The Results of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ 1985 Reader Survey

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We've heard our readers loud and clear! Here are the results of our recent survey.

This story really began about a year ago, when MOTHER’S editorial staffers decided that the time had come to go to our real bosses — you, the people who buy and read this publication — in order to find out just how effectively we’d been doing our jobs. That decision eventually evolved into a reader survey that was received by every subscriber (it was bound outside the regular cover of MOTHER NO. 87). As we reported in last issue’s News From Mother column, the completed survey forms were soon coming in hot and heavy, and continued to arrive in these offices over a period of nearly six months. In all, approximately 7,000 of you took the time, trouble and expense (for stamps) to fill out and return our questionnaire.

Now, since there were 18 separate questions on each of those 7,000 survey forms, the task of tabulating the responses turned into quite a piece of work: We broke down the answers to each question to reflect the ages, number of years subscribed, and so forth of the readers responding, and, while we were at it, we passed along the changes of address and article ideas that were often added to the basic questionnaire. The job was only completed as we approached deadline for this issue. And you can be sure the folks here are going to be spending a lot of time studying the 47-page summary, the bulk of which consists of detailed statistical breakdowns (such as the fact that seven 26- to 35-year-old female respondents thought we gave too much emphasis to alternative energy). We’d like to take this opportunity, though, to go over some of the high points of the survey results with you, to share a sampling of the ideas that your fellow readers provided us with and to address a couple of the concerns that surfaced.


In answer to questions 1, 2 and 3 (which asked what subjects you’d like to see discussed that we’re not covering now, which topics are given too much emphasis and which receive too little attention in our magazine), most of you indicated that you like our editorial mix just fine as it is. In fact, a good many people had no comments at all on the question asking what you’d like to see less of. And when a proportion of our readers did say that some area was overexposed in MOTHER, as often as not, a similar-size group wanted more articles on that same topic. A number of you did, for instance, feel that the Plowboy Interviews are too long…but, then again, another hefty share felt that those same interviews represent the most valuable feature in our book! One minor but notable exception was tofu: Quite a number of people were tired of hearing about it. (More than one simply said, “Tofu — yuck!”) So OK, we promise to leave that soy food alone for a while…after this issue.

Among the subject areas that you indicated you’d like to see more of were many that (both through happy accident and as a result of our reading the early-arriving surveys) either showed up in our last issue or are featured in the copy you’re holding right now. A lot of you wanted alternative energy information for mobile home dwellers, for instance. Similarly, we received a goodly number of requests for articles on basic furniture making, which were answered in MOTHER NO. 90 with the features on easy-to-build “truss-worthy” chairs and our beautiful spalted-oak cradle.

A lot of you said you wanted to see more on greenhouses and gardening. We hope you were pleased by the “Greenhouse as an Ecosystem” mini-manual found in MOTHER NO. 90. As old-time readers of MOTHER know, our November/December and January/February issues are traditionally low in total gardening pages. Our 1985 horticultural season will really get into full swing with MOTHER NO. 92, when we’ll have some real treats for you…including a definitive “course” on seed starting taught by our own Eco-Village master gardeners!

Two other oft requested subject areas were back-to-basics homesteading skills and workshop projects, both simple and complex. Well, we started the Homestead Handbook series one year ago to make sure we didn’t neglect the self-reliance fundamentals, but we’ll now promise to include other articles covering entry-level homestead skills, as well. And concerning build-your-own projects, we’re not sure we really can squeeze too many more into the magazine than we do now (this issue alone has bunk beds, a woodbox, dump truck, solar collector, set of garden tools, emergency power plant and mandolin!). But we will do our best to make certain that our offerings cover a wide range of skill levels.

We also received a significant number of requests for more “survival” information, and — other than the simple emergency candle-heater featured in our last issue and the cold-weather clothing included in this one — we haven’t done much in this subject area recently. Rest assured that we’ll be preparing such stories in the very near future, though, perhaps in the form of a new series by noted wilderness survival expert Tom Brown Jr. (since many of you said you’d like to see more of Tom’s articles).

While gardening, basics, projects and survival were probably the most mentioned topics, there were scores and scores of other suggestions: more than we can possibly mention in the space available here. In fact, just the list of those article ideas that popped up often enough to catch our survey collators’ tired eyes fills most often single-spaced typed pages! We’ve already begun to use such requests in the planning of this and future issues, too, so it’s a pretty good bet that your idea will be showing up on the pages of our magazine before too long. In fact, if any portion of the survey has become a favorite of MOM’S editorial staff, it’s this one. We appreciate the suggestions more than you can know, and we’re confident that the stories that will grow from them will help us make MOTHER even better in the months (and years) to come.


Though, as mentioned above, your article ideas have probably been more exciting to us than any other portion of the questionnaire, the other suggestions made — and concerns voiced — have also provoked a lot of interest around here. Very few of the surveys we received were without some kind of handwritten note, either on the blank back of the form or, in many cases, in a lengthy letter affixed to the sheet.

The most frequent request in those notes was for an updated index. And, as many of you no doubt know, our five-year index update is in the works right now and will be available very soon. It’s our plan to continue to put out these updates at five-year intervals. We’d like to be able to publish an index every year, but, frankly, we don’t have the staff to tackle them that often!

Perhaps the major criticism noted in the surveys concerned the amount of advertising MOTHER contains. In a way, we should feel complimented by this complaint, because it means that the people who voiced that concern want to see more of the kind of articles we’re now offering. On the other hand, we would like to point out that MOTHER regularly has a much lower percentage of advertising than do other magazines similar in content and circulation. For example, taking a random sample of three issues we’ve published in the past year, MOM had an average advertising percentage of 32 percent, while, in corresponding issues, Workbench magazine averaged approximately 51 percent advertising, House Beautiful about 54 percent, Yankee around 43 percent, Organic Gardening approximately 41 percent, and New Shelter close to 49 percent. Now understand that we’re not criticizing these fine publications; indeed, we’re faithful subscribers to every one of them. The fact is simply that MOTHER, unlike almost any other publication in its circulation range, receives the bulk of its income from the sale of magazines, not ads, and, for that reason, when our ad count for an issue goes up, we’ve traditionally added extra pages to the book, allowing us to run features that we otherwise couldn’t have gotten in!

We’re also more selective than most in which ads we’ll accept, and although we can’t investigate every advertiser before its ad appears, we do look into any complaints that we receive (when someone who runs an ad in our magazine fails to deliver a product ordered, etc.). In fact, a number of advertisers have, over the years, been dropped from the book for just such reasons. Keep in mind, too, that while a particular ad might not seem appropriate to one portion of our readership, it likely does create interest among the folks in another segment. You people are, as the survey has shown us, a wonderfully diverse group, running the gamut in age, occupation, location and such. The editorial content of MOTHER is based, to the best of our ability, on our understanding of that diversity, and the range of ads that appear here mirrors your various tastes and interests, as well…and is intended to provide a helpful service to you just as the articles are! (After all, if an advertiser’s product were truly inappropriate to most of you, that firm would be unlikely to run the ad!)

You can also be sure that our advertisers don’t dictate our editorial package. If they did, we certainly wouldn’t — to cite just one instance — have been the first major alternative energy magazine to report on the hazards of wood stove pollution (way back in January of 1981), since wood stoves, chain saws, log splitters and the like make up a significant percentage of our annual advertising linage. (Fortunately, as those of you who follow the wood-burning industry know, the manufacturers themselves have taken our concern to heart and have made great strides toward producing cleaner-burning — and more efficient — heaters.)

Along the same line, we received a couple of complaints that we try to sell too many additional products at the end of articles. The reason we list those access tailpieces (along with complete ordering information for those books and products) is to provide a further service for those who want to pursue a topic in greater depth. Except for the occasional Mother’s Plans package (for our most complex projects) or text carried in Mother’s Bookshelf, none of those resources are in any way connected to MOTHER, and we don’t make a cent by providing you with such access information.

One last concern: A number of readers wrote in to say they thought we were getting too involved with politics. Our answer: We’re not. MOTHER EARTH NEWS will always stand up for the protection of our planet and the care of the earth’s creatures and natural resources. So on environmental issues, we have to take a political stand at times. We apologize if, during the past four years, some readers have interpreted our writings in this area as being anti-Republican. They’re not meant to be. We have vocally criticized the Reagan administration’s environmental record because it’s been, on the whole, poor. But that is not a criticism of his party or other policies. (Indeed, longtime readers will recall that the Democratic Carter administration took shots from us whenever its environmental programs stepped out of line.)

We will never make political issues a major part of the magazine. Our focus will always be on healthful self-reliance. But when someone needs to speak up for our planet, we will be willing to do so.


As mentioned above, the requests for articles on specific subjects are among the most stimulating aspects of the reader survey. But, while we’ve had our staff at work preparing (and searching out) such ideas since the forms began coming in, there are a number of areas that we’d like your help with. Consider, if you will, these often asked-for stories.

  1. Single Parent Homesteading: Reports from, and tips by, people who live the independent life and raise children without the help of a partner.
  2. Taking the Plunge: First-hand experiences, reported by people who’ve recently made the transition from the day-to-day rat race to a more satisfying, self-reliant lifestyle.
  3. Voices of Experience: “Our story” articles by people who have been successfully homesteading for years (either in a large farm situation, or in an urban or suburban locale, or anywhere in between).
  4. Sideline Money-Makers: Part-time enterprises that help make those ends meet.
  5. Full-Pledged Home Businesses: First-person accounts of “homegrown” occupations that provide a decent income…with enough detail to enable someone else to duplicate that success!
  6. Common-Sense Inventions: Features on low-cost, reader-designed tools and other devices for getting jobs done around the home place.

You see, these are the kinds of articles that you can bring to us — and thus to your fellow readers. (After all, MOTHER has always been a magazine that’s written primarily by the very same people who read it.) So don’t be shy; if you’ve got some first-hand experience in any of the above areas that you’d like to share, send us a letter outlining your story. We’ll get right back to you and let you know if we’d like you to work up a full article on the subject!

Finally, in an effort to continue to put out the magazine that you want, MOTHER plans to send out additional surveys to a sampling of our readership after each issue is published during the next year. The folks who receive these questionnaires will be chosen at random by computer and will have the opportunity to voice their opinions on every article in the issue surveyed. So watch your mailbox; you may well be contacted again. And even if you’re not, we’re always eager to hear your suggestions, comments, compliments and (yes) even criticisms. After all, we’re in this together!

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