Keeping It Simple

February 19, 2010

Rick Reis remembers when he almost lost Zimbabwe.

Reis, a lecturer at Stanford University and director of the university’s Alliance for Innovative Manufacturing, had recently been able to claim that his e-newsletter, Tomorrow’s Professor, had subscribers in countries for every letter of the alphabet. But one day, his assistant ran in and said that his one subscriber from Zimbabwe had asked to be removed from the mailing list.

“I said: ‘We have to get him back or find someone else at the University of Zimbabwe or try Zambia, we have do something!’” Reis writes in this week’s copy of Tomorrow’s Professor, which he will send out today. It will be the e-newsletter’s 1,000th edition.

In an age when sexy Web sites, constantly updated blogs, and shrewd social media strategies are considered essential to news sources that aspire to maintain a faithful readership, Tomorrow’s Professor has managed to attract and keep a following that's huge for an independent, one-man operation. And he's done it using what most would consider archaic technology, and almost no marketing. More than 35,000 subscribers at over 1,000 institutions get the e-newsletter, which is delivered via e-mail twice a week and contains news clippings or book excerpts totaling no more than 2,000 words. Reis culls the content from various publications, attributing and linking to each.

Reis started Tomorrow’s Professor in 1998 following the publication of his 1997 book of the same name, which aimed to give guidance to doctoral students in science and engineering. “I had a lot of material left over that hadn’t appeared in the book,” he says. So, Reis compiled a list of 400 contacts he had accrued over the course of writing the book and asked if they would be interested in having additional research e-mailed to them incrementally. One hundred opted out, but the rest either were either mum or enthusiastic. Tomorrow’s Professor was born.

Tomorrow’s Professor's method of delivery has not changed much over the past 12 years, as the world of Web 2.0 has grown up around it (though its content is now mirrored on a blog), but its audience has. More than two-thirds of the e-newsletter’s subscribers are from outside North America, including Sweden, India, South Africa -- and yes, Zimbabwe. Its content has also broadened -- from career advice for graduate students and postdocs in science and engineering to research and teaching and learning -- and includes information relevant to many different disciplines.

As far as the relatively archaic medium, Reis says he does not plan to “mess with success.” With the surfeit of news and information now crowding the Web, busy academics appreciate having someone else comb through the fray and drop a manageable portion on their digital doorsteps.

As for Reis’s sources -- which number about 50 publications, some of them commercial -- they don’t seem to mind the extra exposure. “Nobody’s said 'No, you can’t use our stuff,' ” he says. “It looks like a good deal for them, too.”

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