Soon after Susan Corson-Finnerty became editor-manager of Friends Journal in 1999, she set a goal to conduct a survey of Friends Journal subscribers. It had been nearly a decade since a 1991 survey, and much had changed in that time. The editors, staff, and Board needed to know whether subscribers had changed as well. Three questions guided the survey development: Who are the current subscribers? What is it about the Journal that keeps them reading? And equally important, why have some people who used to read the Journal decided to stop?
The Lapsed Subscriber Survey
In 1999, members of the Friends Journal Board of Managers conducted a short telephone survey of former subscribers. A sample of 176 was selected at random from people who had not renewed the Journal in the previous six to eighteen months. A telephone number could not be found for about one-third of this sample. Of the remainder, 72 percent answered a short set of questions. Almost two-thirds of the lapsed subscribers interviewed were women, their average age was about 50, and roughly a third had children under 18. Two-thirds had received the Journal for five years or less when they decided to drop their subscription. While 37 percent had started with gift subscriptions, a large proportion had paid for their subscriptions themselves either initially or by renewing an initial gift.
The cost of subscribing was the most frequent reason given for not renewing a subscription—75 percent of all lapsed subscribers listed this as a reason. In addition, nearly half said they did not have enough time to read the Journal, and a little over one-third noted that they didn’t like the content or that it didn’t speak to them.
The Current Subscriber Survey
In early 2001, a random sample of 1,000 current subscribers received a mail
questionnaire. A total of 520 completed questionnaires were returned within two months of mailing. The findings of these questionnaires are included in the analysis that follows and when available are compared to the 1991 survey results.
Nearly two-thirds of those who responded to the questionnaire were women, and as in 1991, about 60 percent were married. The number of respondents who describe themselves as single dropped from 22 percent in 1991 to 11 percent in 2001. Almost all have children, but the percentage with children under the age of 18 has dropped from 33 to 22 percent. In 1991, the average respondent’s age was about 50; currently it is over 60. As would be expected in an older audience, the proportion of retired subscribers has increased from 30 to 47 percent. Educational attainment was high in 1991 and has become even higher—90 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree and those with at least a master’s degree has risen from 52 to 61 percent. Respondents were most often employed in education (33 percent, up from 29 percent ten years ago), and 22 percent are medical, legal, or other professionals (up from 16 percent). Household income seems to have grown faster than inflation, now averaging over $70,000.
Membership in the Religious Society of Friends among current respondents has increased from 76 to 83 percent, with eight in ten reporting that they attend a Friends meeting for worship at least once a month. While the bulk of the Journal’s readers still live in the mid-Atlantic region, 2001 survey respondents appear to be geographically more diverse, coming from every yearly meeting in North America (evangelical and liberal, programmed and unprogrammed) and from at least eight yearly meetings overseas.
In 1991, 50 percent of respondents said they had been subscribers for more than five years; by 2001 this rose to 72 percent. Similar to 1991 respondents, most reported that they first became subscribers by picking up a copy of the Journal at their meeting (21 percent) or by receiving it as a gift, either from their meeting (14 percent) or a friend (13 percent).
Readers were asked to indicate whether they wanted "more," "same," or "less" of each of ten topics. Most answered that the current amount of space given to these topics in the Journal should remain the same or increase. Only the ratings of poetry were somewhat negative, where 25 percent of those responding wanted fewer poems versus 9 percent who wanted more. This topic also attracted by far the largest number of comments, most asking for higher quality in the poetry printed.
Men and women had some very different emphases in this section of the questionnaire. Of all topics listed, women most wanted more "Spiritual Reflections" articles (41 percent women, 29 percent men). Men were more interested in additional articles on Quaker history (33 percent women, 41 percent men), the variety of Quaker beliefs (34 percent women, 39 percent men), and on controversial issues among Friends (31 percent women, 42 percent men).
Rating the Sections.
Readers were then asked to rate the various sections (departments, features, and ads) in the Journal. Of all categories, articles were clearly the most appreciated. These were rated as "excellent" by 34 percent (higher than the rating given to any other section) and "good" by an additional 50 percent (also higher than any other section). When asked if they had ever photocopied anything from the Journal, 58 percent said yes, and in most cases it was an article that had been copied. Among the other sections, the editor’s column, Forum/Viewpoint, Book Reviews, and the Meeting Directory all received ratings of excellent or good from more than 70 percent of the respondents. Only a few departments—Poetry, "Humor, Games, Puzzles," Parents’ Corner, and Young Friends—had combined excellent/good ratings of less than 50 percent. Several comments indicated that more humor would be welcome.
The advertising was also rated positively. Particular interest was expressed in ads for books (80 percent) and conferences (59 percent). Job ads were more interesting to younger readers, while ads for schools and summer camps appealed more to respondents with children at home. A number of readers from outside the mid-Atlantic region wrote comments asking for more ads from their regions. Respondents also commented that the information submitted for the Meeting Directory should be kept more current. As in the rating of topics, in every section to be rated, the average rating by women was higher than that by men.
Style and Layout.
Responses to questions about the style, design, and artwork of the magazine were uniformly positive. However, questions about the possibility of adding color drew strongly negative responses and perhaps the most memorable comment, "Totally opposed. Are you going to run military ads too?" A number of respondents were against any changes that would make the Journal "slick" or more expensive. "Keep it plain and simple," wrote one.
The final question offered respondents a five-point scale from "very important" to "not important" on which to rate overall personal importance of Friends Journal. The highest rating was chosen by 33 percent, and "4" was selected by another 40 percent. This rating increased with the age of the respondent and was consistently high among those over 80. Women rated the Journal higher than men did, and those with adult children rated it higher than did those with minor children.
Aside from an increase in age, the 2001 respondents were very similar to those in 1991. Current readers are generally pleased with Friends Journal, and many assume that Friends everywhere would like to read it. Subscribers tend to be women, over the age of 60, well educated, and to have grown children. They love to read books and to read about books, and they are likely to get their first subscription to the Journal as a gift. Men of all ages, and parents with children under 18, are generally less satisfied with the offerings. Readers want the ads, meeting directory, and Milestones to be current and relevant to where they live. And they wouldn’t mind a little more humor sprinkled throughout the Journal. Most subscribers are Friends, and they look forward to the Journal for inspiration, support, and challenge in living a life of faith.
The editors, staff, and Board are grateful for these responses. Your answers and comments will serve the Journal greatly in the coming years.