The 2008 Subscriber Survey

In October 2008, a sample of 2,000 current Friends Journal subscribers received a questionnaire in the mail. The purpose of this survey was to give the staff and board of the Journal insight into the thoughts of our readers—letting us know what we are doing well, what we can improve upon, and providing guidance in making future choices and decisions.

Within two months, a total of 1,040 completed questionnaires were returned, and the data from those questionnaires were analyzed and used to generate the report below. When available, the 2008 results have been compared to the results of a similar survey conducted in 2001.


Nearly two-thirds of those who responded were women and the average age was about 63 years old. This is consistent with what we found in 2001 and with what has been reported in other surveys of religious North Americans. Eighty percent of the respondents have children, but as would be expected for people this age, only about one in six reports having a child under the age of 18.

While the average age of subscribers is unchanged over the last seven years, the average time since first subscribing dropped slightly from over ten years to nine years—both signs that we are attracting new subscribers. Remarkably, the proportion of very new subscribers (less than one year) grew from only 3 percent in 2001 to 13 percent. Interestingly, the average duration of subscribing is approximately the same as the average time subscribers have been members of the Religious Society of Friends.

Educational attainment is amazingly high—92 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree, and 63 percent a graduate degree. By comparison the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey for 2009 reports that 17 percent of all people in the United States have at least a bachelor’s degree.

Almost half of the respondents consider themselves retired. More than one-third are (or were) employed in education and more than one in six as a medical, legal, or other professional. One surprise is that among those under 50 years old, slightly more than 20 percent are self-employed. Average household income has grown over the last seven years, from about $67,000 to a bit over $71,000, but this increase is less than the rate of inflation.

Perhaps an indication of a broadening readership, the percent who reported being members of the Religious Society of Friends has fallen from 83 to 72 percent and weekly attendance at meeting for worship has similarly decreased from 68 to 56 percent, while the proportion who never attend meeting more than doubled from 6 to 14 percent.

Respondents are dispersed throughout North America, but are still predominantly living in the Middle Atlantic States—members of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting account for nearly one-quarter of all respondents. While in 2001 we found at least one respondent from each North American yearly meeting, three yearly meetings were completely unrepresented in the 2008 sample, and six other yearly meetings supplied three or fewer respondents. In particular, members of Evangelical yearly meetings make up just over one percent of our subscribers, slightly lower than in 2001—but with numbers this small, it is impossible to say if the change is significant.

Rating Different Types of Articles

Subscribers were asked to indicate whether they would prefer to see "more," "same," or "less" of each of 24 types of articles. In 2001, "same" was usually the most common choice, but almost always fell short of 50 percent. This is not the case in 2008. For nearly all types of articles, more than one-half of the respondents chose "same," indicating that the current mix of articles better meets their preferences.

There were, of course, some exceptions. For two categories, "Integrating faith, work and home lives" and "Discussion of theology and philosophical systems," the greatest number wanted "more." At the other end of the spectrum, respondents indicated a desire for less "poetry," "traveling in the ministry," and "puzzles/activities." Poetry was particularly unpopular with younger subscribers. "Articles on Bible studies" presented an interesting case of ambivalence: just less than one-half chose "same," while nearly equal numbers of respondents wanted "more" and "less."

Comparing the responses of younger subscribers (those under 50) to those over 50 revealed some other interesting differences. Younger readers expressed much greater interest in articles on the environment, race relations, controversial issues among Friends, current Quaker events, and on how to integrate faith into their work and home lives. Not surprisingly, they were also more interested in seeing information on parenting, education, and religious education.


An astoundingly high 85 percent of the respondents report they use the Internet. More than eight out of ten have purchased something over the Internet, but most do not subscribe to any online sites nor were they interested in an online subscription to the Journal—even if it were cheaper than the paper version. While these numbers may change over the coming years (younger readers have higher rates of Internet use), it is clear that even our younger subscribers prefer the print edition.

However, when asked which of the 18 sections in the Journal they might read online, the articles received support from a majority, while more than one-third expressed interest in reading electronic copies of book reviews, the meeting directory, letters to the editor, and notes from other Quaker organizations. At the same time, 77 percent said they were not interested in participating in online discussions of articles.

A Sample of Comments

There were a number of questions that offered respondents the opportunity to write in whatever they thought necessary and, at the end, a chance to add any final comments. Some of these were heartwarming and full of praise, others were more critical:

"The FJ is a wonderful magazine. I learn from it, draw hope from it, find inspiration, and feel closer to other Friends when I hear what they are doing. The focus of different issues often bears directly on my concerns. Thank you!"

"I used to really enjoy FJ. Now, I often don’t even bother reading it. I find it boring and the writing often mediocre. A more spiritually provocative stance might help."

A surprising number of comments came from subscribers who were raised as Quakers, but are no longer members and from people who have never had a connection to Friends:

"Although I am not now a Quaker, I was brought up in a Quaker family. My mother gives me a subscription to Friends Journal for Christmas each year and I enjoy reading the articles in the magazine."

"I was raised in a lively Friends meeting and . . . now belong to a UCC church. Friends Journal helps me stay connected to my Quaker roots and also I appreciate Quaker perspectives on current issues."

"I am not a Quaker, but I treasure the Friends Journal. I subscribed because I love the open minded discussions. I often cite articles during Bible Study or discussion groups in my own church (ELCA Lutheran)."

"I plan to attend a meeting . . . this month. Currently, I am a member of an Episcopal church."

The 2001 survey included questions about the magazine’s format and the possible use of color. Although there were no such questions in the 2008 questionnaire, several respondents were led to offer their feelings:

"Your layout needs an upgrade—get a fresh, modern look! You come off as stodgy."

"By design, it is a beautiful example of Friends’ simplicity."

"No color on slick paper for Friends Journal, please."

"Keep the B&W format and hand-drawn sketches—that is the personality of the magazine & one of the things I love about it."

"Would it cost a whole lot to brighten up a bit? Even in B&W I think it could have more pizzazz—or do Quakers believe in pizzazz?"

"Really, I don’t read it all that much—what I love is the graphics—the elegance of the black and white simplicity. And I like having it around—like an old friend."

And quite a number emphasized their feelings about the need for a paper magazine:

"I like the paper copy of Friends Journal. I can pick it up when I have free time and read it and put it down & pick it up another time. That is not how I read on the computer."

"I find it difficult to read online, so I prefer hard copy. I enjoy the portability of books and magazines. They can be read in all sorts of places! They can also be perused in snippets of time!"

"Please do not assume that all of us use the Internet! A main grievance is ads & articles that only include web addresses and no other way to contact."

But most of all, the comments reflected their views on the contents:

"Sometimes the articles feel politically/socioeconomic-led rather than Spirit-led. I don’t necessarily disagree with the politics, but sometimes I’m wondering where God is in the article."

"What I like the least are the articles that argue for social issues, justice, equal treatment of the races, etc. that are supported only by clear thinking. We are a Religious Society and I would like to know how someone’s actions or positions are supported by their faith."

"I find the Journal a bit too religious. I’ve always appreciated Quakerism for its social stances and commitment to nonviolence. I haven’t found enough stimulation in this area."

Finally, some commented on the somewhat new practice of having a theme for some issues:

"I am glad to have 2-3 articles on one theme in an issue, but I don’t enjoy issues where the majority of all the articles are on one theme."

"Have only two special issues per year devoted to a single topic or theme."

"Special themed issues—especially the ones on aging and finances—were superb!"


Overall, the 2008 respondents were very similar to those in 2001. Our average reader is still over 60, female, and a retired teacher. What distinguishes her from others in her age group is that she is very well educated and very likely to be making use of the Internet. Compared to her counterpart in the 2001 survey, she seems more content with the mix of articles.

The survey revealed a dedicated base of longtime Quaker readers, yet we are noticeably gaining new subscribers who are new to the Religious Society of Friends, and, increasingly, those beyond the bounds of the Society. The overwhelming majority is dedicated to a print version of the magazine.

The timing for these results could not be better—transitions are occurring in publishing, in Friends’ corporate lives and interrelationships, and in Friends’ personal lives. In the coming months and years, the Friends Journal board and staff will be mining this data to improve the Journal. We hope the result will better serve our readers in the next decade.

Paul Buckley

Paul Buckley is a member of North Meadow Circle of Friends in Indianapolis, Ind., and a former member of the Board of Trustees of Friends Publishing Corporation, which publishes Friends Journal. He has more than 20 years of experience in survey research and directed both the 2001 and 2008 surveys for the Journal.