Sometimes it seems that the march of progress takes us places we don’t want to go. Earlier this year, our East Ohio Conference magazine, Joining Hands, migrated to an all-digital format and this month we learned that our district newsletter, Tuscarawas Ties, is doing the same. Both follow a trend. Many other publications have made this migration for a variety of reasons.
But these two cases are different.
I think that the transition from Tuscarawas Ties was well done but fear that the digital migration of Joining Hands will not accomplish its intended goals.
Tuscarawas Ties has been moving in this direction for more than a year. Although produced once each month, it had changed to a schedule of eight electronic editions and four print editions each year. Moreover, most of its recipients are pastors and church staff who are comfortable with computers and email.
Joining Hands’ transition was more abrupt. They transitioned from printing once every three months, to not printing at all. In December’s concluding edition, our Conference Director of Communications, Rick Wolcott, said that we would instead publish “stories online as they happen” in order to “increase their impact.” The target audience of Joining Hands was broader and directed toward the church at large and the mailing list included retirees, laity, pastors and local churches that ordered multiple copies to display or pass along to key volunteers.
If your target audience is composed of those who prefer your product in an all-digital format, then such a migration makes sense. Tuscarawas Ties is mailed to pastors and staff that use computers every day and the news contained in it is often reprinted in local church newsletters and bulletins. For that reason, an electronic edition is both needed and valued.
But I don’t think that the same holds true for Joining Hands.
Joining Hands brought us news from around the conference. It was full of stories of how our churches were making a difference in the name of Jesus Christ. But the audience was not made up exclusively of people who appreciated reading that same material online. If the churches where I have served are representative of the rest of the conference (and I think they are), producing an electronic only magazine will make it impossible for eighty or ninety percent of our members to read it.
Trinity Church (my current appointment in a suburban, middle class community) has, by far, the most computer users of any church that I have served. We have more than 250 members. I have email addresses for twenty-five. Of those, perhaps ten spend significant time on the Internet, and four might read a church magazine online. Based on the performance of our Facebook page (where I post links of interest) ten to fifteen might see a particular post but less than five would click on it.
I am certain that in churches that are older or less affluent these numbers would be even more discouraging.
Joining Hands is not the first publication to move to an electronic format and it won’t be the last. But many of those that have done so no longer exist. The readership that they had in print did not follow them online.
I do not doubt the professionalism or the good intentions of our conference leaders, but I fear that we have created a system that is cheaper, faster, and produces news…
…that no one will read.