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Your Turn

Our annual survey finds that the winners are. . .
Desert Exposure readers

 

After tallying our annual reader survey for five years now, I've learned not to expect any wild and crazy surprises from Desert Exposure readers. You're not going to suddenly fall out of love with our Desert Diary column or start blowing through each (ever-larger) issue in 15 minutes or less. When there is movement in the numbers from year to year, it's subtle: A new column begins to catch on, readers in one locale respond in greater numbers than in surveys past, some development in the world at large galvanizes interest in one of our topics.

So why do we bother to annually sound out our readers? Partly, it's the same impulse that makes me check the thermometer every time I walk past. Even given Southwest New Mexico's fickle weather patterns, I don't really think that on this sunny spring day the mercury will have suddenly plummeted from 70 degrees to below zero since last I checked. If a change is in the wind, it's gradual — but I'd still like to know that something is happening.

The other reason, frankly, might best be described as a moral obligation. It's easy for me to sit here in my office and decide what should or shouldn't go into each issue of Desert Exposure, what readers will and won't be interested in. But I need a regular reality check. I feel a duty to give you, the readers, an opportunity to tell me if I'm making the right calls. Sure, when something in our pages stirs up a controversy, we get letters to the editor. But readers tend to write in only when something makes them mad, which is not a very accurate barometer for the vast majority of our pages that don't incite any ire. We hardly ever get letters about the 40 Days and 40 Nights events calendar — does that mean nobody reads it? (Just the opposite is true, of course — it's one of our most popular features.)

So — uniquely among area publications, as far as I'm aware — we ask. Every year, in print and online, we take the temperature of our readership. To paraphrase former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, we ask you, our constituents, "How're we doin'?"

 

Pretty darned well, to judge from this year's survey responses. More than 90 percent of respondents — up from last year — make it a point to pick up Desert Exposure every month or almost every month. You spend an average of more than two hours — again, slightly up — with each issue, a figure that continues to astonish us. Besides sleeping, what activity does anybody spend two hours plus doing these days? Not even the Sunday New York Times commands my attention for that long on most weekends, I confess.

But you're not selfish about your copies of Desert Exposure: As in past years, each copy gets read by more than two people, giving us a monthly readership of roughly 25,000 pairs of eyeballs. (Or think of it as more than 50,000 reader-hours spent on each issue!) Nearly 60 percent of you save each month's edition, to refer to all month or even for re-reading later down the road. Although we didn't ask this question specifically, an unprecedented number of readers volunteered that the reason they don't save their copy was that they send it on to friends not fortunate enough to live in Southwest New Mexico, or they clip and send or save individual articles.

Readers in the Deming area evidently took to heart our plea last year to boost their survey participation, as this year's numbers jumped up to roughly match the actual share of copies distributed there. Las Cruces and Mesilla readers, slightly overrepresented last year, were somewhat underrepresented this time — go figure. Adding together those who live in a town with those who say they regularly shop there, however, almost 85 percent of Desert Exposure readers are connected to Las Cruces. The percentage of non-residents reporting that they head to Las Cruces/Mesilla to shop jumped by about 50 percent over our 2006 survey!

Response to our question about the Desert Exposure Web site indicates that we have a growing but increasingly separate online audience. Users of our Web site are no longer (if they ever were) primarily readers of the print edition who go online to check a back issue or forward an article link to a distant friend. Much as with other media outlets, some people simply prefer to get their information online these days, and those folks are checking out DesertExposure.com in ever-greater numbers.

Readers' consumption of other area print media showed the usual annual ups and downs, largely reflecting where we saw an increased share of respondents (Deming plus Grant County beyond Silver City). As in past years, no other single publication reaches more than half of Desert Exposure readers. The Silver City Daily Press comes the closest, with just 50 percent, followed by the Silver City Sun-News, The Ink and the Glenwood Gazette, all bunched together with about one-third overlap with our readership. (Unlike 2006, the Silver City and Las Cruces editions of the Sun-News, collectively, failed to reach even half of our audience.) The publication at the bottom of last year's list, Today's Woman 24/7, is — not surprisingly — no longer in business.

One in every six Desert Exposure readers didn't check any of the nine other area publications we listed, giving us a remarkably large unique audience and a slightly scary responsibility.

 

A favorite attraction of our survey every year is the opportunity to rate our columnists and other regular features. As usual, we asked whether you "always," "sometimes" or "never" read each of these, then asked you to circle one favorite. This year's top-10 "winners" in terms of being most frequently read were:

1. Letters to the Editor (#2 last year)

2. Continental Divide (#5)

3. Editor's Note (#1)

4. Desert Diary (#4)

5. Ramblin' Outdoors by Larry Lightner (#8)

6. 40 Days and 40 Nights (#3)

7. Tumbleweeds (#6)

8 (tie). Business Exposure by Donna Clayton Lawder (new)

8 (tie). Arts Exposure (#7)

10. Henry Lightcap's Journal by Henry Lightcap (#9)

Among readers who also picked a single favorite, the winner by far was Desert Diary, followed by Continental Divide and then a four-way tie between Editor's Note, Letters, 40 Days and 40 Nights and our new Business Exposure column.

None of the shifts from last year was very dramatic, and (most encouragingly from an editor's perspective) almost all our most popular features showed overall increases in readership. The most notable changes in our annual rankings were probably the instant popularity of Senior Editor Donna Clayton Lawder's new business column and the increased readership of Larry Lightner's outdoors column — despite (or perhaps because of) the controversies that have swirled around it in recent months. Indeed, in past years we've usually received a handful of "Drop Larry Lightner!" comments in our survey; this year, when Larry has been such a lightning rod over issues ranging from global warming to wolf reintroduction, we didn't get a single one.

The 2007 survey's best news, again from my selfish perspective, was actually in the strong readership growth seen in our more special-interest columns: Both of our "stellar" features — Celestial Cycles horoscopes by Moti and The Starry Dome by Bert Stevens — grew in frequency of readership. Even stronger improvements in readership were also recorded by Siri Dharma's Into the Future column and Marjorie Lilly's Borderlines.

This year, for a change, we also asked what kinds of articles and columns you'd like to see more of in our pages. Your responses were as varied as the Desert Exposure readership itself, but we were a little surprised (pleasantly) that the most popular response was "articles about regional history." While it's true that our area boasts an unusually colorful history, when mass-market national periodicals brainstorm about what to publish to garner more readers, "history" seldom makes the list. Of course, to be fair, our survey didn't offer the option of checking "Mindless gossip about Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Anniston."

Right behind history, you continue to want more in-depth investigative articles, followed by stories about the environment (a desire we hope will be partly met by our new EarthTalk column). Next came information on gardening and on exploring the great outdoors.

 

Even though I take a perhaps-unhealthy interest in all this number-crunching, my favorite aspect of each year's incoming surveys is not the statistics but the open-ended comments from responding readers. Sure, most are glowing with praise — and who doesn't like to get a swelled head every now and then? But the best part is being reminded how much you, our readers, value all our hard work in producing Desert Exposure every month. Caught up in the grind of deadlines and occasionally sniped at by self-appointed critics who don't necessarily represent our readership, it's all too easy to forget that people genuinely appreciate what we do.

Then we read comments like these:

"Great! Objective, fair, true, journalism!"

"I love this magazine! I can't wait for it to come out each month. Since moving here eight months ago, it's one of my dependable friends. Thank you for your devotion!"

"I wait for the first of each month for my Desert Exposure. No matter what some people think, you guys are the best." (Wait, which people? We want names! No, just kidding. . .)

"One of a kind paper, excellent journalism."

"Yours is a really great addition to our local scene. I particularly appreciate all that David Fryxell brings to the publication."

"We look forward to each new issue. You all have made a good paper excellent!"

"I enjoy your paper very much and think you do a fair and fantastic job of balancing stories."

"Wonderful local paper, very professional. Informative. You help create a sense of community."

"I start at the front, read to the back, enjoy it all."

"Great publication! Don't know what we'd do without you."

"This is a terrific newspaper and represents a lot of hard work. Wish it were weekly — but that would take much more staff."

That sound you hear is our tiny staff groaning in horror at the thought of weekly deadlines, but thanks for the thought. We also particularly relish comments like this one:

"Would you believe it? I also read the ads!"

. . . since, after all, it's the ads and the wonderful support from our advertisers that make this publication possible every month.

Honestly, if we'd received any negative comments with this year's survey we would share them with you — we can certainly learn from criticism — but the closest to a "ding" was a La Mesa reader's note that we need more distribution outlets in her part of the region. For anyone who'd like to see Desert Exposure's geographic reach expand more in their direction, we refer you to the previous paragraph. Our advertisers pay the bills, and we can't afford to add copies in an area without the ad dollars to support it. Feel free to suggest that potential advertisers in your area give us a call!

Putting back on my number-cruncher hat, I figured out that — depending on the page count and print run — every single copy of Desert Exposure costs a total of between 70 and 85 cents to put into readers' hands. And yet our readers get Desert Exposure absolutely free. Amazing, isn't it? Ask yourself: Have you hugged a Desert Exposure advertiser lately?

 

Among all the comments we received, I was especially struck by a theme that threaded through many of our survey responses: How Desert Exposure helps readers feel a part of the community. Remarkably, this note was sounded both by readers recently arrived in the region and by long-time residents.

"Being new to the area, have found a lot of great places to go and shop and events to see," wrote one Deming reader who moved there a year and a half ago. "Thank you very much. We look forward to getting the paper each month."

On the other end of the spectrum, we were touched by this comment from a reader who now lives in Tyrone: "As retirees, who can't go out of town or participate in the arts scene, Desert Exposure brings our Southwest New Mexico to us. I've lived in Silver City for 22 years, but never felt at home in it until Desert Exposure, under David's genius, made it the place to be. Thanks!"

No, thank you — and all the other readers who took the time to respond to our survey. As promised, 10 lucky respondents will be receiving 10th anniversary Desert Exposure coffee mugs as a thank-you. (They were picked at random — don't even get the number-cruncher in me started about Excel's random-number generator. . . .) Congratulations to: Anthony Romero, Joy Edmonds, Roberta Cramer, William Hudson, C. Mercado, John Bryant, Jerry Archer, Susie Siedentop and Karl C. Carter. You'll all soon be drinking your morning java in style — Desert Exposure style, that is.

 

Bingaman's Iraq Blunder

Last month in this space, we chided GOP Sen. Pete Domenici for, among other things, his unremitting support of America's disastrous misadventure in Iraq. While Domenici continues to disappoint — if not surprise — us, this month it's his colleague across the aisle who deserves demerits. Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman voted against Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold's recent measure that would have cut off funding for the Iraq war by March 31, 2008. For the first time, 29 Democrats — a majority of that party in the Senate — voted for a funding cutoff, which nonetheless was defeated, 29 to 67.

In failing to support an end to the madness in Iraq, Bingaman is out of step with his own party. All four current US senators seeking the Democratic presidential nomination supported the cutoff, as did 2004 nominee Sen. John Kerry and majority leader Sen. Harry Reid. Gov. Bill Richardson, who is also in the 2008 race, not only supports a funding cutoff but has floated an innovative proposal to repeal the original authorization for the war — arguing that the vote was based on lies and misinformation from the administration.

Though no poll has directly asked the question of just New Mexicans, it's hard to imagine that voters here support the war in substantially greater numbers than Americans as a whole. So Bingaman is likely failing to represent the views of his constituents, and certainly not reflecting the wishes of the voters who returned him to Washington last fall.

Barring some Saul-on-the-road-to-Damascus conversion in the White House, the only hope for America to escape this quagmire before January 2009 lies with the Congress. That has to start with a united front from Democrats like New Mexico's Bingaman. By autumn, when the dimensions of the folly of the latest "surge" strategy will be all too tragically apparent, a handful of Congressional Republicans may belatedly see the wisdom of joining them.

 

David A. Fryxell is the editor and publisher of Desert Exposure.

 

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