Monday, May 18, 2009

StarText Subscriber Columnists

Throughout the posts published here the term "StarText subscriber columnist" has surfaced on several occasions.

Like many other things, the idea of subscribers authoring their own columns was never in the original blueprint for StarText. It just sort of happened.

As much as anything, it was a by-product of the "two-way" nature of our medium. Thanks to the fact our "newspaper" was delivered over a telephone line, our customers could "talk back" to us in the form of emails, comments, forums and the like. Talk about a game changer! The traditional "one to many" form of media distribution (radio, television, newspapers) could now be "one to one" as well.

(This would have far-reaching implications which would be fully realized with the advent of the Internet. Now, thanks to the Web, readers are fully empowered to zig zag across the globe. picking and choosing what media they will consume at any given moment. The local newspaper is but one of millions of potential destinations. Today's customer truly is King.)

But in 1983 the idea of an editor and a reader engaging in a conversation via email was pretty mind-blowing.

Anyway, one result of these early email conversations was the realization that many of our readers needed help. Personal computing was in its infancy and people were having a devil of a time trying to learn how to operate the danged things. One day it occurred to us: Why not publish those pleas for help online? Somebody out in StarText-Land might have the answer.

Guess what? They did.

Not only did readers offer answers, but much to our surprise, a handful stepped forward and volunteered to actually write columns dedicated to helping those new owners of Apples, Commodores, Timex-Sinclairs, IBMs and a dozen more that have been relegated to history. What an interesting and unexpected development: Non-journalists willing to write columns for no money. Didn't see that coming!

After much discussion and debate, it was decided. "This is new media, right? Boldly going where no journalist has gone before, right? Let's do it."

But we did set up some rules:

1. Aspiring columnists had to submit a sample column of what they had in mind.

2. If they made that cut, columns were assigned a system keyword. For example, a column on Apple computers was APPLECHAT.

3. New columns were featured in a "Guest Columnists" area. This is where they got a "test drive" with our readers. Subscribers could comment on their content and the staff could see how serious the writer was on updating it.

4. Once a column was updated three times, it could officially become a new column on StarText.

While columns on computers dominated, eventually there were columns on all kinds of topics.:

  • A psychologist answered questions and helped persons with their personal issues. (yes, every column had the standard legal disclaimer.)

  • One column was on the origin of words.

  • The Forum was the where subscribers could debate the topics of the day. And it got pretty heated sometimes.

  • There were columns on pets, insurance, auto repair ... our subscribers were "experts" in many fields.

At its peak, there were just under 80 community columnists writing for StarText. You could say they were the early forerunners of today's blogs.

One thing many of our columnists found out quickly: Writing a column can be hard work. The constant updating, answering emails, the grind of finding something new to write about. Take it from someone who made his living doing that once upon a time ... it has its own challenges.

But overall they were amazing in their dedication, particularly given the pay. In that regard I have to single out the subscriber who early on volunteered to write a column for IBM PC owners, Carrington Dixon. Carrington faithfully updated his column every week for 10 years! If you are out there somewhere on the Internet Carrington, step forward and be recognized.

Correction: I did in fact locate Carrington and found out to my surprise his tenure as a StarText columnist was actually over 16 years! He has promsied to share his memories of that with us -- coming soon!

Why did they do it?

There were probably as many reasons as there were columnists. But I think one of our columnists said it best. This is taken from "Cruisin' With StarText," by subscribers Chuck and Terry Mencke. It was a column that appeared after StarText had made the leap to the Internet. Described as "Your Guide to Cyberspace and Beyond," this is excerpted from Vol. 2 Number 12, July 12, 1996:

Be A Subscriber Columnist!

Do you have a passion in life? Is there something that you are really interested in and would like to share with other individuals other than your immediate family? Have you always had the hankering to be a writer? Do you like to get email and help people with their problems? Do you like to be looked up to by your friends? Well, if you answered any one of those questions with a "yes," you are a candidate to become a subscriber columnists on StarText.

I look forward to each and every issue of Cruisin'. Normally it takes me around 8 to 10 hours to put together a column. This includes time for researching , formatting, writing and of course the final edit by Terry. Towards the end of the process it gets exciting to see the finished column appear in it's final form that can be enjoyed by all. I used to update Cruisin' once a week but it just got too hard to handle and the column suffered. Many of the columnists on StarText write a monthly column. In fact that is how my previous column, "StarTips," got started. I moved gradually to a twice a month update and then to once a week for a while. If you do decide to write a column, don't push yourself, enjoy the process. Update it when you can or when you have something new to share with your readers.

Don't ever feel that you are out there alone with no support. There is all sorts of help available from the columnists and staff alike. I'm sure any of the regular StarText columnists would be willing to give you a pointer or two. Speaking for myself and probably for Jim (WOW) [Boughton] as well, we'd both be glad to help anyone with the HTML coding and uploading. After you get the hang of it, it is really no big deal. In fact there are quite a few really good editors out there that will help you learn HTML.

So what are you going to write about? Do some brainstorming and I'm sure you'll come up with several ideas. Kick them around, bounce them off other columnists and friends and nail down the concept for the column. Just about anything goes that is within the realms of good taste. You can always drop [the editor] an email. She is the subscriber columnist editor on StarText and has always been very helpful. Bounce some ideas off of her, she'd love to hear from you. StarText is always encouraging subscribers to start their own columns. The subscriber columnists have been described as the "heart and soul" of StarText. Subscriber- written columns have been one of the main reasons I've stayed on StarText as long as I have.

Well I hope I've done a pretty good job of convincing you to at least consider becoming a StarText subscriber columnist. Be among the few, the proud, the elite. Still need some more convincing? Visit several of the columns that are now online. See what they are writing about. You could be doing the very same thing and have a great time making all sorts of new friends. Give it a try, you won't be sorry.

Terry, you said it beautifully.

There was another tradition connected with the subscriber columns -- the "StarColumnist of the Quarter Award." Since we couldn't pay them, we nonetheless wanted to honor their hard work. So every quarter the staff voted on the columnist who had gone above and beyond during that three-month period. The honoree received a nice plaque and three free months of service.

For me, the emergence of the subscriber columnists was always a big part of the "magic" of StarText. Empowering everyday people and giving them a voice -- providing a venue to showcase their talent and knowledge. Information Revolution and computers aside, it all came down to one of the oldest and most lasting of all human pursuits:

It was people helping people.

1 comment:

  1. StarText got me running my own bulletin board system. I was writing the PASCAL column in the late 1980s as a student in computer science at UTA. One of the StarText subscribers, Marc Nowell, contacted me about a problem he was having moving a user list from one BBS software system into a new one, TPBoard, that happened to be written in Turbo Pascal. I started work on a tool to transfer the data, and ended up needing a TPBoard installation on my machine to test it out. Once I'd gone that far, I decided I might as well run my own board, too. That was the start of the Central Neural System BBS that hosted a variety of resources and software about artificial intelligence, neural networks, and evolutionary computation. The CNS BBS ran from 1989 to 1997. I notice that I shut down the BBS the same year as StarText Classic shut down. Since then, I've had a hand in running several web-based communities, and co-founded a group science blog, the Panda's Thumb, in 2004. I appreciate the community that StarText encouraged and the opportunity to make something of a contribution there.