50 Years of Standardization News

From its first issue to the present, ASTM International’s flagship periodical has told the story of an ever-evolving organization.
JP Ervin

The last decade has not been easy for print media. The juggernaut that is online publishing has asserted itself on the global stage, bringing about a fundamental revolution in the field of journalism. As a result, several major brands have moved away from the nuanced and intricate process of creating print periodicals, electing instead for the quick turnarounds and fast traffic promised by the internet.

Add in the unfortunate stories of the COVID-19 era (skyrocketing costs, shipping delays, palates of paper freezing in railcars), and it’s no wonder companies are reevaluating their strategies. 2022 alone will see the end of print editions of Entertainment Weekly, Allure, Climbing, InStyle, Health, and Popular Science – each an iconic magazine that once held a premium spot on newsstands and coffee tables around the world.

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It is against this backdrop that ASTM International’s Standardization News (SN) celebrates its 50th anniversary in January 2023. The milestone commemorates endurance and more: a half-century of evolution, brought about in response to significant technological and social changes across the globe.

Whether you hold it in your hands or read this article on your phone or laptop, the latest SN issue reflects the past as much as the present. Over the years, SN has also adopted digital-publishing tools and lessons from “search engine-optimized” web publishing. Even so, it remains anchored in a longstanding mission of presenting well-researched and informative material, driven by the work of ASTM and its membership.

In a broader sense, the story of SN parallels that of its parent organization. ASTM is an historic institution shaped by traditions and the steady march of time. Both stand as products of continuity and change, as well as geo-cultural shifts that make the world more interconnected every day.

A look at the history of SN tells a larger story about the legacy and the growth of ASTM, transformed over the years in response to the needs of our world.

A Time of Growth

Though SN has assumed a key role in the work of ASTM, it is only the latest iteration of the organization’s flagship periodical. SN’s precursors date back to at least 1903, which saw the first publication of Proceedings of the Annual Meeting, designed to share the society’s big developments each year.

SN has a more direct ancestor in the ASTM Bulletin, which first launched on April 1, 1921. The new publication took the form of a four-page newsletter, and it promised new issues at “approximately quarterly intervals.” The Bulletin’s opening editorial suggested the need for more frequent communications beyond the annual meetings, so that “the average member will be kept in closer touch with every-day happenings in the Society and its committees, which will be of advantage both to the members and to the Society as a whole.”

At the time, the Bulletin offered short updates about committee work and the society at large, content that was well-suited to a modest organization with 3000 members. But as ASTM blossomed, the magazine followed suit. Issues grew over the years – first to 12 pages, then to 20. By 1940, each edition filled a full 64 pages. The Bulletin also increased in frequency in 1949, releasing eight issues that year.

Just ahead of ASTM’s 40th anniversary in January 1961, the magazine took the name Materials Research & Standards and upped the frequency again, now providing monthly issues. The first release in the new format held 72 pages of technical papers, meeting calendars, book reviews, member news, and product updates, an expanded scope appropriate for a magazine that would boast a circulation of approximately 18,000 issues.

A.Q. Mowbray, assistant editor at the time, explained in the inaugural editorial that the shift in format matched not only the expansion of ASTM, but also a new era for science and technology. “Since the first issue of the Bulletin, in April, 1921, the world has moved fast and far.” Mowbray’s editorial marked the many achievements that coincided with key milestones in the Bulletin’s history: the first successful trans-Atlantic radio telephone conversation, the creation of television, the invention of the iron lung, the WAC-Corporal rocket’s record-breaking flight 250 miles above the earth, and the first non-stop flight around the world.

Looking forward, Mowbray noted, “So much for the past 40 years. What about the next 40? One is tempted to set up the proportion: first radio broadcast is to Echo satellite as Echo satellite is to X. But who among us would have the audacity to solve for X?”

Publishing in the Global Age

By January 1973, there was a growing sense that the X was, if not quite there, coming into view. With that issue, Standardization News was born.

Editor Samuel F. Etris’ opening note contended that the American-centered “soaring ‘60s” had given way to an international age, and the issue thematically explored what it meant for ASTM to embrace its mantle as a truly global organization. Etris emphasized that a world focus was not a new vision, but a rediscovery of the organization’s roots: “Although an apparent redirection is now in order, it will be more of a renewal of our earlier way of doing things; perhaps in reality, merely closing the circle.”

SN continued to flourish through the 1980s. Editor Kathleen Riley oversaw a significant redesign of the magazine. Featuring a new cover and printed on glossy pages, issues surged to 84-92 pages, even reaching 108 pages in 1985.

Etris’ assertion of a fully interconnected world was affirmed in the 1990s, the era most associated with the age of “globalization.” Marking the end of the Cold War, the period also witnessed seismic shifts in technology – with significant consequences for SN.

By the ‘90s, gone were the days when articles were written on typewriters before being sent to a commercial typesetter for layouts. But even as publishing developed, the years prior to the online age still required extensive work in the real world. Mail was particularly crucial, and creating an issue of SN required frequent correspondence between editors, technical contacts, compositors, and printers.

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The ’90s built on the technological achievements of the 1980s, especially the arrival of personal computers such as the IBM PC (1981) and systems like Macintosh (1984) and Windows (1985). Though its revolutionary consequences were not truly understood until the late 1990s, the decade also saw a computer scientist draft a proposal for a “linked information system,” which he would ultimately rename the “World Wide Web” in 1990.

Big changes came to SN that same year, when ASTM’s Publications Division adopted a desktop publishing system (DTP). At the time, SN articles were written in word processors and then given layouts by a graphics editor using a computer. Over time, the process of sending materials by mail was supplanted by floppy disk, followed by CD, then eventually email. But even into the 2000s, editors still had to manually mark-up paper layouts for designers, something that was only supplanted when programs like Adobe Creative Suite made it possible for editors to make changes within documents themselves.

1990s SN issues feature several recognizable elements: issues were thematic, exploring technical committees or broad themes related to standardization; January issues featured interviews with the incoming chair of the board; and each issue hosted an Updates section (then called “ASTM Update”), which highlighted new standards and other important developments in the standards process.

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There were also key differences. Until the 2000s, articles were often written by members of ASTM, other organizations, or government branches. Issues highlighted individual standards, and a section, first called “People” in 1982 and later named “Spotlight,” profiled individual members.

These profiles particularly added a personal touch to the magazine, showcasing a more human side of the standards community. Current News Editor Richard Wilhelm, who joined ASTM in 1990, proudly remembers interviewing the pioneering Dorothy Lawrence, the first woman to join the committee on roofing and waterproofing (D08). He also speaks fondly of his conversation with ASTM president Alfred Webber – then 101 years old – who recalled spending time with renowned artist Andrew Wyeth at his home observatory.

Despite the arrival of digital-publishing tools, stock photos were not available, and creating images was a time-intensive process. Members often provided material, but when a source was lacking, the editorial staff had to photograph subject matter themselves.

Former editor in chief Maryann Gorman, who also joined ASTM in 1990, recalls the ingenuity of the editors, who creatively solved these problems. “They did things like photograph the application of hand lotion in our restroom for an article about the sensory evaluation committee.”

The New Millennium

The turning of the clocks on January 1, 2000 paved the way for the full ascent of the computer era. This period saw significant changes to the structure and the content of SN.

By 2008, the publication had moved even closer to its current format. Issues followed a bimonthly schedule, and editors began enlisting professional writers to craft features. Though these pieces continued to rely on member interviews for technical expertise, the articles now spoke from a broader perspective that was accessible to members and interested laypeople.

Gorman, who helmed the change, explains the new format performed several critical functions. “The writers interviewed our members to uncover the larger industrial and/or societal benefits of a committee’s standards,” Gorman says. “They then wrote broad-based articles that could be understood not just by the members of related committees, but by all members and any reader who picked up the magazine. The for-the-layperson approach also allowed us to repurpose that content to educate potential stakeholders and the public about the value of our standards-development process and the standards themselves.”

The 2000s also saw the emergence of SN as an online publication. With accessibility and education in mind, SN responded to the rise of the web, developing an online platform to coincide with and supplement the work of print. SN began publishing issues in their entirety online in January 2000, and by the late 2000s began to publish articles as individual entries.

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In 2019, under the leadership of current editor in chief David Walsh, SN further expanded its digital offerings, producing web-friendly, online-only content. These articles have expanded the scope and flexibility of the magazine, making it possible to amplify newsworthy topics in a more timely manner.

“This new content stream has allowed SN to tell the story of standards to a significantly larger audience,” Walsh explains. “Traffic to SN Online has increased dramatically since 2019, boosted by ASTM’s ever-growing social media following and the launch of ASTM’s first weekly news digest dedicated to the field of standards and standards development: ASTM SmartBrief.”

Even as the internet became more central to the creation and distribution of SN, it didn’t replace every time-honored tradition of journalism.

Former Associate Editor Cicely Enright, who first came to ASTM in 1980, spoke of the continued importance of personal communication throughout her career. “The benefits of email are pretty much taken for granted,” Enright says, “but they don’t tend to substitute for a good phone conversation.” She also recalls consulting about SN ideas with riders in her carpool, which included staff managers. Above all, she noted that, over the years, “Members have almost without exception been glad to talk about the work of their committee or subcommittee. At times, members have said they give back to their industry through ASTM work.”

The Mission is the Message

In October 1992, as SN prepared to celebrate its 20th anniversary the following January, then-editor in chief Barbara Schindler remarked on the significance of the publication.

“Standards are becoming increasingly important in today’s world,” Schindler explained. “As business becomes more competitive and global, standards are receiving more attention than ever before. SN is a vehicle by which information is given on standards, their development, and the industries affected by them.”

Thirty years later, the global purpose of standards – and the need for education around the importance of standardization – has only become clearer.

Recognizing the place of SN in that mission, ASTM president Kathie Morgan speaks to the role of the publication in the organization’s broader work.

SN captures a broad and deep array of important issues being addressed through standardization,” Morgan explains. “And readers become informed, inspired, and perhaps even driven to engage. It also recognizes the efforts and accomplishments of our dedicated membership base and connects the ASTM community.”

Morgan also notes the value of striking a balance between technological innovation and a time-honored mission.

“We can aggregate information in more efficient ways and more quickly disseminate important content. One thing will not change, though: SN will remain a vehicle for capturing how ASTM delivers on its mission to positively impact public health and safety, increase consumer confidence, and improve overall quality of life.”

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