Another FAQ on STC’s Financial Situation

Q: How will chapters operate if we no longer have funds to rely on in the future?
A: You are keeping 15 months of revenue, so we’re leaving you in better shape than the Society itself! But anyway, we are committed to ensuring that the chapters do have funds for the future:

  • We plan to resume funding the chapters in 2011 using zero-based budgeting.
  • We are working with individual chapters to ensure that they begin charging (or charging more) for their programs and services. Not only will this help them to recover some of the associated expenses and get closer to self-sustaining programs, but it also will reinforce the value of the programs from which local STC members and other technical communicators typically benefit the most.
  • We are funding chapters that project a deficit through the end of 2010, to ensure their ability to deliver their planned programs and activities.
  • We will fund chapters that experience unforeseen shortfalls throughout the next year, due to situations beyond their control (for example, having to replace a projector or laptop that crashes unexpectedly).

FAQ on STC’s financial problems

STC is using surplus chapter funds to make up for 2009 losses. Here’s a question that’s come up several times:

Q: Next year there will be no more chapter funds to draw upon. What is your plan going forward (2010) to ensure that this kind of financial crisis doesn’t happen again?

A: The economic meltdown was a once-in-a-lifetime event that we don’t think will happen gain any time soon. Nevertheless, next year’s budget, approved in principle, is extremely conservative, and avoids unexpected shortfalls in membership renewal and conference attendance, our two primary sources of revenue, which is what significantly eroded our cash position this year:

  • We will increase dues to fully fund ongoing operations. We did this reluctantly and only after examining all the alternatives, but doing so restores equilibrium to a business model that had grown perilously out of balance.
  • We created a zero-based, balanced budget for 2010 that assumes extremely conservative rates for membership renewal (60% versus the 70% historical average) and conference attendance (only 600). Zero-based budgeting is recommended by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and it’s what we asked chapters and SIGs to do as well. The 2010 budget funds continuing operations from dues, which is a fundamental change in our business model. For next year, we are hoping for the best, but planning for the worst.
  • We have rebalanced our investment portfolio to reduce our exposure to equities and adopt a more prudent risk profile.
  • We have reduced our costs significantly. (You will hear more details soon!)

The bottom line? The 2010 budget, without drawing on further chapter resources, includes a modest surplus that will allow us to begin rebuilding reserves next year and into the future.

The Summer of Embargoed Opinions

This summer has been busy and stressful for me as an STC director at large. Since the Summit in May we’ve averaged a conference call every two weeks as we’ve dealt with the Society’s budget shortfall.

During this period we’ve hear from members through email, the STC Forum (since shut down), the TECHWR-L list, the Management SIG list, the STC Ideas group on Ning (set up by Bill Swallow), the STC LinkedIn group, Facebook, and Twitter. We’ve also reached out in a series of open Web sessions (the “virtual town halls”). In addition to participating in Board discussions and decisions, I’ve specifically concentrated on monitoring TECHWR-L, Twitter, and Ning.

Somehow, all this communicating has given me a case of writer’s block on my own blog. Part of the problem has been that I’ve said a lot on other channels. But another part has been that the Board has tried to craft messages carefully and speak with one voice (as a board should). I think our craftsmanship has been mixed, but I think we’ve stayed on message. A personal blog will inevitably be seen as an extension of the Board, and I’ve thought of, then ultimately decided not to comment on, topics all summer.

All the while I’ve taken grim interest in seeing how messages are received and replayed by members. Sometimes we’ve gotten our message out successfully; sometimes we’ve left room for misinterpretation and indeed seen a message misinterpreted; and sometimes people have chosen to take a message the wrong way. As one of us said, sometimes it’s been like going to a rally of a different political party: You hear things that you barely recognize, and other things that you know aren’t true at all. As a technical communicator, I recognize and accept responsibility where we transmitted poorly. Communicating with technical communicators, we have to bring our A game. But willful misinterpretation…! That’s a different problem.

At least I can pick specific questions we’ve been asked and answer them, which will get things flowing here again.

The value of our work

I’ve been thinking a lot of late about the value we provide as technical communicators. What do our users value? What do our clients value? What do we value? Ideally, all three interests align, but in the real world, we all know they conflict. For example, we might want to deliver the most delightful user experience we’re capable of, but our clients (the ones who pay our bills) want us to hit a deadline, whether we’ve had enough time to polish or not.

That’s why I sympathize with the staff reporters at the Wall Street Journal. After the WSJ was acquired by Rupert Murdoch, they had to know big changes were afoot, but apparently they weren’t expecting to be informed, in a memo by managing editor Robert Thomson, that what they valued wasn’t what their readers valued, at least as he viewed it. This account is from Condé Nast’s Portfolio.com:

Pre-Murdoch, Journal reporters had a mandate to pursue the sort of in-depth, counter-intuitive and/or quirky stories that would result in the lengthy page-one articles known as “leders.” Publishing leders was widely seen as the highest aim of the Journal writer.

But Thomson’s memo outlined a newsroom whose occupants are constantly on the lookout not for leder-worthy ideas but for tiny news bites that can be pushed out over the wire immediately, there to bestow a momentary competitive advantage on subscribers.

“Even a headstart of a few seconds is priceless for a commodities trader or a bond dealer — that same story can be repurposed for a range of different audiences, but its value diminishes with the passing of time,” wrote Thomson. “Given that revenue reality, henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged, in significant part, by whether they break news for the Newswires.”

How did the staff take the news? Not well (note the pejorative use of the word “scriveners”):

“… [T]here’s nobody on the Journal’s staff who wants to write that stuff. You didn’t sign up to write 130-word squibs. You signed up to file 3,000-word mini-New Yorker stories for the front page … You’re turning us all into wire reporters. It’s all going to be nuggets written by scriveners who get 700 words to spread their wings.”

One passage that caused particular alarm was his assertion that the value of news “is sometimes better recognised by our readers than our journalists.”

“That’s a pretty nasty little slap, when you think about it,” says the ex-staffer, “because when you flip it, it means reporters know nothing.”

No, it doesn’t. Assuming Thomson is correct, it means there’s a mismatch between what the reporters value (leders) and what subscribers value (timely news). To put it bluntly, the Journal has a right to get value from its employees. If it wants squibs, it should get squibs; if the reporters aspire to write New Yorker pieces, they should work for the New Yorker.

The cover story in the March 2009 issue of Intercom, “Adapt or Die”, by Elissa Matulis Myers, is an important article on the value we provide as technical communicators, and the pressure we face to change with the times. (Full disclosure: I contributed some background material for this article.) What do we do that our clients value? Not all that much, it seems, given how readily employers shed tech writers when times are tough — and we know how tough the times are! But Myers probes beneath the surface and tells us what employers really value. It may not be what you expect.

For example, according to a 2000 study by Accenture, a stunning 20% of consumer electronics purchases are returned, but two thirds of the items test out as working correctly. In 2007, the total cost of receiving, retesting, and restocking these items was nearly $14 billion! If consumers only understood how to use these products, most of that cost could have been avoided. So… If you tell the CFO that you provide an excellent user experience with well-crafted prose, you might not get the respect you feel you deserve, and your job might not be as secure as you feel it ought to be. But if you say that you make the customer understand how to work the product so it won’t be returned, you’re speaking the magic words that make you a valuable corporate asset.

One type of document I admit I don’t enjoy writing is an installation guide. An engineer I worked with once referred to the installation guide as “the monkey-doc,” as in “so simple even a monkey could do it.” Clearly he didn’t value installation guides! And he’ll never put much effort into one. But hardware products sold in the European Union are required by law to include printed installation instructions. Guess what? Without the “monkey-docs,” you can’t legally sell your product in one of your biggest markets! It’s not exciting writing, but it’s valuable.

Come to the Summit!

The economic downturn has affected us all, and this year’s Annual Summit (May 3-6) may seem like an expense you can live without. But I think that this is the best time in many years to invest in yourself and your career. And like many investment opportunities these days, you can pick it up for a bargain price!

Summit Events

When times are tough, we all worry about our jobs. Why not demonstrate a commitment to your profession and set yourself above the rest? At the Summit you can learn best practices, evaluate the newest tools, and hone new skills. You can choose from over 100 continuing-education sessions in six tracks covering the entire profession.

What if the axe has already fallen? The Summit is still a great resource! Bring your resume to the Employment Booth. Log in to the Career Center. Attend multiple social events to expand your personal network. Get updates on industry trends. Be the first to hear new software announcements and demos. Learn everything you need to stay current in the field.

Either way, you can register for the Summit online at http://conference.stc.org/.

Room Sharing

This year’s Summit is already affordable. Hotel rates in Atlanta are 20% lower than last year, and discounted room rates have been extended until April 21. Members whose companies are in the Corporate Value Program get an additional group discount.

But you can cut your bill in half again by sharing a room. Members who want to share rooms in the Hyatt Regency Atlanta can match themselves on the STC Forum.

Split-Payment Options

Mindful of the current situation, we’ve made additional resources available. Members in good standing can pay for registration in two installments, half with your registration form and half on site. Spreading the cost over two billing cycles can help if your budget is already stretched thin.

Payments cannot be completed online, so download the Conference Registration Form and pay your first installment by credit card (sorry, no checks). Mail the completed form to the STC office or fax it to +1 (703) 522-2075.

Scholarships

Up to 250 scholarships of $400 are available for members in good standing to attend the Summit. These scholarships may be awarded to members who are currently unemployed or forced to take at least a 10 percent cut in salary. Consultants or those who own their own business may apply if their business revenue is down at least 10 percent. You must stay at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta to take advantage of this benefit. Scholarships will be awarded on a first-come, first-awarded basis until April 21 or they are all awarded.

To apply, download the Scholarship Registration Form and complete the section indicating your employment status. Fax the completed form with a credit-card payment to +1 (703) 522-2075, or mail it to the STC office with a check. Scholarship recipients will be notified within 48 hours.

For more information, go to stc.org. I look forward to see you in Atlanta!

Messy

I noticed a few months ago that my blog entries were being shown oldest first. It looked as if I hadn’t posted anything in a couple of years! My actual posting rate is (somewhat) better than that. The WordPress Web site said a SQL bug was causing the problem, and a newer release solved the problem.

Because my Web site is hosted by an ISP, upgrading the software was nontrivial. I shied away from undertaking the upgrade for a while, but eventually bit the bullet and, with help from the support staff, completed the upgrade. To keep my (handful of) old blog entries, I kept the previous version.

I posted a few more blog entries. Yesterday I realized that I was posting new entries to the old software!

I’ve spent a pleasant afternoon trying to straighten things out, upgrading to the newest release of WordPress, moving blog posts to the correct place and backdating the datestamps (which seems ethical under these circumstances). I now think things are straightened out.

Software… Thank God it’s so hard to describe, eh?

The Best Technical Document in the World

This past weekend I served as a consensus judge at STC’s International Technical Publications Competition (ITPC). I’ve participated before, as a telephone (remote) judge, on-site judge, and Best-of-Show judge. This year STC conducted an experiment in cost cutting. The Boston and Northern New England chapters, which (if I do say so myself as a member and local participant) jointly run one of the strongest local competitions, were asked to host the judging and provide the bulk of the International judges. We rose to the challenge, and In the Publications competition more than half of the 12 on-site judges were local members (who yet had International experience).

The competitions themselves are one of the major events in the Society. Winners of Awards of Distinction at local competitions in publications, art, and online categories are eligible for the International competition. Winners of Awards of Distinction in each of the three categories in the International competition are eligible for the Best of Show awards.

Each category has slightly different criteria, but broadly speaking we looked at writing and organization, copyediting, and visual design and production–corresponding roughly to the work products of writers, editors, and illustrators. The criteria are hardly rocket science. They’re highly practical questions, such as how concise the writing is, whether there are copyediting mistakes, whether graphics are crisp and clear, and whether the work product is free from defects. We’re not awarding prizes for the longest entry, or the most colorful, or the fanciest print job, but whether entries are well designed, well executed, and effective.

I had ten entries to judge, including annual reports, magazines, quick-reference job aids, training materials, and software manuals. They were all good. solid, professional pieces, and I would be proud to have created every one of them. As always, I learned a few things from each, and like the other judges I took pains to critique each entry as objectively, thoroughly, and constructively as possible, as if the entrant were a colleague asking me face-to-face for my opinion. It took me a at least a couple of hours to go through each entry, and another hour or two to complete each judging form. So it’s a significant commitment of time. A PDF sample of the judging form is here.)

The value to entrants at both the local and international level is multifold. I worked in a group that won a high international award, and when the company issued a press release announcing our win, the stock went up, increasing our capitalization $1 million in a day–not bad! And it’s great to be recognized by your peers with an award. But there’s also the value of feedback. How else can you get at least three–more if you’re lucky!–professional technical communicators closely examine your technical document and provide thorough feedback, and for a good price at that?

A conmment on the best-of-show process: If you think it’s hard to compare a quick-reference card with a 300-page software reference guide, try picking the best of show! It’s like comparing apples, oranges, and chocolate cakes. Sometimes the consensus process is long and arduous, but sometimes, believe it or not, the winner jumps out at you as being obviously superior to the other entries (distinguished winners all).

This year’s winners? Come to the Summit and see them!