Survey: Readers say paper keeps them connected to their faith, community
June 21st, 2016
By Christina Gray
Catholic San Francisco helps keep local Catholics rooted and active in their faith life, according to a survey of the paper’s readers initiated late last year.
“The message is loud and clear – continue printing and delivery,” concluded Trinity Direct, the New Jersey-based independent market research firm that delivered a 75-page report to the archdiocesan paper last month detailing the survey’s statistical and anecdotal findings.
More than 2,000 readers responded anonymously to the survey, which sought basic demographic information and attitudes toward the paper’s editorial content, size, frequency of publication and delivery method, among other topics. Trinity Direct built a database of all responses submitted. More than 150 responded to a concurrent online survey, with data and comment from that survey included in the report.
‘Average’ reader revealed
Nearly 70 percent of readers who responded to the survey were female and 75 or older, and retired. Almost 93 percent reported attending Mass weekly. As a whole, the readership is fairly affluent, with almost 30 percent of the readership reporting an annual household income of $91,000 or higher.
The survey received a broad geographical response from throughout the archdiocese, with returns from 97 ZIP codes and 15 or more responses each from more than 50 parishes, topped by Our Lady of Loretto, Novato; St. Cecilia, San Francisco; St. Dominic, San Francisco; St. Veronica, South San Francisco; and St. Robert, San Bruno.
The primary source of Catholic news
Catholic San Francisco is far and away the primary source of Catholic news for readers in the archdiocese, the survey revealed. Even the ubiquitous church bulletin came in a distant second.
“For some, this is the only way they get information and updates on church teachings and activities,” Trinity Direct stated in a page of conclusions and recommendations.
Catholic San Francisco supports a reader’s faith by providing a better and broader understanding of church teachings, motivating him or her to pray and attend Mass regularly and support Catholic causes, the report said.
More than 35 percent of readers said the paper helped “clarify church teachings” and increased their “understanding of and appreciation for their faith.”
‘It refreshes my brain and my soul’
“It refreshes my brain and my soul,” one respondent replied when asked to describe the paper’s value. More than half of the respondents reported that articles from the paper were often the subject of lively discussion among family, friends and fellow parishioners. More than 10 percent said they felt inspired to become more active in their parishes.
A majority of respondents read every issue of the paper thoroughly and found the news and information mix “well-balanced.”
A diversity of voices appreciated
A number of readers, however, urged the paper to remember to reflect the breadth of Catholic life in the archdiocese by highlighting individual parishes, ethnic communities, women and laity.
“Start talking about issues of local Catholics in everyday life, less on hot political issues,” was a comment in that vein, as was: “Please give balance to nationalities, old and young parishioners,” and “More women writers, please, we count, too.”
Some of readers’ favorite features were local ones, including Tom Burke’s long-running “On the Street Where You Live” column, calendar of events, letters to the editor and Around the Archdiocese pictorial highlights.
“I think letters to the editor are the most interesting part of the paper,” said one respondent, suggesting that a diversity of Catholic voices is appreciated in the paper by most readers. A “man on the street” column that asks a wide spectrum of local Catholics for their response to the same question was suggested.
Top-ranked opinion writers included Bishop Robert Barron, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Father Ron Rolheiser and George Weigel. Many of the readers who disagreed with the opinion or style of a writer seemed to find value in the expression itself.
“Weigel is a bit too conservative for me, however he is articulate and I do read him,” said a respondent.
More content that feeds one’s faith
Readers reported wanting content that supports lifelong faith formation. Pope Francis and a Catholic question-and-answer column topped readers’ list of topics they would like to see more of, followed by prayer and spiritual growth, theology and doctrine and Scripture reflections.
A minority found the paper less than indispensable.
“I make no effort to read the paper,” one respondent wrote. Others stated: “I find it tightly censored ... the official, theoretical, hierarchical voice is the only one represented” and “I’d be fine with subscription cancellation altogether.”
Free home delivery preferred
On the business side, nearly 60 percent of respondents said they were eager to maintain home delivery while others said they would be willing or even eager to pick the paper up at their church if it helped the paper reduce mailing costs or ultimately survive.
Under a pastoral communications model set in the late-1990s, Catholic San Francisco is mailed free to all registered parishioners in San Francisco, San Mateo and Marin counties. Publication frequency depends on economics, which currently supports 30 issues a year.
The paper has been evaluating modifications to the print product’s physical size, asking for voluntary donations to offset printing and postage costs and delivering in bulk to local parishes instead of to homes to cut costs. Combined printing and postage costs for an issue are about $17,000.
“If cost is a real factor, then I will pick it up from church,” one parishioner said. Others said that some people don’t know the paper is a free benefit to parishioners. “Would love to see copies of the paper at the parish, many parishioners don’t receive the newspaper.”
The idea of a larger appeal for voluntary reader financial support met with some resistance for reasons ranging from limited income to those who believe they already pay for it by contributing to the archdiocesan annual appeal.
“I contribute enough to the appeal every year and my parish,” was a response repeated in kind by a number of readers. “The paper should be delivered.”
Value of newsprint affirmed
Readers were basically satisfied with the frequency and size of the paper, but when it comes to reading it, 94 percent said they prefer newsprint to a computer, tablet or smartphone.
While a number of older readers said they don’t have computers, the report showed that more than half of respondents were accustomed to a variety of communication devices and platforms including Facebook and email. Still, more than 85 percent responded “negatively” to reading Catholic San Francisco on screen.
This became apparent to editor Rick DelVecchio over the last year. Because of high costs and low impact, he recently discontinued outside vendor publication of online versions of the paper started in 2013. A downloadable PDF of the paper remains available at catholic-sf.org, and Facebook users and CSF email newsletter subscribers continue to receive alerts of new issue postings.
In concluding recommendations, the consultant said the church could be more proactive in helping older parishioners feel more comfortable with social media and digital tools while attracting a younger demographic of Catholic readers. Parish-hosted technology clinics geared to older parishioners was among a host of suggestions.
Resource for the paper
The report is a resource for the paper as it evaluates fiscal efficiency and content development, said DelVecchio. “CSF readers are perceptive, diverse and engaged and the quality and quantity of their feedback has been inspiring and compelling,” he said.
He added, “I think the affirmation of the value of a print product for the Catholic consumer is an important one at a time when we may think that digital alternatives are maybe as powerful or cheaper and more far-reaching.”
The survey already has been useful in forming a virtual focus group composed of survey respondents who agreed to serve as an email sounding board for modifications large and small the paper is considering. The group consists of more than 80 people from throughout the archdiocese.
In May, the group responded favorably to a proposed small, cost-saving reduction in the physical size of the paper.
The report is available on request to archdiocesan pastors. Please email email@example.com.
From June 23, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.