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Words and numbers

By David Wilson

For someone who has had a long love affair with words, I find myself unusually preoccupied with numbers these days. Numbers, I am learning, are every bit as important to magazines as the words that appear on the printed page. They tell stories. They inspire. They challenge. They confound. They lurk just below the surface of most things a magazine is and does.

We who produce this magazine from month to month are focused on numbers right now because we're focused on strengthening The Observer for readers today and for those who will pick us up in years to come. I've found two sets of numbers particularly intriguing.

The first is historical. We've always known that The Observer has been around for a long time, but not until recently did we realize how significant our longevity really is. After checking, double-checking, then checking some more, we are now certain that The Observer is not only the oldest continuously published magazine in Canada -- our roots go back to 1829 -- but is the oldest continuously published magazine in North America.

We predate The Scientific American by 16 years and Harper's by 21. And as best we can tell, we are the second-oldest magazine in the English-speaking world. The top honour goes to Britain's Spectator magazine, which has been around since the early 1700s and published continuously since 1828, a scant year before we came on the scene.

Roots as deep as ours are inspiring -- and a little daunting: we have traditions to uphold. Which brings me to the second set of numbers. Right now, this magazine goes into about 20 percent of the supporting households in The United Church of Canada. We need to find a way into the mailboxes of more United Church people if The Observer is going to have a future, so we've spent the last year studying the reading patterns and likes and dislikes of our subscribers.

The results show that our current readers are extremely loyal. Over 84 percent of readers interviewed in face-to-face discussions said they read every issue and, on average, they read about 66 percent of the content. "There is hardly any magazine on the planet that would get consistently more readership," concludes Totum Research Inc. of Kingston, Ont. The numbers confirm that readers who like the magazine like it a lot: asked if they found the magazine interesting, readers who were interviewed gave it an average score of 8.12 out of 10. Moreover, the research shows our current readers appear to be happy with recent changes such as new paper stock, bigger pictures and sassier covers.

These are numbers to celebrate and build upon. Others lay down a clear challenge. Telephone interviews with 1,000 readers across the country revealed that more than 90 percent of our readers are over 50 years of age. Nothing wrong with that, but in the long term we need to develop many more younger readers, too.

Readers in both telephone and face-to-face interviews showed a strong preference for stories on themes of social justice and ethical and faithful living, but also made it clear that they want a greater emphasis on youth and young adults. And humour. "You have to lighten up a bit," said one respondent. "It's important to laugh."

That last remark nicely captures an undercurrent of optimism running throughout the research. Our readers may be older, but it's evident that they appreciate an Observer that's vital, relevant and young at heart. A magazine that's almost 180 years old couldn't ask for more.

Author's photo
David Wilson is the editor-publisher of The Observer.
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