What readers say about Current, 2010

Useful, fair, could be timelier. Some say: timid

By Steve Behrens

Here’s a piece of unfinished business: reporting back the results of Current’s reader survey taken at the start of the year, with thanks to those of you who responded.

We delayed mostly because of the shortage of space in recent issues and not because the results were ugly.

Indeed, 72 percent of respondents rated Current “quite useful” or “extremely useful” in their work.

In my work, Current and current.org are this useful:
Extremely useful: 31 percent
Quite: 41
Somewhat: 24
Not very: 4
Not at all: 1

Readers also rated Current high in fairness, accuracy, readability and other qualities, as you’ll see in the chart below.

It was especially gratifying to see that 93 percent of respondents rated us “good” or “excellent” in fairness.

Straight reporting is a trait we want to maintain so that Current can be a forum that’s open to contrary views, trusted by a wide variety of readers, and not stubbornly opposed to change.

Timeliness and format dilemma

Current’s lowest score was for timeliness, though the verdict wasn’t awful. Of respondents, 77 percent counted us “excellent” or “good” at that. Maybe they were judging us by legacy-media standards.

It may be surprising that we did even that well at timeliness, given that we generally work for two weeks between issues, and we sometimes put stories in subscribers’ print editions before publishing them online.

The message that we get is that Current needs to publish both on paper and online to use the big and particular advantages of both media. We’re at work on a number of online improvements to make Current more current, as discussed below.

It was clear long before our survey that Current could be timelier.

A reader told me so in a memorable call many months ago. You don’t ever want to hear at length from a reader, fully stoked with anger, who believes there is no acceptable reason for pulping trees if it delays her reading of the news.

The only kind word she had was that she still wanted to read Current.

The survey showed that more of our readers than we realized — nearly half of survey respondents — now say they prefer reading their news on-screen.

How I read Current
Mostly online, without RSS: 46 percent
Mostly in print: 27
Equal parts print and online: 22
Mostly by RSS feed: 4

Those who prefer online reading include more than 40 percent of readers in their 50s and 60s and every respondent in their 20s and 30s.

But that leaves a very big chunk of readers who prefer paper. Moreover, there’s an unsurprising hint that more people join the ink-and-paper crowd when articles are long and comprehensive, like many in Current. Print is still a better medium for reading things you can’t gulp down between e-mails.

Whether print or screen, respondents said in individual comments that the best platform depends on what, when and where they’re reading — print for stories with depth; online for search or immediacy. Print while they’re having lunch or riding a train; online while sitting at their computers.

For some the preference for depth even extends into the area of reader comments.

“I like the immediacy of the Web and RSS,” one reader wrote, “but I value print for the attention it demands.”

Let me also acknowledge what you probably know from recent coverage of daily newspapers’ plight. The attention given to a convenient package of information on paper makes the print edition more economically sustainable than the online-only alternative, even with the costs of postage and printing.

Go get ’em tiger, you wimp

We asked respondents to write in their specific comments, which were the most interesting to us, and often the most challenging.

First, the uncomfortable stuff: In the write-ins, there was a persistent streak of impatience and discontent, not only with Current but also with the status quo in parts of public media that we don’t cover as vigorously as they’d like.

These readers want a less “timid” tone, less “cheerleading,” “much stronger adversarial . . . reporting on funding, management and programming,” “more original smart analysis” and “critical examination” of official announcements.

Some comments reflect a disillusion that many journalists share: “Often, the public relations ‘spin’ on some of the hottest topics and projects far exceeds the actual success and execution,” one reader wrote. While some successes are true and unheralded, others are “vapor.”

These folks set high standards of expectation that we’d like to meet more often. “Current just jumps on the national organizations/consultants bandwagon without doing any real reporting to find out what is really happening /working/ worth doing,” one respondent writes. Ouch.

Meanwhile

It’s time now for “on the other hand,” I think.

There were readers who said they enjoy Current and even love their perception that it hasn’t changed much. Someone comments: “Current does a great job of balancing news between networks and member stations.”

Another pictures Current the way we like to think of it: “Great analysis of public media issues. The context is just right (enough so that a newbie understands what’s being discussed).”

What three things do you like about Current? Readers came back with these words and phrases: “Fair . . . thorough,” “Up-to-date . . . in-depth . . . accurate,” our increased coverage of “thinkers outside of the box.”

“Find the funding you need to keep doing what you’re doing,” writes someone full of the holiday spirit. (This survey was taken last December.)

“I believe,” said another clear-sighted saint, “all public media/broadcasting orgs need to make the reading of Current a part of everybody’s job.”

Toward the end of the questionnaire, another valued reader remarked, “Dang, this is long.”

So I’ll end this here, for the moment.

About the reader survey

Current’s reader survey sample probably is too small for a highly detailed reading of the numbers: The questionnaire was printed in the 5,000 paid-circulation copies of our issue Dec. 14, 2009, and a pop-up invitation ambushed visitors to  current.org for a month. By Feb. 5, we received 132 responses, or about 2.5 percent.

Though readers had a choice of responding on paper or through an online SurveyMonkey questionnaire, all but two or three survey respondents arrived electronically.

Upgrading current.org

Without giving up on print, we’ve begun upgrading our online services:

Blog with RSS feed: Diligent blogging by Senior Editors Dru Sefton and Karen Everhart has almost quadrupled our RSS-feed subscribership to nearly 400 in the past two years. The RSS feed now includes only the blurbs in our blog, but we plan to include all stories and to offer multiple specialized RSS feeds.

New website: We’re redoing current.org, customizing an open-source content management system. (The recession scuttled our hopes of buying a long-delayed professional website rebuild, so we’ve returned to learning-by-doing.)

E-mail updates: We’ll soon begin collecting e-mail addresses for readers who want to receive regular biweekly (or more frequent) e-newsletters that alert you to new stories on our site. We’ll ask stations and other organizations to name contact persons to help us collect lists of employees, board members and volunteers who’d want the newsletters.

Interactivity: Our first try, the online forum DirectCurrent, provided a place for many substantial conversations (some will be archived for future access), but it didn’t develop the traffic to catch on. We closed the forum this summer after usage dwindled and it became overrun by spammers.

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