In the current edition of Skeptical Inquirer I was pleased to find that I received a mention from Robert Sheaffer in his regular UFO column, citing my discussion of the many failures of Jacques Vallée and Chris Aubeck’s Wonders in the Sky (2009) in advance of the new edition that the wealthy Vallée asked his readers to fund for him. The same edition (July/August 2016) also contains the results of a reader survey that the magazine sent out to a random selection of its readership. Skeptical Inquirer’s statement of ownership and circulation late last year listed a total circulation of 24,672. The magazine sent out 3,000 surveys and received 549 responses. There is, of course, a good chance that the survey over-represented older readers based on who took the time to fill out the lengthy 39-question survey, but the results seem to be generally in line with what I already knew about the audience for science-oriented material of any kind.
The magazine’s editor, Kendrick Frazier indicated that he was pleased with the results of the survey, but I would have to think that with circulation down 10,000 in the past twenty years (from the 35,000 reported in 1996) and (if their fundraising appeals are to be believed) a huge financial hole they haven’t managed to fill, perhaps pleasing the declining crop of current readers shouldn’t be the priority. Indeed, fully 38% of readers have been subscribers for 10 years or more, suggesting that the readership is aging and not replenishing. I would argue that it’s because the magazine doesn’t effectively reach out to and invite in new readers who might not be 100% committed militant skeptics.
According to the magazine’s survey, the magazine’s readers define themselves as skeptics (54%) and atheists (50%). They also define themselves as left-wing (57%), with only 20% identifying anywhere from the center to the right. The readership is also decidedly less modern than the general public, with less than half of readers having a social media account and virtually none using the magazine’s electronic resources. (58% of Americans use Facebook, but only 46% of Skeptical Inquirer readers.) This shouldn’t surprise anyone: 53% of readers are retired, with an astonishing 77% being older than 50, 42% being 70 or older! Nearly half had incomes above $50,000—one in five makes more than $100,000 per year—astonishing given how many are retired. Nine in ten readers are male. (Again, I will remind you that the length of the survey probably made it more likely that retired people took the time to fill it out.)
If you have ever wondered why I don’t write for Skeptical Inquirer, that’s as good a picture as you could paint: It literally isn’t worth it if you want to reach a broad audience. I have subscribed to the magazine for about 20 years, but while I initially enjoyed learning from it, increasingly I have been enjoying the magazine much less and find that it isn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know.
Frazier, who is in his magazine’s core demographic himself (he is 74 and has run the magazine since 1977), appears to have taken the wrong lessons from his survey. He learned that his liberal, retired, wealthy, male readership aren’t interested in monsters, UFOs, and ghosts (none clocking in above 57% expressing interest) but are interested in the concerns of liberal old rich guys: medicine, health, atheism, and why the kids today are so nutty (“psychology of belief”)—all clocking in between 75% and 90% of readers interested. “Some reevaluation may be necessary,” Frazier said, though noting that his regular writers, who produce much of the magazine’s content for free, prefer to write about monsters and aliens.
One thing I did agree with is the readers’ observation that the magazine’s layout is stodgy and unattractive. Page after page of almost unbroken text is uninviting. Columns that don’t align are one of my pet peeves. It’s sloppy.
I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, but pegging your publication’s future to a readership that, to be blunt, won’t be there in another ten years seems like a recipe for disaster. After reading the reader survey, Frazier should have taken the following messages to heart:
The bottom line is that Skeptical Inquirer begs me to give them cash roughly every other month because they say they are constantly running on fumes. They have a shrinking readership of people who won’t be there to subscribe to them in the next 10-15 years, and they have a product that feels every bit as though it were produced by a group of highly educated senior citizens. The magazine’s layout hasn’t changed since I started subscribing in the 1990s, except that it’s now full-color instead of one color per issue.
Doubling down on what isn’t working for readers who don’t need what the magazine is trying to give them isn’t a winning strategy. If they want to fulfill their mission of making a real difference and turning Skeptical Inquirer into a more widely read and influential publication, they need to take a page from Consumer Reports and make the magazine more useful to a much broader audience and more accessible to those who aren’t already experts in the field.
And for heaven’s sake, try to make it more fun to read. Consider the “sexy” topics they’re covering right now:
It’s almost literally the opposite of what would be appealing or interesting. They’re the kinds of titles that college freshmen give their papers when they are slapping them together 30 minutes before class. There isn’t even a hint of intrigue or an effort to coax readers to want to read more. If I find the magazine boring, and I have incredible tolerance for tediousness, then they are doing something wrong.
And I haven’t even gotten into their dismal online presence. But why should I? They have 539 electronic magazine readers, according to their circulation figures. The magazine doesn’t have its own devoted website, and the publisher’s site is labeled “CSI” for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry but never migrated from the old csicop.org URL. The content there focuses on skepticism as an identity, which can only serve to turn off potential new readers, particularly those who are not active participants in skeptical organizations or who are not atheists.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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