Blindskills, Inc. - Publisher of DIALOGUE Magazine
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by B. T. Kimbrough
Looking back on that life-changing phone call from Don O. Nold in August of 1990, Carol McCarl says that it came as a complete surprise. She and Nold had never discussed DIALOGUE's future, and she had never been asked to serve on its board or editorial staff. At the time, McCarl was seven years into the publication of her own magazine, LIFEPRINTS, in addition to a full-time teaching position at the Oregon School for the Blind. She doesn't remember Nold's exact words when he asked her to take control of the struggling magazine from which he had retired ten years earlier; but McCarl clearly remembers exactly how he explained why he was so sure that his idea would work. "I know you can do it because you're already publishing a magazine." She also remembers her initial response: "I said, 'Well, that would be the point for me NOT to do it, in that I am teaching and already have two jobs.'"
When that phone conversation ended, McCarl thought, "I have to find somebody else to do this. It's too big a job." She went so far as to make contact with the Hadley School for the Blind. But Hadley officials told her that the Illinois correspondence education provider could not help because the school had no experience with publishing.
As McCarl continued to ponder Nold's proposition, there were all kinds of reasons for saying "no." Her tiny creation, Blindskills, was virtually running out of her home, and it was tightly stretched just to keep publishing LIFEPRINTS, a magazine for blind and low-vision students and their families. Her teaching job at the Oregon School for the Blind often demanded extra time, and she had just applied for a job with the prestigious teacher training program at Portland State University.
There was only one reason for her to consider taking on the huge task Nold was offering her. "DIALOGUE was my favorite magazine, and I didn't want it to stop."
While she thought it over, McCarl and Blindskills treasurer Jim Downs went to Berwyn, Illinois, to meet with DIALOGUE Executive Director and Board President Jerry Novak. He and a couple of his colleagues did their best to put a positive face on the kind of resources Dialogue Publications, Inc., might one day send to Salem once the building was sold and all assets liquidated or transferred. McCarl recalls hearing the figure $200,000 given as a good faith estimate. (Years later, the actual figure was closer to $50,000, once the mortgage and other debts were settled.)
In any event, things seem to have gone into a different gear once McCarl returned to Oregon. The Dialogue Board of Trustees and the four-member Blindskills Board agreed before the end of August to undertake the transfer. DIALOGUE's urgent westward shift was under way.
As the boxes of supplies, archives, files, office machines and recording equipment began arriving from Berwyn, Downs--the Blindskills treasurer--arranged for space on the second floor of a Salem plumbing business so that McCarl's home wouldn't be overwhelmed.
McCarl began to grow concerned after she found that none of the early boxes contained the manuscripts and mailing list she was counting on to help with publication of her first issue of DIALOGUE. It was well into November before those important items appeared, weeks after the Fall issue should have gone into the mail. In the end, McCarl decided to give her first DIALOGUE issue the combined dates of Fall/Winter, and it went out early in 1991.
At the same time, McCarl had a growing realization that DIALOGUE's future finances were a big question with no immediate answer. Costs could be drastically reduced by replacing office, circulation and editorial staff with volunteer power; but how would she pay publication and editorial costs when there was no income stream in sight?
When she finally got a look at the old Berwyn mailing list, it turned out that a great many subscribers were receiving the magazine free of charge as a result of having life membership or some other no-cost designation. Then, she received discouraging news from National Library Service (NLS) Director Kurt Cylke: NLS would no longer sponsor the purchase of copies of DIALOGUE for regional libraries, as the service had done since shortly after DIALOGUE's founding in 1962. To say the least, this was a major budgetary shock.
When McCarl asked for an explanation, Cylke said, "DIALOGUE isn't the same magazine." (He gave no further details.) He later sent a letter stating that the NLS had a mandate to provide material originally published for a mainstream audience and could not reproduce anything specifically published for blind and visually impaired readers. McCarl recalls, "That one man had the power to just cut off an awful lot of readers who probably couldn't afford to subscribe! I thought that was terrible!" It was futile to argue that NLS had violated its own policy by purchasing copies of DIALOGUE for the first 28 years of its existence.
McCarl says Cylke's purchasing decision was only one of two unpleasant surprises in the fall of 1990. The other was an article in the BRAILLE MONITOR declaring that DIALOGUE had "gone under." In a later article, MONITOR Editor Barbara Pierce mentioned McCarl's leadership track record and her involvement in a DIALOGUE reorganization effort, but McCarl continues to believe that the earlier piece declaring DIALOGUE dead had an adverse and lasting effect on her efforts to attract readers and supporters.
Locating some ongoing financial support was the defining challenge for McCarl's small organization, which she recalls had six or seven thousand dollars in the bank in the fall of 1990. She started by seeking paid subscriptions from sources which had been responsive to appeals on behalf of LIFEPRINTS, including special education directors in some mainstream schools and contacts at some state schools for the blind.
Some affiliates of the American Council of the Blind offered small grants of support, and a few even renewed these in later years. A handful of Lions Clubs stepped forward with supporting checks, though most of the support from Illinois Lions dried up quickly once the enterprise was moved to Oregon. There was a series of small checks from the Dr. Scholl Foundation, and later, helpful grants from the READER'S DIGEST and Matilda Ziegler Foundations. For the most part, though, the support which kept the enterprise going was the small checks which kept coming from individuals who either knew Carol McCarl directly or knew and supported what she was trying to do.
By mid-1991, DIALOGUE was finally in full production in Salem, with McCarl serving as editor/publisher and the following staff of contributing editors: Kim Charlson, Steve Bauer, Winifred Downing, Deborah Kendrick, Deborah Kent (Stein), Iva Menning, Ed Potter, Dan Simpson, Dorothy Stiefel, Dana Nichols (Walker) and Connie Weadon. A half-time production assistant was the only paid staff member as Blindskills moved into its first commercial office in downtown Salem.
In this configuration, DIALOGUE seemed to be on its way to surviving the transition, until a completely unexpected bureaucratic misunderstanding threatened to drown the little enterprise once and for all.
Until its closing days, 1993 was on its way to being remembered as a bittersweet and historic year for DIALOGUE. Founder Don O. Nold passed away on November 13, and at about the same time, the sale of the 3100 Oak Park Avenue building in Berwyn became final.
Then, on December 29, McCarl received a certified letter from the Salem postmaster, declaring that Blindskills had violated the terms of the Free Matter mailing privilege, and retroactively, would have to pay first-class postage for every copy dating all the way back to the Fall/Winter 1990 issue.
Apparently, the offending language was contained in a subscription form which appeared at the close of each issue. The form identified the cost of a subscription and offered a sample copy in any available format for the nominal cost of $3, which would not quite cover the cost of materials, let alone editorial expenses. In any event, postal officials determined that the subscription form constituted advertising in violation of the free mailing privilege. This in turn launched a veritable nightmare of appeals procedures and required documentation for McCarl and her small, beleaguered band.
An unsuccessful appeal would have meant prohibitively high mailing costs and a huge retroactive postage bill amounting to at least $40,000. Fortunately, after an exasperating winter of meetings and seemingly endless parsing of arcane postal regulations, the crisis passed. The subscription form in question was ultimately declared to be "information" rather than "advertising."
No doubt, many other directors of organizations serving blind people joined with McCarl in a collective sigh of relief.
In 1994, McCarl retired from the Oregon School for the Blind, ending a teaching career which had spanned more than three decades. By about this time, DIALOGUE's headquarters had been moved to the second floor of the school's administration building, so McCarl continued to have plenty of contact with her former students and faculty colleagues almost every day. Not that she had much time for socializing--she was serving as editor/publisher of both DIALOGUE and LIFEPRINTS, while somehow raising enough money to keep them both going.
It soon became apparent that the two magazines had similar goals and that there were a number of things to be gained by consolidating them. Accordingly, as of the Fall 1995 issue, subscribers to LIFEPRINTS were automatically signed up to receive the first few issues of DIALOGUE, and the two magazines became one. Many of the contributing editors had been working on both magazines, and McCarl says a serious effort was made to bring the topics unique to LIFEPRINTS into DIALOGUE. LIFEPRINTS was established to serve and provide role models for blind and low vision students in mainstream settings, interested in the latest in recreation, career and networking advice. Today, the ongoing influence of LIFEPRINTS can be found in such DIALOGUE columns as EDUCATION MAKES A DIFFERENCE, LIFESTYLES, and SPORTS AND RECREATION.
McCarl recalls that she conducted editorial meetings for both DIALOGUE and LIFEPRINTS at ACB national conventions anyway, so the combination was highly practical. The relatively smooth consolidation may have been the only part of DIALOGUE's westward move which came off without unpleasant surprises.
In October of 1995, the original DIALOGUE organization sent one final document transferring "all of the rights, title and interest in personal property together with all interest in Dialogue Publications, Inc., to Blindskills, Inc." This formally brought to an end one of the most tumultuous chapters in the magazine's history.
The next few years were comparatively tranquil. In the year 2000, the first electronic format was added when DIALOGUE was offered on a floppy computer diskette. Late in 2001, former DIALOGUE editor Nolan Crabb moved to Oregon from Missouri to take the position of assistant editor. This gave McCarl the opportunity to spend more of her time in search of funding. Crabb's full-time involvement ended at the end of 2004 when Karen Lynn Thomas was introduced as editor with a new bimonthly publication schedule. Thomas had been writing information pieces for DIALOGUE on many topics, as well as articles on career building and job-hunting skills. It was agreed that she would perform all of her editorial duties from her home in Austin, Texas. Also, at about this time, the fiction and poetry content was discontinued, and the magazine was offered for the first time via electronic mail.
By 2006, the role of administrative assistant had been greatly expanded both in salary and responsibilities. McCarl, who continued to work as a volunteer, thought of her role primarily in terms of being an executive director--promoting, shaping and seeking to fund the organization's activities. As she began to look towards retirement, a search was launched for her successor. In order to make this into a paying position, a grant was obtained from the Gibney Family Foundation, a grant which could be retained only if very specific fundraising and expanded readership targets were met. The outcomes of those terms, and some unexpected decisions at Oregon's nearby capitol, made for a turbulent final chapter in DIALOGUE's first fifty years.
On to the conclusion: THE FIRST 50 YEARS (Part Four)
Back to THE FIRST 50 YEARS (Part Two)
Back to THE FIRST 50 YEARS (Part One)
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