Is It Time to Lay Down Friends Journal?

An Open Letter from Janet Ross, Clerk of the Board of Trustees, Friends Publishing Corporation and Susan Corson-Finnerty, Publisher and Executive Editor

Dear Friends,

Is it time to lay down the FRIENDS JOURNAL? We do not like this question at all, but we need to let you know that our current financial situation is untenable. So, this is a serious question that we are asking ourselves, and—through this letter—are asking you.

We will describe the circumstances that force us to raise this question in a moment. But first, we want to note that laying down (closing) an institution is a question that Friends should always be willing to face. The Religious Society of Friends is not about buildings; it is not about historical properties and artifacts; it is not about particular schools or particular causes; and it is not about particular publications—even though we may love and cherish such things. We are "about" following God’s leading. We are "about" nurturing the Life of the Spirit. We are "about" Speaking Truth to Power. No outward form should hamper or hinder our path.

We—the Clerk of the Board and the Publisher and Executive Editor—strongly believe that FRIENDS JOURNAL helps Friends follow God’s leadings, nurtures the life of the Spirit, and speaks Truth to empower its readers. We believe that FRIENDS JOURNAL provides a source of communication among Friends unlike any other. That it is read across the branches of Quakerism and around the world. That it is used by discussion groups, monthly meetings, and bloggers as a starting place for searching conversations. That it offers connection to the Quaker world for isolated Friends and seekers. That its pages intrigue and reach out to those who resonate with its content, some of whom are searching for a religious community to call home. That its back issues are a treasure trove of Quaker thought, which is often plumbed by authors and publishers who request permission to reprint, or by meetings who use its articles to assist meeting business. That outreach committees and worship and ministry committees alike make good use of it. That it is given as a gift to young Friends upon graduation from high school and to new members of Friends meetings. That it offers information, guidance, reflection, solace, inspiration and challenge to its readers every month. That it does all of this dependably and with excellence. We believe that FRIENDS JOURNAL is a ministry made manifest in a magazine.

has remained spiritually vigorous and financially viable for more than 50 years. Now we are faced with the question of how we can sustain its ministry in a volatile economy at a time when its message is more needed than ever.

What do you believe? Is FRIENDS JOURNAL a spiritual asset to Friends and other seekers? Does FRIENDS JOURNAL matter to the future of Quakerism? Or has it reached the end of its usefulness?

We do not ask these questions to cause alarm. We ask because during the next eight months, the Board of Trustees of Friends Publishing Corporation—whose primary purpose is publishing FRIENDS JOURNAL—will have to decide whether to continue this effort, reduce it drastically, or lay it down.

Our next Board meeting will be February 5-7, 2010, and before that meeting, we would like to solicit your opinion and encourage your involvement. There will be a second Board meeting June 4-6, 2010, at which time a decision may have to be made.

At the end of this letter, we will suggest ways that you can be a part of this decision process. But first, let us give you the background that you will need in order to provide informed assistance.

The cost this year to produce each paid subscription to FRIENDS JOURNAL is $112.24. That means that each paid subscription (many of which are shared with one or two other folks) is subsidized by $72.25 that we must raise in other ways. Advertising revenue is projected to provide less than 26% ($18.70) of that needed income, and this a hopeful projection in a time of falling ad revenues. Outside jobs, anthology sales, and rental income provide another 5.5% ($3.95) of what’s needed. This leaves $49.59 (68.5%) that must come from gifts, grants, and investment income. (The pie chart shows how much every subscription relies upon gift support.)

Like most Friends organizations, in years past we have needed investment income to balance the budget. As recently as our 2007 fiscal year, our carefully managed investment portfolio increased in value by $145,771, giving us enough income to help balance our budget. But in FY08 we saw the net value of that portfolio decline 10.6%, and by 6/30/2009 its value had decreased by an additional $793,652 (50.8%) as a result of unrealized losses and an increased requirement to utilize unrestricted reserves for operations. Despite improved market returns, our draw on reserves has continued; and we now find ourselves with dramatically reduced funds in our investment accounts. Over the last two years (9/07 to 9/09) total equity in these accounts has been reduced by an unprecedented 42%.

There are many metrics by which FRIENDS JOURNALcan be judged to be healthy and successful:

  • Paid circulation has been growing: 7,296 in 2009, up 6% since 2006.
  • Online readership has been growing: 102% more monthly visitors than in 2006.
  • Diversity of audience: Read in every branch of Quakerism; with increasing readership outside of Quakerism (up to 14% of readership in 2008 vs. 6% in 2001).
  • Participation by readers and writers: Approximately 400 manuscripts volunteered yearly.
  • Feedback by readers: 82% of readers ranked FJ as important to them personally; 50% ranked it as quite important to them.
  • Quality of product: Improvements since 1999 include 2 special issues annually, an average of 17% more pages, and a wider diversity of content.
  • Strength and dedication of staff: Average years of service to FJ: 10.27; highly skilled professionals; a great collaborative team.
  • Annual awards from independent judges: 30 Associated Church Press awards since 1999.
  • Outstanding internship program: Provides up to 15 interns annually with professional skills and real publishing hands-on experiences.

However, there are other metrics that have forced the question of our survival:

  • Advertising income: $171,612 in 2009, down 11% from 2007.
  • Grants and gifts: $208,782 in 2009, down 19% from 2007.
  • Resistance to subscription increases: Despite a real cost-per-subscription of $112.24, raising the nominal subscription price above $40 would make our message inaccessible to many potential readers.
  • Loss of endowment and reserve: Down 42% since 9/2007

We realize that the global financial crisis has brought us to this point of decision. And we realize that if we can weather this crisis for another 24 or 36 months, the economy may improve, causing advertising revenue, subscription income, Internet-based revenue, and donations to increase. We also understand that the management of FRIENDS JOURNAL now must take every available step to reduce costs, and avoid further erosion of our precious reserves.

Sometimes the suggestion is made that we could put the magazine online, thereby saving printing, paper, and postage. True enough—but the most significant costs we incur are the modest salaries (and benefits, including healthcare) of our staff. Creating an online product will not eliminate the need for our staff and the functions they perform, nor will it save nearly enough money to balance our budget.

Additionally, our recent market research tells us that an overwhelming majority of our paid subscribers are not interested in receiving the JOURNAL online, even if we make it available at a lower cost, so going entirely online risks losing most of our subscribers. Surprisingly, only 25% even of those under 50 are interested in an online edition, thus this can only be a partial solution. While we will pursue an online option for subscribers that may attract new readers, it will not solve the JOURNAL’s immediate financial distress.

Friends occasionally tell us that they won’t make donations to our ministry because "magazines should pay for themselves through subscriptions and advertising." If we had a much larger number of paid subscriptions than we do, that could work. We could charge more for ads, and subscription revenue would be substantially higher. The relatively small numbers of Quakers unfortunately precludes this. And these days, even very large publications are considering soliciting donations to stay in business.

We do have a plan for cost reduction and new revenue. Beginning immediately, we will take the following steps, among others:

  • Turn the Bulletin Board and Announcements into an affordable, paid online service.
  • Accept and place advertisements on our website,
  • Accept two-page spread advertisements and advertisements at the front of the magazine.
  • Create "Sustaining Subscriber" and "Sustaining Meeting" programs with special benefits in exchange for committed support.
  • Institute a postage and handling charge for print subscriptions.
  • Move to a less recycled or non-recycled paper stock.
  • Cap the number of pages at 52.
  • Combine the June and July issues, reducing frequency to 11 issues per year.
  • Send renewal notices by e-mail when possible.
  • Create an electronic subscription option, using PDFs.
  • Potentially reduce personnel costs by raising employee health insurance premium contributions, eliminating life insurance, and reducing staff wages (already frozen at 2008 level).

The Executive Committee and the other Committee clerks of the Board and the staff have together developed this cost-cutting/revenue-generating program. It includes many steps we would rather not take, but that are necessary in this financial environment. However, these steps alone may not insure that FRIENDS JOURNAL will make it through the 24 or 36 more months we need to survive this economic downturn.

Can increased fundraising bridge the gap? Only if more and larger donations are received. All of our subscribers have received our recent appeal, and some have responded generously. We’ve received 174 gifts, totaling $29,202, compared with 173 at the same time in 2008, with a total increase of $17,186 (70%) in gift income for the same period.

This is heartening; but, frankly, it is not enough.

FRIENDS JOURNAL needs four kinds of income if this ministry is going to continue. We need regular annual income that makes up the four main streams that cover our annual expenses. Those streams are subscription income, advertising income, gifts and grants, and investment income (from major gifts or endowment contributions).

While appeal contributions of $50, $100, and $500 have, until now, kept us going every month, we now need capital gifts, those over $25,000, to build an endowment and reserve that will support and sustain FRIENDS JOURNAL for years to come. Our current endowment/reserve stands at $767,400 as of 6/2009. Projecting forward, without change in income or expense, it will be entirely exhausted in 12-18 months. Clearly a dramatic reversal is needed. We will need to raise $400,000 to $600,000 this year, and more to build an endowment in the next few years.

We do not know if such funds can be secured in 12-18 months—the time that we have available. Friends and readers have significant resources, but those personal resources have been diminished by the crisis in our economy. Furthermore, many charitable and educational organizations are also experiencing difficult times, including many Quaker institutions. There are many worthy uses for philanthropic dollars, and those who do have money must decide among them.

How you can assist our Board in deciding our future

There are several ways that readers of this letter could assist us:

First, you can write to us and tell us what you think. Is the JOURNAL important, even vital, to the future of Friends? What ideas and suggestions do you have that may be helpful to the Board in its February and June meetings? You can contact us at or FRIENDS JOURNAL, 1216 Arch St., Ste. 2A, Philadelphia, PA 19107.

Second, you can share this letter with others, encouraging them to share their views with us.

Third, you can make regular gift donations to our work. Fully 85% of our subscribers pay no more than the price of their subscription; we estimate another 8,200 readers pay nothing for their regular readership and do not donate. Because each subscription costs $72.25 more than we charge for it, all these readers are being subsidized at a rate we can no longer sustain. We understand there are many reasons why Friends do not pay for subscriptions or send donations. But we do want the facts to be plain.

Fourth, you can subscribe to FRIENDS JOURNAL if you value its ministry or just enjoy its contents, especially if you’ve been reading someone else’s copy. You can renew your subscription promptly when you receive your first notice, saving us time, mailing, and postage costs to retain you as a reader. For us, every reader has great value as a participant in a community that ministers to itself. Our writers are not paid journalists—they are our readers, members of our community. Your participation is important to us on many levels.

Fifth, you can become a sustaining subscriber or ask your meeting to become a sustaining meeting, giving regular monthly donations above the price of your subscription, at a level that is right for you. Regular monthly gifts enable larger yearly donations from modest donors and help us greatly with cash flow.

Sixth, you can volunteer your time. This letter can be shared, and discussed at your meeting or with friends. Members of our Board and staff would be happy to respond to invitations to speak about the JOURNAL, and to hear the views of your meeting or community. You can let us know if you might be willing to be a volunteer fundraiser, if our Board decides to undertake a capital drive.

Finally, there are a few people reading this who have the ability to make or help secure a transformative gift for the JOURNAL. That is to say, a significantly large gift that would build our endowment. We do not expect such a gift to arrive in the mail, but if you feel led to consider such a step, we would be grateful to hear from you.

In the end, our decision is your decision—you who are reading this now—whether through the pages of the JOURNAL or through the Internet, or through letter, or photocopy. Is FRIENDS JOURNAL vital to the Religious Society of Friends? Is its ministry to the various branches of Friends, and to fellow seekers, worthy of significant support? We think that it is. We hope that you agree, and that we will hear from you.

Yours in peace,

Janet Ross
Clerk, Board of Trustees

Susan Corson-Finnerty
Publisher and Executive Editor