The USMB Leadership Board, at the request of national director Don Morris, is conducting an extensive review of the Christian Leader (CL), utilizing the findings of the every-five-year CL readership survey.
Since 1974, the readership survey has given CL readers an opportunity to provide feedback, but for the first time, the 2021 survey findings will be used for a more extensive review and evaluation of the CL and C-Link by a designated CL Review Team.
“Our desire is that the Christian Leader’s content is truly meeting the needs and expectations of our MB family in ways that encourage, connect, challenge, edify and inform,” Morris says. “The readership survey will give us good information about this, but we’ll combine that with the work of a Review Team—selected people from throughout our USMB churches—for doing a much deeper analysis. This team will then provide specific recommendations to the USMB Leadership Board for how the Christian Leader can continue to be an award-winning magazine, while meeting the expected communication needs of our MB family.”
History of the readership survey
The CL, first published in 1937 as a youth publication, became the official publication of U.S. and Canadian Mennonite Brethren in 1951 and since 1955, has focused its content on the issues and activities of U.S. Mennonite Brethren.
The readership survey is the primary method for editors and USMB leadership to receive feedback from constituents and allows CL staff to better understand ways readers use media and to gather demographic information. The first readership survey was conducted in 1974, and an every-five-year survey schedule was introduced as a goal in 1985, although that schedule was not always met as a result of budget restrictions or other reasons.
“I view the magazine as serving our readers, so input from readers is very important,” says CL editor Connie Faber. “The magazine not only helps to connect readers to their USMB brothers and sisters from across the U.S., but it also keeps them informed about the national conference. Since 2005, CL redesigns have coincided with important changes for our conference of churches, and the feedback from readership surveys has helped the Leadership Board and USMB staff make decisions about the magazine that better inform our constituency about what it is we do together.”
Past survey findings
Over the years, the readership survey has asked specific questions pertaining to relevant issues, the responses to which have molded and shaped the current publication in areas such as printing in color, online publication, content and frequency of publication.
The 2002 readership survey explored adding color to the inside of the magazine, which, until 2010 was printed in grayscale, although the cover was first printed in color in 2005.
After the CL began publishing content online in 2008, the 2009 readership survey asked whether or not respondents read the CL online and explored how readers responded to the CL cover, how clearly MB content was presented and preference on frequency of publication.
Frequency of publication changed in 2009 as a result of mid-year budget cuts. The CL published as many as 22 issues a year in 1985, but by 1995, that number dropped to 12. For the first time in 2009—the last time the frequency survey question was asked—a majority of respondents (38 percent) preferred publication every other month. The CL switched from monthly to bimonthly publication with the April/May 2009 issue.
According to Faber, the 2009 readership survey guided the 2010 redesign, marking the magazine’s first full makeover in 18 years.
To enhance online content, the CL added its biweekly electronic news digest C-Link in 2012.
The 2016 survey introduced questions pertaining to readers’ preference of reading the CL in print or online, revealing that 71 percent of respondents preferred in print only, 6 percent preferred online only and 23 percent preferred both in print and online. This was also the first survey following CL website upgrades intended to make CL content more convenient to access online.
The most recent redesign of the CL occurred in 2017, coinciding with the new USMB mission statement and core commitments introduced at the 2016 national convention. The redesign was also a direct result of survey findings. Editors adjusted the content based on readers’ preferences in the survey, which indicated that the “First Person” essays were most highly valued, followed by feature articles. As a result, the 2017 redesign enhanced columns and returned to a themed format in the feature department.
Goals of 2021 survey
The 2021 survey targets readers in their 20s, 30s and 40s, as has the 2009 and 2016 surveys per LB request, in order to learn how to better serve and attract the next generation, Faber says.
“We hope that our content is of value to people in a variety of stages of life, and the readership survey is one way we can improve our efforts to serve young adults and families with younger children,” Faber says.
Despite the target age range, CL readers of any age are welcome to provide feedback.
Some topics highlighted in the 2021 survey regard media use, perceived bias and readers’ preferences for accessing CL content in print, online or both. A new question in the 2021 survey asks readers if they are in favor of replacing the print CL with an online magazine, similar to action by the Canadian Conference of MB Churches (CCMBC) to transition the MB Herald to an online-only publication in 2020. CCMBC’s decision to end their print magazine was made in 2019, and the MB Herald Digest, a condensed version of the MB Herald, was introduced in fall 2020.
Survey and review process
The readership survey targets 10 percent of the approximate 7,000 CL readers.
The survey process began in early April with a request for USMB church administrators to identify those in their congregation in the targeted age range. Upon receipt of the lists, CL editors randomly identified about 700 people to receive readership surveys in the mail. The survey is also available online to anyone who wishes to complete it.
The deadline for readership survey responses is June 2, 2021. Those who complete the survey will be invited to enter a drawing to win one of three $100 Amazon gift cards as a thank you. Historically, a thank you or incentive has been provided for readers who complete the survey, including a stick of gum with the request that readers give the editors “something to chew on” and later, a $1 bill in every survey.
Once CL editors receive readership survey results via mail or online, editors will compile the data using Survey Monkey and provide it to a CL Review Team, consisting of Morris, representatives from districts—including district ministers and other individuals—and members of the Leadership Board to analyze and evaluate the results.
The CL Review Team will seek to determine, among other items, the viability of the CL, the CL’s purpose and how that compares with current perception, recommendations for content changes, cost analysis, an evaluation of CL staff, a review of website and C-Link content, the value of a printed versus online edition of the CL and plans for the CL’s future.
The Review Team plans to complete its review by Fall 2021, in order to provide recommendations to the USMB Leadership Board at its October 2021 meeting. Implementation of recommendations is slated to begin with the March/April 2022 CL issue.
“Given that the 2021 survey is an extensive evaluation of the magazine, the feedback from our readers will again be very important as the Leadership Board makes decisions about the publication and our communication strategy and for the editors as we work to produce a magazine that reflects the interests and priorities of our readers,” Faber says. “Opportunities to read the CL online have increased and improved over the past 10 years, and it will be interesting to see with our 2021 survey how readers have responded to these changes. I don’t want to influence responses, but I do want people to know that their input is important and will make a difference.”
To complete the 2021 readership survey, visit www.christianleadermag.com and look for the link in the upper right-hand corner. Watch for information about how to share your feedback with the Review Team.
TAKE THE CL READERSHIP SURVEY: Deadline is June 2, 2021
Janae Rempel Shafer is the Christian Leader associate editor. She joined the CL staff in September 2017 with six years of experience as a professional journalist. Shafer is an award-winning writer, having received three 2016 Kansas Press Association Awards of Excellence and an Evangelical Press Association Higher Goals award in 2022. Shafer graduated from Tabor College in 2010 with a bachelor of arts in Communications/Journalism and Biblical/Religious Studies. She and her husband, Austin, attend Ridgepoint Church in Wichita, Kansas.