What is 16 pages, folded in the middle, published four times a year, and thrown away unread? According to stereotype, it's the lowly newsletter -- the dandelion of the media world. Though newsletters increasingly are published on the Web, many still make their way through the mail. Hundreds come to the Utne library, an array extending far beyond the world of nonprofits and nongovernment organizations.
In spite of their dowdy reputation, newsletters are a fascinating window on a thousand odd proclivities. If you're a twin, a collector of hatpin holders, a fan of The Andy Griffith Show, or an Abraham Lincoln impersonator, I have just the publication for you. Same goes if you're interested in getting a job as a caretaker, learning about alternatives to marriage or trends in sexuality research, or 'promoting the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl.'
Sure, newsletters often look staid and their prose may bump along prosaically, but many focus on overlooked topics, from rail passenger advocacy to your family's genealogy. To give the humble newsletter due respect, here's a compendium of some of the best. All represent grassroots organizations and individuals, a category apart from industry newsletters that often cost a hundred dollars or more for subscriptions.
The Compendium Newsletter ('Your Guide to the World's Environmental Crisis'), now in its 33rd year, features news, book reviews, and resource listings on topics from land use to forest conservation. Perhaps the quintessential newsletter and a good model for others, it's small, packed with info, and simply designed. $20/yr. (6 issues) from Box 351419, Los Angeles, CA 90035; www.ecoprojects.org.
The Funeral Consumers Alliance newsletter provides information from a nonprofit dedicated to 'protecting the public's right to choose meaningful, dignified, and affordable funeral arrangements.' Sooner or later we all need to know about these things. $10 donation/yr. from Box 10, Hinesburg, VT 05461; www.funerals.org.
The Ram's Horn ('A Monthly Newsletter of Food System Analysis'), Brewster and Cathleen Kneen's long-standing watchdog report on the agribusiness industry, was one of the first publications to report terminator seeds, bovine encephalopathy, and the dubious practices of Cargill, ADM, and other worldwide commodities controllers. $25 ($24 Canadian)/yr. (10 issues) from S-6, C-27, RR 1, Sorrento, BC, V0E 2W0, Canada; www.ramshorn.ca.
Poultry Press, quarterly publication of nonprofit United Poultry Concerns, reports on chicken and egg industry horrors ('Egg Company Threw 30,000 Hens into Wood-Chipping Machines,' for example) and tells who to write and call to help prevent such cruelty. By donation from Box 150, Machipongo, VA 23405; www.upc-online.org.
Alternatives to Marriage Update, quarterly newsletter of the nonprofit Alternatives to Marriage Project, covers such topics as single living, cohabitation, common-law marriage, and same-sex marriage, on behalf of those who cannot -- or choose not to -- be married. $10 donation from Box 1922, Albany, NY 12201; www.unmarried.org.
Dave Marsh's opinionated Rock & Rap Confidential has reported on the popular music industry since the early 1980s, with a focus on artists' and listeners' rights, censorship, and politics. $21/yr. from Box 341305, Los Angeles, CA 90034; www.rockrap.com.
Thoreau Society Bulletin, a quarterly, publishes scholarly but accessible works about Henry David Thoreau, updates the international Thoreauvian bibliography (with frequent entries from Japan), and tracks the Concord contrarian's contemporary influence. $40 membership from 55 Old Bedford Rd., Concord, MA 01742; www.thoreausociety.org.
Science for Democratic Action is a quarterly nuclear industry watchdog newsletter published by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. Each issue contains one or two substantial articles on such topics as the health risks of depleted uranium. Free from 6935 Laurel Ave., Suite 201, Takoma Park, MD 20912; www.ieer.org.
BirdScope, the quarterly newsletter of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, focuses partly on 'citizen science' -- how amateur bird-watchers can help specialists -- while also reporting on population change, threats to bird habitat, and news such as the rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker. $40 membership (includes Living Bird magazine) from Box 11, Ithaca, NY 14850; www.birds.cornell.edu.
Health Letter is the monthly publication of the Health Research Group, founded in 1971 by Ralph Nader and Sidney Wolfe 'to give consumers more control over decisions that affect their health.' Still edited by Wolfe, it lists product recalls, cautions about new drugs, and reports on health care gimmicks and FDA failures. $18/yr. (12 issues) from 1600 20th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009; www.citizen.org/hrg.