How The Institute Went From a Column to an Award-Winning Publication

IEEE’s member publication celebrates its 40th anniversary

3 March 2017

The Institute got its start 53 years ago as a column called “News of the IEEE” (later “Inside IEEE”), which was published in the first issue of IEEE Spectrum. The column covered important decisions by the IEEE governing board, election results, upcoming events, and other organizational news, as well as articles written by IEEE leaders.

But publishing such information was problematic, because IEEE Spectrum was not a typical association magazine. It was not just about the association; its main function was to publish articles on technical advances of interest to its members. It competed for advertising with several commercial magazines that had bigger staffs, international news bureaus, and powerful publishers. And most advertisers don’t turn first to an association publication to get their messages across.

IEEE Spectrum editor Donald Christiansen, who came on board in late 1971, realized that. He found it awkward to have IEEE’s flagship magazine trying to serve two masters: those who wanted to read about technology and those who were interested in how the association was being governed.

“Ideally, [reaching] those two should not be attempted in a single publication,” Christiansen said. “First, it discourages advertising. Second, the governance issues are of little or no interest to a significant number of readers—though, of course, they’re of great importance to others.”

NOT AN EASY DECISION

It took Christiansen a few years to convince IEEE’s Board of Directors that a separate publication was needed. He gained some traction from developments within IEEE. In 1972, members voted to change IEEE’s constitution to broaden the scope from that of a strictly technical association to one involved in professional issues of concern to engineers as well. Back then those topics included unionizing, licensing, and working conditions.

The question was: How should IEEE cover such topics? The Institute was launched in 1977 to do this, and its approach was not uniformly accepted.

“Because of the controversial nature of professional issues at the time, many of us feared that including such material within the covers of IEEE Spectrum would have a significantly adverse effect on advertising revenue,” wrote Jerome J. Suran, an IEEE officer who served as 1979 IEEE president.

Suran’s comment is an excerpt from a letter he wrote in 1985 to R.J. Backe, vice president, IEEE United States Activities Board, to address Backe’s concerns over what he perceived as the independence of The Institute’s staff.

In the letter, Suran reviewed the background related to the founding of The Institute, and described major debates within the IEEE Publication Services and Products Board and the IEEE Board of Directors about the new publication’s mission once it became separate.

The boards back then had resolved to allow the editorial staff, which comprised an editor and assistant editor, to report independently on IEEE issues—even controversial ones—in a balanced and timely way, and to reserve space in the new publication for IEEE leaders to communicate their views and decisions to members.

Suran went on to write in that 1985 letter that the best hope for IEEE leaders to counter charges of conflicts of interest was to protect the independence of the reporters “to disseminate the news as they see it, free from control, and free of retributive action.”

“At times the editorial staff will err, either by a bad judgment call or by excessive zeal in responding to the initial charge of the Board that they [also] try to stir reader interest,” Suran continued. “But on the whole, I agree with you that our publication staff deserve our respect and support for the fine job they have done, often under difficult conditions.”

THE LAUNCH

Eventually, the boards approved Christiansen and Suran’s plan to spin off a newspaper to cover professional and IEEE news. Christiansen, with support from Suran, took steps to launch the publication. In December 1976 a four-page insert in IEEE Spectrum, called The Institute, was introduced. It included two subsections: “Inside IEEE” and “IEEE People.” It was printed on heavier paper than was Spectrum, signaling to members that change was afoot.

In April 1977, the IEEE Board of Directors passed a motion that The Institute “be published separately for six consecutive months, beginning in July 1977 as a non-archival, fast-reading, and fast-responding newspaper at a regular frequency.”

Expecting to get a new publication off the ground in less than three months proved to be overly ambitious. An extra month was needed. Under its first editor, Ellis Rubinstein, the inaugural issue was published in August 1977. It carried the tagline “A news supplement to IEEE Spectrum” and was mailed only to members in North America. It was published as a monthly beginning in 1978 and was eventually mailed to all members worldwide. This format remained the same for 25 years.

KEEPING UP WITH THE TIMES

I became the editor in 1999. For budgetary reasons, the IEEE Board of Directors in 2002 reduced the number of print editions to four quarterly issues starting the next year; the remaining eight were to be published online. A bimonthly electronic newsletter, The Institute Alert, also was launched. Sent to all members who provide IEEE with their email addresses, it gives them a summary of the latest online coverage.

During the past decade The Institute has expanded its presence through blogs, multimedia, social media, a digital edition, a mobile-friendly website, and other platforms.

In recent years, The Institute has received numerous awards for its editorial excellence, technology writing, website, and special reports—which is all the more impressive when you consider that it competes against thousands of other publications, many of them well-known brands with much larger staffs.

My staff and I are committed to publishing articles that showcase the contributions IEEE members have made to society and to report on the organization’s mission to advance technology for the benefit of humanity.

In celebration of its 40th anniversary year, The Institute is publishing a series of timelines highlighting technologies that have moved forward significantly during the past four decades.

This is an updated version of the article “The Birth of The Institute,” published in IEEE Spectrum’s March 2014 issue as part of a series that recounted some pivotal moments for the magazine’s 50th anniversary.

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