What kind of stories do editors of church publications want about relief and development?
What advice would they give to NGO communicators?
And what is the future of church publications, anyway?
Those are among the questions I posed to editors of ten Canadian church-related magazines and newspapers in fall, last year.
The publications represent Adventist, Mennonite, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Christian Reformed, United and Evangelical churches.
Between them, they print about 273,000 copies of their publications.
I started by asking them about their print circulation—is it growing or declining?
For five, it’s decreasing. Four said it is stable. One said it is increasing.
What about the age of readers—are they getting older or younger?
Six said the age of readers is increasing, two said it is stable, one said it is decreasing. One was uncertain.
Said one editor: “We estimate our print audience is aging and much our younger audience has gone online.”
Added another, perhaps a bit sadly (or cynically): “Our audience not likely to get much older. In part that’s because, at a certain age, we die.”
Do they think their publications will exist in print in 10 years?
Four said yes, four said no, two were uncertain. The four who said yes acknowledged that it would be a mix of print and online, as it is now.
One of the editors who thinks his print publication will continue admits that the number of people who want that format will be small, while digital grows.
“There will be a smaller audience that prefers print,” he said. “Our digital audience will become our core audience.”
Another thought print might stick around, but not weekly as it is now. “I’d like to think we’ll still be around, perhaps not in weekly newspaper form, but at least monthly.”
A third editor proposed what she thought was a more realistic timeframe for when her print publication disappears. “We’re not good for ten years, but maybe for five years,” she said.
A fourth said her publication will be out of business—print or digital—by that time.
I asked if they get too much, too little or enough information from church-related NGOs.
Nine said they get enough; only one said too little.
I asked what kinds of stories they want from church-related NGO communicators.
The overwhelming choice was stories—about people who provide to aid, or those who receive it.
That was followed by information that is timely or topical (in the news) and natural disasters.
Said the editors:
“Tell me how Canadian donors and volunteers are making a difference.”
“Don’t just tell story of beneficiaries, tell story of the people helping so people can connect with them more.”
“I want stories of people connecting with people, as well as personal experiences.”
“Give me stories about people, not programs.”
“Too often relief and development stories are about statistics, rather than people. Putting a human face on stories is very important.”
“Link us with people whose stories personify global development trends and issues.”
“Don’t talk in broad generalities about partners and projects. Give us people who live in the homes you are building in the Philippines, whose children are attending the school you built in Haiti, who are farming on the land you secured for them in Columbia.”
In addition to these things, all the editors emphasized that the stories need to have a Canadian angle, and should be about members, organizations or churches that are part of the denominations they cover.
Finally, I asked what advice they would give to communicators at church-related NGOs.
Here’s what they said.
“Make sure stories include good quotes, some data and some high-resolution photos.”
“The best approach is to stay in regular, direct contact with the media, provide them with story ideas, contacts, photos.”
“Make sure your stories connect with our readers.”
“Build a relationship with someone in the media.”
What does this mean for NGO (and other non-profit) communicators?
First, print is in trouble—but we already knew that.
Second, the age of readers of print is growing. But we knew that, too.
Third, ramping up our efforts to send editors more information isn’t necessary. They get enough now.
Fourth—and again no surprise—send stories of people. This includes stories of people doing the helping, as MCC discovered when it did an analysis of its most popular stories.
Fifth, if church media has a future, it will mostly be digital.
Finally, it would be easy to shrug our shoulders and move on. Declining circulations, aging readers, the end of print? That’s their problem.
Actually, these are all our problems, too. Our supporters are also aging. We need to find ways to capture the interest of younger people.
Plus, we need church media (and other media). An independent voice reporting about our organizations is an important way for people to know we are doing good work, and can be trusted.
People who work for church-related non-profits should want church media to survive, in other words.
But if the church media has a future, I think it will take more than just editors getting together to figure out a way through the challenges.
It's going to take all of our collective ideas, efforts and imaginations.
But how to do that?
Your thoughts are welcome.