By Jaclyn Mika (RSJ ’08)
The United Church Observer has changed its name to Broadview and dramatically redesigned its magazine and website in a bid to draw new readers and increase subscriptions.
“Stories that we were doing were going viral,” said editor and publisher Jocelyn Bell in a recent interview. “Online is interesting because people don’t necessarily see the brand name of the publication when they’re clicking on the story. People like the content; they just need to get past the name.”
The magazine has served Christian audiences in Canada for the past 190 years and it is currently the oldest continuously published magazine in North America.
But two years ago, after the Presbyterian Record closed and with circulation declining, the magazine took a deep look into its finances and circulation numbers. According to its forecasts, if nothing changed, 2024 would be the last year the United Church Observer would publish.
“Nothing quite like having news like that to spur you to some creative thinking,” said Jocelyn Bell, RSJ ’00. “What took over was a vision for something new, something different, something that would try to reach for a wider audience.”
That vision included a name change to something more inclusive.
So, a few weeks ago, The United Church Observer became Broadview. The idea for the name was sparked by the office’s proximity to Broadview subway station, but it represents the magazine’s commitment to its core “pillars”: spirituality, ethical living and social justice.
“It was harder than naming a baby and I have done that once,” Bell said. “I am happy that we landed with Broadview. I think it really works. It feels like it’s been around for a while even though it hasn’t.”
The name change was accompanied by a website and magazine redesign. The content will remain familiar to
current subscribers with the first two-thirds of the magazine devoted to spirituality, social justice and ethical living. The back third will contain stories about the United Church and parish news.
“We have the same number of pages dedicated to United Church coverage, which is important to our current readers,” Bell said.
The main content change will be a broadening of the perspectives in general interest stories.
“Let’s say we have an article about empathy. In the past, we would have gone to a United Church person or minister to talk about this, but now we will be a bit more ecumenical,” Bell said, which may mean quoting someone from another Christian denomination, or speaking to a rabbi or an imam.
“We can pull from a little bit of a wider scope of people when we want that faith perspective,” Bell said. “Still Christian, but a wider perspective.”
In the fall, Broadview will launch a marketing campaign to attract new subscribers and build a sustainable subscription base. The magazine is already available on newsstands where it hasn’t traditionally been found. Broadview can now be purchased in Indigo book stores and some Loblaws and Shoppers Drug Marts.
But the Broadview team has also worked hard to ensure current subscribers are not sacrificed for new ones. It is the fourth name change in the publication’s history and these changes were never popular initially. When The United Church Observer name was originally adopted, it was so unpopular that a meeting of United Church leaders was called to debate whether that should be scrapped.
“We did a lot of work communicating to our subscribers and our donors and other stakeholders in the lead up [to the launch],” Bell said. “That was pretty successful because there was really only one person who said: ‘What is this?’ and that’s a person who winters in Arizona.”
So far, efforts to maintain the United Church subscriber base seem to be paying off.
“Not all the numbers are in yet, but I know from talking to our circulation team that they’re not getting a ton of cancels,” Bell said. “It’s been a surprise that people are so enthusiastic. They’re asking us for 20 copies so that they can do a promotional event in their church or community. They’re jumping on board. That’s been really nice.”
Bell said, however, that there are still challenges ahead.
“Trying to find that new audience that’s out there, that we’ve identified in our market research, but actually finding them so that we can tell them about this and get them excited…that will definitely be a challenge,” Bell said.
But she is excited to watch plans for Broadview unfold and to address and issues that emerge.
“We’ve got the first issue out. People think they know the look and feel, but the next cover is going to be quite different and it’s going to look really beautiful in a different way,” Bell said.
The Muriel Duncan Observer Internship
She said The Muriel Duncan Observer Internship, which many former RSJ students have received, will remain. The paid internship runs for 12 weeks during the summer and Bell said she regards maintaining it as a personal mission because a paid internship gave her a start in journalism before she landed her first “real” job.
“For me, there’s a value, and an importance, and a meaning in helping a young person have a valuable work experience,” Bell said. “It’s such a thrill to see them go on to another job and to a career in journalism and do really well.”
Past interns have had cover-page bylines and the chance to travel for a story. Bell said the enthusiasm, different perspectives and new ideas “lifts everyone up here.”
“We live on ideas,” Bell said. “We can’t put out a magazine without great ideas.”