This column appeared in the April 1985 issue of Online Today, CompuServe's magazine for CIS subscribers.
by Holly G. Miller
Has success spoiled CompuServe’s resident good ol’ boys and Gannett newspaper scribes Charlie Bowen and Dave Peyton? Shucks, no.
Don’t let the down-home drawl, the good-ol’-boy quips and the aw-shucks put-me-downs put you off. Charlie Bowen and Dave Peyton, authors of How to Get the Most Out of CompuServe (Bantam, 1984), are as progressive as tomorrow’s bulldog edition and as uptown as wingtips and pin stripes.
With the first printing of their book nearly sold out and a revised version awaiting an editor’s nod, they continue to trade off-the-cuff barbs online and from across the newsroom of the Huntington (W. Va.) Herald-Dispatch where they work as feature writers.
The collaboration dates back more than a decade and is based on a two-way mentorship that had Bowen, the younger of the two, calling Peyton, “Mr. Peyton” for three years. Now they’re neighbors (“Everybody in Huntington is a neighbor,” says Peyton), play in the same string band (“We’re called the 1937 Flood … sort of a second-rate combo with a first-rate name,” explains Bowen) and pool their talents and bylines at night to produce reader-friendly guidebooks to “Micropolis.”
“It’s really odd to live about four miles apart and talk to each other on CompuServe via Columbus, Ohio,” says Peyton. “Some people might say that’s an unnatural act.”
“Actually, it’s a lot easier to deal with Peyton electronically than face to face,” deadpans Bowen.
Neither was the first on his block to own a computer — Bowen bought his initial system in 1980 and Peyton followed suit 18 months later — but both proved to be overachievers when it came to playing catch up.
A confessed news junkie, hooked on the habit during college journalism days and rendered incurable when he married a newspaper editor, Bowen logged on to CompuServe in 1981 to monitor the Associated Press wires. Peyton did likewise after hearing Bowen’s bleary-eyed accounts of late-night prowls through the system. Soon they were exchanging daily navigation tips, gathered from after-hours forays online.
“Every time I discovered something new I’d tell Charlie, and vice versa,” recalls Peyton. “It was a synergistic relationship. By sort of feeding off each other, we were able to learn the system quickly.”
“Not that we’ve seen it all,” adds Bowen. “We’re probably among the small percentage who has traveled it extensively — about three to four hours a day — but we still haven’t seen everything.”
Their enthusiasm for CompuServe and empathy toward new subscribers led them to outline a book geared to bolstering the confidence of beginners by offering an online junket through the system. The tone would be chatty, the mood upbeat and the bottom line inexpensive: about six hours of touring time.
“Our background in journalism has been a series of attempts to explain complicated things in reasonably conversational style,” says Bowen. “We’re used to writing about city budgets in a way that can be understood by people who don’t work at city hall. We were really turned off by old computer documentation that seemed to be written by one machine for another machine. We decided our book would be different.”
Such an understatement.
Their goals were to dispel the mystery surrounding the system (“There’s something about going into an information service that really gets people uptight,” says Peyton) and, at the same time, dispense a dose of pioneer spirit (“Go in and explore; if you make a mistake, big deal!”).
They divided writing chores equally, and each transmitted finished chapters across telephone lines for the other’s scrutiny and blessing. The editing process expanded to a family affair when Pamela Bowen and Susie Peyton, journalism grads, impeccable grammarians and working media professionals, red-penciled the manuscript.
“When we submitted the book to Bantam, it was turned over to a copy editor whose husband had a computer,” explains Bowen. “She signed up for CompuServe and went through the manuscript step by step and marked anything that looked slightly different from what we described in our text. When we finished, I felt we had not gone through editing but through quality control.”
The authors surmise that How to Get the Most Out of CompuServe has been purchased by subscribers to the information service and by curious would-be subscribers. Novice microcomputer owners who admit they once logged on to CompuServe, stumbled around for a spell and decided they couldn’t navigate the system (at least not while the meter was running) have welcomed the book as a roadmap to elusive destinations.
Feedback has been plentiful since Bowen and Peyton invited readers to keep in touch via the system. “We’re only an electronic mail message away,” they wrote at the end of the final chapter. “We’ve received so much electronic mail,” says Bowen. “We’ve heard from a lot of people who say, ‘I signed up for CompuServe a year ago and got so confused; but when your book came out I gave it a second chance, and I'm really glad I did.’ ”
Peyton marvels at the speed at which new subscribers master the service with the help of the book’s pointers: “We’ve gotten notes from people who are sending electronic mail and dropping in on the CB Simulator their first hour online.”
They hope the book’s success is an indicator of reader interest in computing in general and networking in particular. Bowen and writer/attorney Stewart Schneider have a new book, Smart Telecommunications, scheduled for release this spring, and the verdict is still out on yet another Bowen-Peyton joint proposal at Bantam.
“Smart Telecommunications is more of a general book about information services,” explains Bowen. “It required that I get out and explore a bit. But CompuServe is my home; it’s where I feel most comfortable. Compared to some services, it’s sort of like checking into neighborhoods or going down to the corner bar. There are always people around. Other services are more like checking into a library.”
Part of their fascination with the system is its ever-expanding size. Within a few weeks of the CompuServe book’s publication, Bowen and Peyton noted subtle changes in the service. Rather than mourn the discrepancies between service and book, they applauded the new features and chalked them up to progress.
“For me, finding a new area of CompuServe is kind of like discovering it all over again,” says Peyton. “Suddenly, information that may have been accessible to a privileged few in the past is now available to the public. When the average man on the street can get information as quickly as people in high places … well, it just makes my old populist heart as happy as pie.”
Holly G. Miller is a free-lance writer from Anderson, Ind. and a contributing editor to the Saturday Evening Post.
Note: You can order a copy of Bowen and Peyton’s book on CompuServe. Enter GO CIS-54 at any prompt and choose “User Guides and Manuals” from the menu.