Survey Says

Who's reading Commonweal?

About every four years since the 1980s, Commonweal has conducted a reader survey, and each one has provided a fascinating snapshot of who’s reading the magazine at a given time. Our most recent survey, conducted last fall, proved no different. It consisted of thirty questions spread over eight pages. (Readers could also fill out the survey online.) One of the principal reasons periodicals conduct surveys is to provide advertisers with accurate data about potential customers. For the editors, the chief benefit is learning a lot of detailed information about our loyal readership. And we mean loyal. Pop quiz: How long have most Commonweal readers been subscribers?

A. Two to three years?

B. Four to six?

C. Seven to ten?

D. Eleven to fifteen?

E. Fifteen-plus?

Amazingly, the answer is E. About half our subscribers have been receiving Commonweal for more than fifteen years (nearly 80 percent for more than seven). That’s what you call a long-term relationship (considering the median duration of marriages in the United States is 7.2 years, we think we’re doing OK). Regardless of whether you are a longtime subscriber or a new acquaintance, if you’ve ever found yourself furtively wanting to know what your Commonweal reading partners are like, you can stop holding your breath. We’ve now got the goods.

Foremost, Commonweal readers are engaged with the magazine. Of the five thousand questionnaires we sent to randomly selected subscribers, more than two thousand were returned-an unheard-of 40-percent return rate. The Commonweal staff found this heartening, but not entirely surprising. A cursory glance through the Correspondence pages of any issue demonstrates how invested our readers are in the magazine. So, what did all these invested, engaged, long-termers have to say for themselves? Lots.

For starters, they like to share. Sixty-two percent give their issues to someone else-that’s called spreading the good news. Eighty-four percent said they’d read all four of the previous issues, and 35 percent said they read each new issue, on average, cover to cover (40 percent said they read three-quarters of each issue). So, we know that many of our readers are getting their subscription dollars’ worth. But what do they think of the actual content? Over 90 percent agree that it’s “stimulating.” Given the opportunity to call us “dull,” 91 percent disagreed. Our 1999 batch of reader reviews weren’t quite so glowing: then, only 72 percent of subscribers said we weren’t dull. Not a bad turnaround.

We must confess the editors have on occasion pounded their keyboards in frustration wondering if Rome, President George W. Bush, or Mel Gibson is listening. But, happily, our readers are. Editorials proved the most popular regular feature in the magazine (58 percent). Letters came in a strong second at 49 percent. And we had a tie for the bronze: book reviews and the Last Word. When you crank down the rating from “like very much” to a mere “like,” readers’ range of interest widens a bit. Book reviews, our columnists, stage and screen critics, and the Last Word, and of course, our longer articles, all fared quite well.

Commonweal readers are not only engaged, they are ecumenical and democratic in their tastes. A little more than half subscribe to the Jesuit weekly, America, and about the same number also receive their diocesan paper. Forty-five percent get the National Catholic Reporter. And 40 percent read the New York Times. The vast majority are “familiar with” a long list of publications: Catholic Digest, Crisis, First Things (15 percent of our subscribers read FT), the Nation, the National Review, New Oxford Review, the New York Review of Books (17 percent of Commonweal readers also get the NYRB), the New Republic, U.S. Catholic, the Wall Street Journal, and more.

Commonweal readers are busy people. To wit: 68.9 percent do faith-related volunteer work or ministry “at least occasionally.” This percentage seems even more impressive when you consider that 76.8 percent of our readers are laypeople “not in paid ministry.” The breakdown continues: 95 percent of those who answered the survey are Roman Catholic; 1.9 percent Episcopalian; 64.3 percent are men, 35.7 percent women; 14.5 percent are ordained (which might account for the high percentage of male readers); 3.2 percent professed religious; 68.2 percent have received an academic or professional graduate degree; 49.6 percent went to “both Catholic grade/high school and Catholic college”; 13.1 percent never attended Catholic schools. As you might expect, Commonweal subscribers are voracious readers (almost half buy between eleven and fifty books a year-and 2 percent buy more than a hundred!). Politically, 69.2 percent self-identify as “liberal centrist”; 8.9 percent as “conservative”; 13.4 percent said Commonweal is more liberal than they are; 17.1 percent said “less liberal”; and a healthy 69.5 percent said that politically they and the magazine were “about the same.” This means we’re annoying at least thirty percent of our subscribers at least fifty-one percent of the time. In opinion journalism, this is a good thing.

But they’re not annoyed enough to give us the silent treatment. Most impressive was the response in the survey’s comment section. Most people who respond to surveys don’t bother to write in comments and suggestions. Not Commonweal readers. Almost all respondents included commentary, some of it extended, and much of it instructive. And funny. Would that we could reprint all the gems, but space is short, so, without further ado, the greatest hits.

How did you first hear about Commonweal? “Since 1962-high school girlfriend.” “Infused knowledge.” “Eavesdropping on my mother’s discussion groups as a child.” “A loud voice saying ‘Get smart.’” And, of course, the not so obvious: “First Things.”

What topics and writers would you like to see in Commonweal? Several names made repeat appearances: Andrew Greeley, Richard McBrien, the Steinfelses, Garry Wills. But some unexpected ones showed up, too: for example, David Tracy (doubtless on vampires) and Anne Rice (on hermeneutics, of course). Many excellent topics were suggested: ecumenism, the role of the laity, women, bioethics, and the staff favorite: “our relation to animals” (see “Listening to Koko,” page 14-ask and ye shall receive).

What do readers do for a living? Diversity abounds: farming, “house dad,” “senior judge,” actor, and, this category’s winner: “hermit.” (Runner up: “microwave engineer.”)

And now the most dangerous request of all: “Please use the space below for any additional comments you might have about Commonweal.” We received almost thirty legal-sized, ten-point-font, single-spaced pages of material. Some highlights from the shorter answers: “I love C. An umbilical cord to the church.” “Tendentiously ‘liberal.’” “There is a church west of Buffalo!” “Don’t need your political rantings. Don’t know why I still subscribe.” (Please don’t stop.) “More bite and less pipe-chewing.” “This survey is a collaborative effort by two people who share a subscription. We agree on all answers except no. 20.” We could chart the editorial schedule of Commonweal for the next decade with the good ideas in the comments.

In the end, the survey held some good surprises. We were able to see what you like and why you like it. Best of all, the magazine seems to be doing just fine, by your lights. Question 12 was straightforward on this point. “Would you say Commonweal is better or worse than it was three years ago?” Six percent said it has “improved greatly.” Forty-seven percent said it has “improved.” Forty-five percent said it has “stayed the same.” Bad news is 2.4 percent said the magazine has “worsened” (could any of those be First Things readers?-Kidding. Sort of). Like the church, Commonweal is always in need of improvement. And we’re committed to the task. So the three people who said the magazine has “worsened a great deal” will shortly be receiving a visit from the editors. If our 2003 survey taught us anything, it’s that every reader counts.

Published in the 2004-06-18 issue: 

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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