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Can a sub-group committed to the written word withstand cultural drift?

Issue: "Memorial Day 2005," May 28, 2005

When official word came last week that readership of America's newspapers is down-again-circulation and advertising managers gritted their teeth, quietly cursed the internet, and had to ask themselves if the trend is permanent and irreversible.

Nobody sees such developments any longer as just one more round in the survival of the fittest. The fact that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today were prominent on the list of newspapers suffering losses last year suggests that even those thought the strongest may be susceptible to radical changes in our culture.

This is of more than passing interest, of course, to us at WORLD magazine. What's bad for publishers of one species deserves a careful look by publishers of another. For the record, WORLD actually enjoyed an increase in circulation last year-up to an average weekly circulation of 139,000. (And this might be a good time to tell you that WORLD is the only Christian publication we know of that bothers to have its circulation professionally audited-twice every year-by the Audit Bureau of Circulation. When ABC says a publication has a certain number of subscribers, you can be pretty sure that's the case.)

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But the fact that WORLD grew last year is no guarantee that we'll grow in the years ahead. To me, the most ominous sign of all is the fact that our readership, like that of most print publications, is aging. A decade ago, I could have told you that a typical WORLD reader was in his 40s. Now our typical reader tends to be in his 50s. That's a healthy statistic to report to our advertisers, since folks in their 50s tend to have more spendable income than people still in their 40s. But in terms of grabbing the attention and involvement of younger Christians to enlist in the battle for our culture, it is a discouraging portent.

The question is partly whether we are watching a generational shift in content preference, or simply a change in how that content is delivered. And we can't help also asking whether Christians, as a cultural sub-group especially committed to the written word, may somehow hang on to that distinctive even while the rest of society drifts from it.

Whatever is happening, we don't intend to stand by and watch. In fact, we have a very special interest in how the coming generation reads the news.

Some WORLD subscribers may not be aware that this magazine was born in 1986 out of an effort to acquaint very young readers with a weekly Christian perspective on the world's news. Five years before we launched WORLD, this same organization created the God's World News series of newspapers for children. Those little newspapers still go, every week during the school year, to about 200,000 subscribers around the world.

Indeed, it was the parents of those early readers who first called for a magazine like WORLD. Although the portrayal of world news for children is a very different assignment than doing the same thing for adults, we have for two decades found enough things common to make for a happy and symbiotic relationship.

So now it seems appropriate-especially in terms of younger readers, but remembering that they too will soon become the folks we want to read WORLD-to head back for the drawing boards to see what we can learn about likely reading habits in the years ahead. We are assembling a brain trust, including some forward-thinking educators, some alert parents, and some innovative business people, to focus intently on some of these issues over the next 12-18 months. Specifically, we want to ask how the next generation is likely to be consuming news of world happenings. On the one hand, we're not going to roll over and play dead about print media; we have a built-in prejudice for books and against gimmicks. But we also know that hardly a single one of us, even today, is getting his or her daily dose of news the same way we used to. It's time for us Christians to get ahead of the curve for a change.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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