Publishing is invariably a one-sided relationship. You produce words, pictures, illustrations, then print and despatch them, as if tying messages to the feet of so many carrier pigeons.
Occasionally a message comes back. And no matter what its content—whether affirmation or disagreement—there is joy in the completing of the loop.
That is why any editor counts the humble task of opening the mail to be one of the highlights of the job. (Fans of on-line literature say that one of the great advantages of the Internet is its capacity for allowing instant feedback from reader to writer, and thus enabling the development of communication relationships of tremendous—perhaps unnerving—intimacy.)
In a very modest way, New Zealand Geographic has just been through an exercise in completing the loop. In February, we sent a readership survey to 1100 people chosen at random from our 24,000 subscribers, asking them a variety of questions about the magazine and soliciting their comments and suggestions.
Here are some of the things we learned about you, our readers. Both men and women responded to the survey in equal numbers (593 responses in all). Two-thirds of respondents are over the age of 40. One third are university graduates, while a further 16 per cent have had some university training. Twenty per cent have completed some technical or trade training.
Fully two-thirds of those surveyed have been subscribing to the magazine for three years or more, and several respondents told us with pride that they were foundation subscribers.
On the matter of how many issues we publish per year, 67 per cent said they were happy with the current quarterly arrangement. Twenty-five per cent suggested we move to bimonthly publication.
Publishing six times a year has its attractions. It would give us the chance to produce a more satisfying spread of articles during the year. On the other hand, we don’t want to thrust a new issue on readers when they haven’t adequately digested the previous one. For most people, the lament “So much to read; so little time” is a recurring refrain of modern living.
According to the survey results, we seem to be getting the balance of articles right. More than 80 per cent of respondents expressed high or extreme interest in the diverse subject range we embraced in New Zealand Geographic. Several offered suggestions for future stories, ranging from shipbuilding to law enforcement, tramping routes in the Rimutakas to the history of New Zealand’s Irish settlers.
(To the several people who asked what has happened to the promised rail article, your patience is about to be rewarded: a feature article and poster on the Main Trunk Line is scheduled to appear in the next issue.)
The magazine appears to be playing an important educational role in both homes and schools. One respondent told us our articles not only help with school projects, they settle family disputes! A teacher said she regularly uses the anecdotes within stories to spice her school lessons.
As expected, a love of the outdoors is a characteristic most readers share. Of the 94 per cent who say they have a high or extreme interest in New Zealand locations, 50 per cent actually lace up their tramping boots and get out there, and 34 per cent go camping.
One respondent took us to task for asking whether readers “exercised to keep fit.” This question “makes us appear to be couch potatoes,” she wrote. “In fact, we derive a great deal of exercise rowing, setting and retrieving flounder nets and longlines, dredging for scallops and painting and maintaining our boats. We also maintain a large vegetable garden. In my opinion anyone who has to exercise to keep fit hasn’t got enough to do!”
We are grateful to all who completed the survey.* To those who were not included on this occasion, any comments you have about the magazine are always welcome.
Entomologists aside, there probably aren’t too many people in the world who would describe cockroaches as “jewels.” Earlier this year, I met someone who does: Tony Maturin, whom I found in his summer quarters in the Greenstone Valley.
Tony is a Department of Conservation volunteer but warden at McKellar Hut, at the Fiordland end of the Greenstone Track . When he is in residence during January and February he occupies a single sparsely furnished room at one end of the hut.
After we had introduced ourselves and shared a meal of rice custard and hibiscus tea, Tony invited me to join him in a search for jewels of the night—cockroaches and other six- or eight-legged gems.
To step into pitch black beech forest at 11 P.M. looking for bugs is an experience not to be missed. With only mediocre torch and hissing lantern light, we picked our way across the spongy soil, stepping over moss-covered logs, ducking to avoid low branches and spider webs. Our only real guide to location was the sound of the Greenstone River 20 metres away.
Periodically we would pause, hold the lantern up to a tree trunk and scan it for life. Here a harvestman—a black droplet of tissue atop eight spindle-thin legs; there a cave weta, fawn and chocolate mottled, resting on a cluster of white fungal caps; and, sure enough, a native cockroach the colour of hokey pokey, glistening as though freshly varnished, stopped in its tracks by the light.
These sightings—few and brief and memorable—are what draw me back and back to the New Zealand forest. I am sure it is the same response Thoreau felt when he wrote in his journal, “I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they really are, grand and beautiful.”
By the fact that 88 per cent of respondents to our survey listed high or extreme interest in this country’s natural heritage, I know I am in good company.
A company I am proud to keep.