Keep those cards and letters coming

May 1, 2007

Johnson’s World by Steve Johnson

Long ago and far away, I wrote a letter. The “long ago” was three or four years, and the “far away” was in Washington, DC.

The letter concerned a legal matter, so it went on for several pages. Being an old fashioned guy, I dictated my letter to my trusty secretary, who typed a draft for my review.

After printing the final version on letterhead for my signature, she printed an envelope, added postage and dispatched my lengthy missive to the mailman. A week later I received a reply, via email.

Neither the subject nor the contents of my letter are important, here. What matters is the opening paragraph of the email reply, which I'll paraphrase here:

“Hi Steve, got your letter today. I haven't received a real business letter in the mail for a long time. It was fun, almost like old times.” He really did say it was fun. It went on for a few more sentences about how quaint, how novel a mailed letter was.

My correspondent was, at the time, a congressional lobbyist on the forefront of efforts by printing and mailing businesses to secure postal reforms.

Why did someone devoted to promoting ink on paper react with such surprise to…ink on paper?

Don't get me wrong

I use email extensively, and I write (type) fewer letters than I did 10 years ago. I certainly don't think any less of a print advocate who uses email. Fact is, most of us take more notice of a printer who doesn't use email than one who does.

That said, I still feel slightly weird whenever I receive a print-related newsletter via email. The incongruity gives me pause. Here are some other thoughts and observations that come to mind.

The reason I sometimes write letters instead of emailing is not because I'm a printer. After all, I'm not in the business of printing stationery, envelopes or even direct mail. I choose hard copy for correspondence when the subject matter is of high importance. I suppose that means my emails are of lesser importance.

I consider the reaction to the letter in the opening of this story to be positive. In a sea of emails, my letter stood out, grabbed attention and garnered an immediate response. Ink on paper has an impact that should not be understated, and it is becoming stronger as paper communications are reserved for matters of greater weight.

Spam email has increased exponentially in a few short years. Mass emailings, even legitimate ones, are filtered out of the email stream routinely.

When I post a letter, its fate is somewhat uncertain. The post office does a lousy job of accurately delivering mail. If my letter does arrive, it runs a gauntlet of receptionists, mailroom clerks and administrative assistants. Even at its final destination, it must compete for attention with dozens of other mailed pieces.

The original appeal of email (going back a decade) was precisely that it avoided these problems. Now, firewalls, spam filters and blacklists make First Class mail look better every day.

Human nature plays a role

I receive piles of magazines, newsletters and periodicals. If I don't read them immediately, they are filed in a drawer for future perusal. This might happen during lunch, when I need a break, or on summer weekends in my backyard hammock.

If I don't read a mass email on the spot, forget it. I might file it for future reference, but I'll likely never look at it again. I don't intend to do this, but that is how it seems to work out.

These ramblings were inspired by, of all things, an email. Deirdre D'Aniello, AMERICAN PRINTER's sales gal extraordinaire, sends me notes with her reaction to Johnson's World. Her last asked if I received much feedback to a recent column. “Not a single response, other than yours,” I told her. “I guess I wasn't controversial enough.”

“The problem is no one can find your email address,” she said. “I had to beg it from the editor.”

At the end of every AMERICAN PRINTER story is the writer's email, for ease of contact. Because the magazine also is posted online, those email addresses are easy prey for spambots that harvest addresses for mass spam emailings. When the spam became unbearable, I asked the editor to list my Web site address, instead.

Want to contact me? Click “Contact Us” at Use “Johnson's World” as the subject, and I'll get your message.

Or, you could write me a letter. …