by Dana Heupel
We’d like to thank those of you who took the time to complete our recent reader survey. We’ve been poring over the results for more than a month now, and as promised, we want to share some of them with you. (I apologize in advance that this column will be what we call “number heavy,” but that’s pretty much the nature of this beast.)
As we have every five years or so for a while, we commissioned the survey to get an idea about what our readers like and dislike about Illinois Issues. We use the results to help plan the future of the magazine. We also incorporate other suggestions from readers, study industry trends and conduct discussions with our advisory board and key people at the Center for State Policy and Leadership at the University of Illinois Springfield, as well from as other parts of the university. Above all, any decisions we make must first fit our mission: to provide “fresh, provocative analysis of public policy in Illinois” and “enhance the quality of public discourse.” (For our full mission statement, please visit the section labeled “About.”)
We received 290 responses from subscribers and readers who filled out the four-page questionnaire. The poll was conducted by the center’s Survey Research unit as one of the last projects overseen by longtime director Richard Schuldt, who retired June 30. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 percent.
As we suspected, based on information from past surveys, 88 percent of those who responded this time around are 45 or older, more than half hold graduate degrees and more than a third fall into the $75,000-to-$125,000 income bracket. Nearly 10 percent earn more than $250,000, and about the same number make less than $50,000. More than two-thirds hold jobs that sometimes or usually attempt to influence lawmaking and/or policymaking.
In magazine parlance, those are remarkable reader demographics: highly educated, high-income and influential. Still, we need to continue our efforts to attract younger readers. Although it’s not unusual for readers of news publications to be somewhat older, because many people don’t pay close attention to public affairs until they encounter property taxes or send children to public schools, it’s important to engage the next generation in civic responsibilities as early as possible to prepare for the future.
Reinforcing the need to attract more younger readers is the survey’s finding that only one in five of the respondents have visited the Illinois Issues website, and fewer than one in 10 have read our blog, where between publication of our monthly print editions, we provide immediate news and analysis of the most important statewide issues. A study published in 2011 by the Pew Research Center showed that nearly two-thirds of adults between 18 and 29 years old get most of their news online, as do nearly half of adults between 30 and 49. It’s clear that we need to focus more on that area — while still delivering the same content that our loyal print readers (nearly two-thirds of the respondents have subscribed to Illinois Issues for more than six years) have come to expect.
It is gratifying that our current readers appear to like what we’re doing. More than half of the survey respondents rate the overall quality of the magazine as “excellent,” and more than 90 percent rate it as excellent or good. Nearly one-third save the magazine for future reference, and more than one-fourth pass it along to someone else or leave it where others can read it. Nearly three in five say that one or more other people read their copy of the magazine.
More than half of the respondents say our annual publication, the Roster of State Government Officials, is “very important” in their decision to subscribe to Illinois Issues. Subscribers get the $7 directory for free and also have access to a smart-phone app that contains the same information. More than 80 percent say our “existence as a nonprofit news organization devoted to public affairs” is important in their decision to subscribe. A similar number also place importance on Illinois Issues as the “best place to get in-depth coverage.”
Among the surprises are that in this age of tweets and blurbs, our readers continue to find “long-form journalism” useful. When asked whether they think the articles in Illinois Issues are too long, 90 percent of the respondents say they are not; only 5 percent say they are.
We also used the survey to float some trial balloons — some changes we are considering and others that we aren’t. It is clear that the respondents do not want us to eliminate the print edition and publish online only — an action that is NOT under consideration at this point. Nearly three in four respondents disagreed with that approach, with about 16 percent neutral and only 4 percent supporting it. More than half would like to see us publish a short summary at the beginning of longer articles, and we will begin doing that soon.
Nearly half of those responding say they would like to be able to subscribe or renew their subscriptions online. We are working with the university’s overloaded technical staff to accomplish that. More than 40 percent would like to see a greater variety of commentators, and we will look to increase the number of guest essays in the future. And about the same number want more breaking news — which we now publish on the Illinois Issues Blog — and we will seek to incorporate more of that into our regular website and to increase our use of social networking.
Coverage of legislative issues tops the survey’s list of reader interests, with 95 percent of the respondents saying they are “very interested.” The governor’s policies also rated very high, as do news and analysis about the state budget, politics and education. Coverage of arts and culture, religious groups and book reviews fall near the bottom of the list.
The four-page survey covered many other issues that we will continue to analyze over the coming weeks and months. Of course, the survey results only will be one of many tools — including experienced news judgment — that we will use to chart the future of Illinois Issues. And in these days of declining support for higher education from state government, anything we do has to be tempered by financial constraints.
We also don’t intend to take the pulse of our readers only once every five years. We are always open to suggestions, complaints or blue-sky ideas about how we can best fulfill our mission to provide the most comprehensive examination and analysis of Illinois public affairs. Just continue to let us know what you think, and we’ll continue to listen.
Illinois Issues, September 2012