-standard. It’s important.
9. It’s well laid out
Your newsletter needs to be reasonably attractive and easy to read, i.e. well laid out, with clear headings and article divisions, and with some attempt at interesting fonts and artwork. Artwork should also not run foul of copyright issues: try to persuade members of the populace to draw for you, or use one of the clipart sites on the web, such as the out-of-copyright medieval woodcuts on www.godecookery.com. Remember, simple is usually better than over-cluttered, and too many different fonts is worse than too few.
10. It’s well-printed and presented
Poor print quality is one of my hot buttons: it drives me crazy to see an otherwise good newsletter let down by shoddy photocopying. Make sure that your copy shop machines have sufficient toner, avoiding grainy copies, and that they pull the paper through straight. I realise many newsletters have to keep copying costs down, but a professional shop should produce reasonable quality copies regardless of how much discount they’re giving you. Make sure the publication is neatly folded and stapled, with pages lined up and the staples in the right place. These details are often not particularly time-consuming to sort out, but they make all the difference to the look of your newsletter.
The Ideal Chronicler
If that’s my idea of an excellent newsletter, what is this saying about you, the chronicler? What skills and abilities do you need to have? What important issues do you need to bear in mind? In my view, the most important of these are:
1. Stick to that deadline!
The most important thing I can say is that you need to realise this is a commitment: you will need to find time and space to put together your newsletter at the same time of the month, every month, regardless of your mundane life. See reference to Sisyphus, above. I find it fairly easy to establish this routine, and to work around my other activities, but I know other chroniclers find this difficult and stressful.
Basically, you need to be organised, and to take the monthly deadline seriously; if there are other pressures you know will interfere at the usual time, do the darned thing earlier, rather than later. This is an obligation! People are depending on you! And while I’m about it: it’s a continual source of amazement to me that chroniclers are perfectly able to produce a monthly newsletter but find a quarterly report beyond them. Don’t forget to report to your kingdom chronicler!
2. Kick that populace!
A chronicler’s job would actually be easier if you could simply write the whole damned newsletter yourself. You need to be aware that extracting the necessary articles and letters from your officers and populace, in time, every month, is uncomfortably like getting blood from Sisyphus’s stone at the same time that you’re pushing it up the hill.
You will need to be a model of tact, charm and ruthless demand. You will have to develop a system of gentle reminders, repeat gentle reminders, querulous complaints, pitiful wailing, barking, biting and, in extreme cases, transmuting self into dragon and breathing fire at defaulters. The populace at large don’t really have a sense of how deadline-driven a newsletter is; they have a vague expectation that it’ll simply happen, month by month, in some strange alternative dimension of time squeezed into the cracks in your mundane life. Don’t let them get away with this.
As a corollary, the more consistent you are with deadlines, the more likely they are to comply. If you start slipping, they lose urgency. Oh, and don’t be tempted to write it all yourself: I took this line of least resistance, when doing my local newsletter, but it’s a bad solution: it makes the populace lazy, it denies them the wider expertise of lots of people, and it builds up a horrible legacy of non-article-writing for less verbose future chroniclers.
3. Wrangle that computer!
These days, computer skills are important whatever you do; they’re becoming essential to a chronicler’s job. You need to be able to work with reasonable facility in something like MSWord, or preferably in a layout programme, since Word is notoriously horrible with picture layout. At local level a fairly basic level of competence is fine, but I find that the more skill you have with computers, the faster you are able to work - you make fewer mistakes, and spend less time trying to work out how to get the effects you want. You also need to have a computer on which you can work, and a good quality printer (preferably laser, but inkjet is actually fine) on which you can print out the newsletter each month. You can do this through a print shop, but it tends to be expensive, as well as irritating when you discover that they don’t have the same fonts, or can’t read the same file formats.
A corollary to this point is to have regular e-mail access, and to be prompt and courteous in terms of responding to submissions. E-mail has made the chronicler’s job so, so, so much easier, but it’s also easy to fail to acknowledge contributions. Always acknowledge contributions promptly, with effusive gratitude and compliments. The populace and officers need all the positive reinforcement they can get.
4. Delegate! Delegate! Delegate!
As you can see from all of the above, a chronicler’s job, done properly, is quite a lot of responsibility and work. It is quite possible to do it all yourself, if you’re organised, but there is actually no reason why you have to do so. Spread the load a little, if you can find reliable people to help. Appoint a financial deputy to keep your books and money. Appoint a subscription deputy to keep subscription records and take on the responsibility of chasing up expirations. Find someone to take over the printing and mailing, and another person to be in charge of business meeting minutes.
If you feel you’re inartistic or lacking in layout skills, turn the compiled file of contributions over to someone else for prettifying. Or, if you like layout but hate chasing up contributors, find someone with a big stick who’ll collect all the contributions each month and simply hand over the files. Many people will cheerfully do minor chores like this, when they will shy away from the responsibility of the chronicler’s job as a whole. And, as a sneaky corollary, you get to train up potential successors without them realising.
Above all, Don’t Panic! You probably shouldn’t be in this for the glory and recognition. Unfortunately, people tend to take for granted a regular, accurate newsletter; it’s when it’s consistently late or publishes wrong information that the populace are likely to take notice. This does mean, however, that you have considerable leeway to do a solid, dependable job in your own quiet corner. People are far less likely to argue with you over the newsletter than they are to argue with the Marshal over his failure to authorise their armour, or with the Seneschal over the choice of site for an event. You’re the backbone of your group. No-one ever looks at their own backbone, but, by gum, they notice if you remove it…
Despite its occasional lack of recognition and its stone-rolling parallels, a chronicler’s job is not nearly as terrifying as it looks. A local newsletter is a safe environment in which to work, since you’re producing it for people you know, whose tastes and responses are reasonably predictable. Generally, if you are on time every month and your information is accurate, your group will be happy. Any additional content such as articles and attractive layout is a bonus which will make them even happier. When they stop to think about it, some people do realise how much work you do, and how important it is for group enjoyment that you’re doing it well. Your Kingdom Chronicler may quietly recognise the calibre of your work by submitting you for the William Blackfox. Best of all, you’ll build up this substantial, indelible pile of excellent newsletters which are entirely your fault. That’s a very good feeling.