Open Source Tools for doing a newsletter
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All the information contained in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions or strategies of the IBM Corporation. Also, my recommendations are not based on an exhaustive study, but my own experiences. There might well be other open source solutions that I should look at, but when tasks fell upon me I made a choice on a tool and used it. I'm absolutely open to looking at other possibilities.
One other note: In my non-technical life I've been involved in the world of illusion and conjouring. Because of my technical and creative skills I've been called on more than one ocaission to help create publications for magician's organizations. Therefore, the examples that I use are from that work. They are presented simply as living examples of what the tools can do.
Here is the note that started the whole thing:
I've been tasked with creating a newsletter for our advisory council members which will keep them informed on what our office is doing around the state in conservation transactions.
Why I'm bothering you is I am determined to learn this and create my newsletter in opensource formats. I refuse to get locked into MS templates. That doesn't mean I won't peruse available templates and use some in the beginning as I'm learning... I just want to LEARN this and not be locked into someone else's fomat.
And here is my response:
Congratulations on casting off the proprietary yoke! There are a number of options that I would recommend to you. All of them will help you generate a nice PDF end-product. They are also freely available to anyone who is willing to take a little time to learn them. The choices you will make will depend on the style of the publication and how you prefer to work.
1. OpenOffice.org - If you are doing a basic newsletter, the OpenOffice.org suite is still a pretty darn good way to put a document together. It has good placement tools for frames and graphics and a lot of cross-referencing functions that are handy for doing a newsletter. I did a small newsletter for years and use OpenOffice.org successfully. I even stretched it to it's limits for a special April Fools edition which was set up to look like the Weekly World News (may it rest in peace). This one, my last, was more typical. I set everything up through a template that I used to start it off. The index was automatically generated from the article titles. I had the components that I knew would be in every issue already laid out and just added on the monthly items. The advantage to using a word-processor is that most people are already familiar with this tool. The disadvantage is that, depending on what you want from a layout, you may be doing things the hard-- or very hard-- way to make it work in that tool.
NOTE: I should mention that the key value here is the Open Document Format, which is an open standard for documents that is largely independent of the tool used to create it. (There is some variation because the format allows for some tool-specific information to be embedded in a document, which some tools might ignore.) OpenOffice.org is probably the best known tool to use ODF, but there are other tools, including IBM Lotus Symphony product (also free). That tool did not exist when I did this work, so I didn't use it. I always encourage people to look at different tools and Symphony should probably be on the list. However, Symphony, while free, is not open source. There is a subtle difference between open formats for information (for which one should always strive) and open-source tools, which one should use if they make sense.
2. Scribus - If you are doing something that requires a more sophisticated layout, then you may want to separate the layout from the content creation. Scribus works much like Adobe PageMaker, treating elements such as pictures and text like pieces of paper that are to be shaped and pasted onto a raw page. I used this to do a more complex magazine preview called the Austin Magic Magazine. (The one I found was an in-production version and not the final edit, as I see some mistakes that were later corrected.) For this project, I was dealing with a lot of content that I didn't create as well as photos, ads, etc. The final look was very key to the project, so I needed to have maximum control over where each element was and how it looked. Working with a layout program is a very different discipline from working with a word processor. For example, you will do very little, if any editing of text within the layout program. All of that should be done ahead of time. (It works well with open document format files so it's a nice companion to OpenOffice.org.) In Scribus, you come up with your basic page designs and lay out areas where the stories and pictures will reside. Then, you fill those areas with the information by linking them to the files. You can take a frame with a story and split it up into frames that are attached, so that when you move and resize them the text automatically flows. I would use this for something that had a lot of complexity and separate elements, like a magazine or a newspaper.
However, the text layout is not the only thing that you'll need to deal with. Modern publications demand graphics of various kinds. While you may not be an artist, you will want to work with clip art and may need to make some minor alterations (such as resizing, cropping, etc.). You may also want to create your own title graphics or other things like that. Little bursts that say "New" or something like that can make a lot of difference. Here are two applications that I use regularly for this:
1. GIMP - This unfortunate name stands for GNU Image Manipulation Program. (It always makes me think of the file "Pulp Fiction.") It is a great tool for manipulating photos and graphics. I've done basic resizing and red-eye removal and moderately advanced things like removing reflections of the photographer in the window and opening my eyes in a photo where I had blinked. If you know anything about Adobe Photoshop, then you know a lot about GIMP. There are also a number of great plugins and tutorials to take you far beyond basic pixel-editing.
2. Inkscape - Photo editing can be good, but sometimes you need something with more scalability and flexibility. Inkscape does what are called "vector graphics." This means that the drawings are defined as mathematical equations rather than as dots on a screen. (Don't worry, you just draw. It does the math.) The advantage to this is that anything created in this way can be scaled from very small to very large with no "jaggies" or loss of resolution. I use Inkscape to make little icons. It's especially good for doing signs and ads because you can scale the text to fit an area my just dragging the size handle. Again, there are several tutorials available.
In my projects I have combined all four of these programs. For a basic newsletter I would start with OpenOffice (which also has some drawing programs for basic graphics). You will probably want GIMP to help you with clip art and such. For more sophisticated, scalable graphics pull in Inkscape. If the project gets extremely complex and demands a high-quality, final layout then you want Scribus.
Like I said, this was my own experience with my own projects. Your mileage may vary and you may be able to introduce me to other open-source tools that I've overlooked. That's the fun of open source! There is always something to discover!