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Editors: Apathetic or Fearful about the Future?

Posted on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 at 1:26 PM

Examining the response rate to a recent EO survey.

By William Dunkerley

Focusing on providing good content will be important to many editors in 2018. That was apparent from our recent survey of editors' plans. Digital engagement and management planning are also popular goals for the year.

But there was another survey data point that I saved for this month.

It is the response rate to our survey questionnaire. We do a number of surveys here at Editors Only. Our usual goal is to gather data to pass along to EO readers, either anecdotal tips from other editors or comments that indicate trends.

By now we have a pretty good idea what the response rate will be to our survey questions. The response to the recent survey on editorial goals was an outlier. It was a significant deviation from the norm. The rate paled in comparison to usual responses.

I don't think we would get good answers if we asked those in the sample universe why they didn't respond. We wouldn't want to put readers on the spot.

So Let's Speculate

I've done dozens and dozens of surveys in my consulting career. And every time I look at results, I consider the response rate to be the first data point.

The publications with audiences that were highly interested in the subject matter were avid responders. Consistently. So if I did a number of surveys for such a publication over a span of time, I'd see the same kind of high response rate.

Publications that pulled a poor response rate just were not in great demand by readers. Consistently. Their audiences were apathetic.

In the instant case, the EO survey, we know from experience that editors are not apathetic about their trade. Indeed, they are very conscientious about doing a good job for their publications.

Maybe it is that they are just apathetic about planning? Well, that hypothesis gets shot down by the responses we've gotten from past surveys with similar questions to this one. If apathy is the answer, then it must be apathy specific to this point in time, 2018. Do we collectively just not care about setting goals for this year?

There's another kind of experience I've had with non-response. This one does not concern the overall response to a given questionnaire. Now I'm talking about the response to individual questions on a questionnaire. There can be considerable variance.

The more questions on a questionnaire, the easier this is to see. One survey asked over fifty questions. Interestingly, it had the highest response rate I'd ever seen. But there was much variance in how many respondents answered each question.

As I've analyzed question-by-question variance on many surveys with many questions, I've found it related to one general factor: If the question provokes anxiety, fewer survey participants will answer. A person may be anxious over commenting on something controversial (even in anonymous surveys) or on something they know little about, or on a subject they'd just as soon avoid.

Is It Apathy or Anxiety?

Call it what you want, but here is my hypothesis: The combination of advancing technology and attendant changes in reading habits has thrown us a curveball. With things changing rapidly, it's hard to know what to plan for.

Another factor is a natural uneasiness about change. Today's media milieu is pushing us all to change what we are doing. That inevitably leads to departing one's comfort zone. And there seems to be inherent human resistance to that. This is especially true if there is little certainty about how the changes will work out.

Of course, the above comments are only hypotheses. What do you think? Do they fit your understandings, or do you have a hypothesis of your own? If you do, please use the "comment" link below this article to share your insights with us all. Then come back here after several weeks to see what your fellow editors may have added.

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

Add your comment.


"There's no question that poll responsiveness has tapered off quite a bit. Clearly that can be attributed to mounting workloads. What I have noticed is that if you seek opinion from members of a LinkedIn group. they may readily respond to basic journalism issues -- like whether or not to cap first letter of every word in a headline. But when it comes to management matters -- many of which may be controversial -- editors refrain from speaking out ... even if anonymity is promised. The topic that habitually draws poorly is anything to do with editorial integrity. Occasionally -- while chairing ASBPE's ethics committee, I was able to strike gold in terms of article feedback. Folks were able to speak up about native advertising and fact-checking challenges. But any poll seeking input addressomg editorial/sales conflicts drew limited input. Readership of our ethics newsletter was terrific. As for feedback, forget about it!!" --Howard Rauch, Editorial Solutions, Inc., www.editsol.com

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