You’ll Get the Type of Church Members You Write For: 8 Suggestions for The Ensign

I started writing a comment on Russell’s recent blog post, in which he explains why he’s canceling his Ensign subscription. Once the comment got past a couple hundred words, I figured a full complementary post might be more appropriate. So here goes.

I haven’t subscribed to the Ensign in over a decade. I read it a couple times a year, usually when I’m at my parents’ house, and the experience is sufficient to remind myself why I don’t subscribe, and why I don’t feel particularly guilty about it.

And yet, I spend time in the bloggernacle, where I tend to stick to faith-promoting sites with some level of orthodoxy. When I started reading and later writing for By Common Consent, it was specifically to fill the Ensign-shaped hole in my heart. A faith community needs an outlet where it can share struggles, devotional thoughts, and personal experiences with the divine, and interact with the culture beyond congregational boundaries.

In short, I fully support the mission of the Ensign. I’m sure the editors are skilled, thoughtful, and incredibly intelligent, but also limited in the amount of editorial control they have. Do they, or the PTB, feel threatened—or at least challenged—by the bloggernacle? I hope they read Russell’s post, and the comments on it, because the feedback there was fairly consistent: a lot of us come away from the Ensign with the impression that it isn’t written for us. To borrow a turn of phrase from Elder Callister’s recent Ensign article: “The church will get the type of church members it writes for.”

This is probably true of any content: Sunday-school curriculum, conference talks, missionary materials. But I don’t have experience with any of that stuff. I was an editor at a national consumer magazine for a few years, and I still work very closely with the largest media companies, so I’ll stick to the topic I know something about.

Here are a few steps the Ensign could take to get me—and hopefully us—to re-subscribe and rally around the Ensign again. I think we’d all love to, right?

1. Demand quality articles (and reject any that aren’t)

The Ensign is the second most impactful way for the leadership to speak to the body of the church, apart from conference. So why do the First Presidency messages so often feel thrown together? Ensign articles are the only regular exposure we get to the minds of living prophets, so I wish the editors demanded a higher level of content—more personal, prophetic, revelatory, or even just emotional. I also wish they were able to reject articles that didn’t measure up to the prominence of the platform. I know from experience that it’s not easy to reject an article by your boss, but it’s part of the role of an editor to protect the reputation of both the magazine and the bosses. Publishing rushed or substandard content does neither.

2. Empower your editors

Hire editors you trust, and trust them to run the magazine. They should have years if not decades of industry experience, and be able to speak to the PTB with the authority of professionals who know what they’re doing because they’ve been doing it for years. Again, I expect/hope the Ensign already has a few of these people.

3. Recruit the best LDS publishing talent

The church is full of excellent editors, journalists, writers, designers, and photographers, and the media industry tends to burn people out quickly. Imagine if the best Mormon designers spent a few years at global ad agencies and national magazines, and then competed fiercely for a spot at the Ensign. The magazine has a long way to go to develop that kind of allure.

4. Showcase the best and brightest of Mormondom

It’s a bummer that we are only now, through the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, meeting so many of the extraordinary Mormons out there, and only giving them a few words with which to express themselves. The Ensign could play such a great role here, commissioning work from the brightest minds, the most talented up-and-comers, interesting artists, and even the occasional faithful celebrity. As at any publication, it’s the job of the editorial staff to find and develop relationships with those people, and to have their fingers on the pulse of the community. I’ve seen articles over the years in which a member of the 70 superficially wrote about some topic, person, or event for which there was a Mormon expert who had spent years studying that very subject, who could’ve provided a much more informed, thought-through perspective. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Ensign provided them a platform on which they could share their expertise with the Saints?

5. Write for the members

A few years ago, I made the switch from editor to advertiser, working with big companies to develop branded content. It’s difficult work, partly because of the dynamic between editor and client (clients get what they want), but mostly because brands write for themselves, whereas media outlets write for their audiences. Media outlets have to provide audiences with content that is credible, relevant, timely and interesting. Brands tend to produce content that addresses their messaging points and corporate priorities, which leads to content that isn’t particularly engaging. The Ensign sometimes reads like it was written by and for committees of stakeholders, instead of for the readers. 

6. Write for the members you want (or the members you want us to be)

Another difference between branded content and the real kind is that brands rarely want to challenge their readers with new or surprising ideas. Real media outlets (with the exception of outlets like Fox News or MSNBC) want exactly that. Give us something to chew on! And it’s OK to be aspirational. Just like Seventeen is for 14-year-olds, your readers will stretch themselves if you give them a reason to.

Ben S. left a great comment on Russell’s piece, with a quote from Hugh Nibley about a priesthood manual he authored, about which there was some concern. “Adam S. Bennion said, ‘It’s over their heads.’ And President McKay said, ‘Let them reach for it.’” Aren’t Mormons supposed to be reaching? Searching? Constantly learning new things and striving to be better? I love my favorite bloggernacle properties because they elicit that response from me.

7. The answers are in the data

I have no idea if the general body of the church is unsatisfied by the church magazines, or if it’s just me and a few other BCC readers. It’s probably somewhere in between. But every magazine has to grapple with the question of whether it’s satisfying the needs of its subscribers. That’s why they do cover tests, focus groups, and measure as much as they can. A former magazine I worked at conducted surveys to see how long our readers kept issues around the house before throwing them out. I’d be curious to see how many Ensign subscribers rip the plastic on issues that aren’t the conference issue. Heck, I’d be interested in what percentage of subscribers read the conference issue (everyone says they do, of course).

8. Add a “The”

We refer to it as “the Ensign.” It’s even called “The Ensign of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” on the cover itself, above the title. So shouldn’t there be a “The” before the giant “Ensign”?

Anything I’ve missed? Anything you miss? Please share in the comments, and keep it friendly.

Comments

  1. .

    I remember hearing at BYU that the Ensign is the most-subscribed-to, least-read magazine in the world. I don’t know if there was data to back that up, but still.

    In other news, the website seems to be getting better. Consider this.

  2. Great suggestions. I especially agree that it would be great to hear from real people and learn about their real lives. One thing that I think many young Mormons are utterly desperate for is some assurance that there is a wide variety of “right” ways to be a Mormon, and that complete cultural assimilation is not a condition of being a good Mormon.

    (One question, because I’m dumb: I discern from the context who you’re referring to when you say PTB, but I don’t know what the letters actually stand for.)

  3. This is awesome. I would add pull more international writers and let us see the full flavor of Mormonism. I know people who love to subscribe to the Liahona in their mission language just to somehow keep connected to the people there.

  4. Th. That’s not the Ensign website, that’s Church History (although maybe you meant general lds.org). And I’m not biased or anything, but it is probably the best section of LDS.org.

  5. Th., that might be, but AARP Magazine probably gives it a run…

  6. Sam Brunson says:

    Nice, Kyle. I don’t have anything to add, except that making these changes (and trusting that good designers would fix the whit space problems) may well draw me back. I loved the Ensign for about half a decade; I’d love to love it again.

  7. PTB = Powers That Be.

    Kyle, what do you make of the internationalization argument? More interesting content for one market makes it tougher to internationalize for another. The Ensign is vanilla because you can swap it around in multiple languages/cultures easily.

  8. I don’t know, Steve, I haven’t really considered it. But I think EmJen’s solution is the right one. Embrace the cultural messiness of a global church. Show how local customs and cultures can ladder up to eternal principles in different ways.

    (Great suggestion, EmJen, I’m kind of embarrassed I didn’t think of that.)

  9. The crux of the problem: the stuff written by Q12 and up tends to be rehashed or compilations. It doesn’t feel topical, tied to current events (except Christmas) or like they actually wrote it. Now all this could be wrong, but that’s how it feels. That doesn’t diminish the veracity of their words, but it does make it less likely that members will be paying attention. Meanwhile, stuff in the rest of the Ensign is either wackadoo or meaningless. Even articles written by Seventies don’t pull a lot of weight for some reason. Again, everything feels compiled rather than written. It’s like the Ensign is a collage of found art on a given theme rather than a bona fide magazine.

    So I guess my chief reason for not reading the Ensign is that the Ensign doesn’t feel written; it feels produced. It is the Velveeta of ecclesiastical publications. It might be a processed cheese food, but it ain’t cheese.

  10. Having written for the magazine of a multi-level marketing company (really, a pretty good corporate equivalent to the church) and having a few friends who have worked for the church magazines, I think your suggestions are spot-on, if not woefully unrealistic.

    1) Demand quality – That’s the thing, they probably already think they’re pumping out high quality stuff, because it’s mostly regurgitated and re-purposed CES/General Conference talks.

    2) Empower your editors – Exactly, but the GAs that have final say consider themselves the ultimate edtiors. They’re not interested in empowering anyone to make final decisions. Having written for the BYU-Idaho school newspaper when Bednar was president, I can tell you first hand it drives them batty to have little control over content.

    3) Recruit talent – Heh…have you seen how the church pays? I’m a copywriter and I know for sure the church could never afford me. Even if they didn’t ask their employees to consecrate a portion of their salary…

    4) Showcase the best and brightest – Good suggestion. Probably something that could be accomplished with little upper-room angst.

    5) Write for the members – See #1

    6) Write for the members you want – I think that’s exactly what they are currently doing

    7) Data – Knowing the church, I honestly would be shocked if they’re not doing readership studies. You wouldn’t think, based on the product they’re putting out, but then again maybe their sampling methods are way off.

  11. Keep a little bit of the Hallmark fluff, but include sections with publications by Church scholars and other members (perhaps approved articles from BYUstudies, Dialogue, Sunstone, good blog posts and such), a section specifically done by the Church History Dept, a section that focuses on Doctrine authored by General Authorities, a section done by the Relief Society that focuses on women’s issues (NOT just homemaking ideas), a section on self-improvement (by LDS experts in psychology, mental health, organization, art and anything else that sparks interest), bring back the “I have a question” section, and a section for poetry, art, and so forth by submission.

    There is a lot of potential for a freaking awesome periodical. I would totally get it.

  12. This is a great list of suggestions. I gave up subscribing to it years ago, and reading it years before that. I do still sometimes pull the VT messages off lds.org. If it were a cool magazine with interesting articles like you describe, people could leave it out at their places of business or in their living rooms. The last few years we took it, it might make it as far as the bathroom, but seldom out of the plastic.

  13. As far as # 7 goes, I can only speak for my experience but I’d imagine the problem is fairly large. Besides, what’s the worst that could happen, aake it more interesting to read? This just got me thinking of the opposite: why I follow the bloggernacle
    -It shows me perspectives on things I hadn’t considered before
    -I learn church history
    -I learn church policy
    -Many blogs are hilarious
    -It’s a way to hear from people with similar questions and ideas
    -Many comments and posts are honest and frank
    An ocassional article in the ensign will have one of these. But generally it’s slim pickings. Admittedly, for any one good post in the bloggernacle I probably skim past least 10-12 others that just don’t interest me. Also, the average church member might learn more than I could. Lastly, as far as reading it to feel the spirit goes. Most of my list are things that I believe bring the spirit much more strongly than the same content I’ve heard since primary.

  14. 6. Write for the members you want (or the members you want us to be)

    I agree with other commenter, I think the current Ensign is already doing this.

  15. No more endorsements of for-profit companies! (thinking here of the Deseret News issue last month)

    The other thing I would say, in terms of something that might be realistic: Always have one lengthy article that really “stretches” members. A benchmark here would be something that your average Bloggernacle regular would love to read. This certainly doesn’t seem like asking much.

  16. A few years back an online survey was running about what we wanted to see in the Ensign, in which I participated. One of my comments was that I’d really enjoyed the in depth background articles that I’d seen running in parallel with the Sunday School curriculum in earlier years. The current crop of ‘biographies’ erhem, on the biblical characters definitely don’t fit that catergory.
    I despair.

  17. I’d come back for that.

    There’s a Dialogue article by a former Ensign editor (7 years there) that really surprised me. The whole thing is quite good, but here’s the relevant excerpt.

    “a departmental reorganization moved me from my editorial post at the Liahona to the Ensign. I was somewhat surprised to learn that the Ensign subscribed to both Dialogue and Sunstone and circulated them among the editorial staff. I couldn’t help wondering about these subscriptions and the reasoning behind them. But then, the Ensign subscribed to many interesting publications: Journal of Mormon History, BYU Studies, Pioneer, Utah Historical Quarterly, The Religious Educator, Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Newsweek, Time, Reader’s Digest, Biblical Archeological Review, Desert Saints, the Seventh-day Adventists’ Signs, Billy Graham’s Decision, the Community of Christ’s Herald, and my own personal favorite, Vision, a magazine aimed at the restoration branches that split off from the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the 1980s. I figured somebody wanted the editorial staff to be informed. I wanted to be informed too. So I read all these periodicals. Took them on the bus with me as I commuted between Orem and the [LDS] Church Office Building.”

    Bit of a disconnect between what the editors are reading for work, and what’s appearing in the magazine.

  18. John Mansfield says:

    It would seem from the letter below to the Ensign three years ago, that the magazine is aimed at readers from four decades ago who are now rather old and worn out:

    “My husband and I have been in the Church over 40 years. When I was younger I couldn’t wait for the Ensign to come so I could read it cover to cover.
    “In the last eight years I’ve had several surgeries. Perhaps because of them I’ve lost interest in reading and now only read the shortest stories.
    “I’m in my 70s and this month I read a short story and then found another, and another, and the next thing I knew I had read the whole Ensign. I was shocked. I looked through the Ensign again and realized that all the articles are short. I was thrilled to be able to read all of the magazine like I did when I was young.
    “Thank you again.”

    Theresa Skeen
    Indiana, USA

    (link)

  19. It’s like Reader’s Digest for people who don’t read.

  20. It’s funny they ran that Letter to the Editor as if it were a good thing. “Now I can’t handle any depth or substance, but was thrilled to discover it almost completely lacking!”

  21. As I read through this essay (and agreed with much of it) I realized I’ve seen almost the same change with another publication that shows up in my mailbox: the USAA Magazine. Ten or fifteen years ago it used to have engaging, important content about personal and family finances and insurance and security and financial stability. It was a valuable and helpful publication and we read it from cover to cover. Now it’s just slick stock art and short, fairly useless articles and ads for company services and it goes directly into recycling. Why the change? I don’t know.

  22. My wife has submitted (and published) a couple of articles in the Ensign only to have the heart of her article ripped out by the editors. What remained was a bland misrepresentation of what was submitted. I don’t read the magazine (other than conference issues) because of that very reason: it is all the same bland, faceless, monotonous voice.

  23. DB, was there any kind of editorial process or back-and-forth between the editors and your wife?

    I have an acquaintance who’s published several books with Deseret Book, and been frustrated at the heavy limitations, which were summarized as “you can’t say anything that The Brethren haven’t already said.”

  24. I’ll say this, at least the Ensign isn’t the Reader’s Digest … yet. I rue the day when the Ensign’s headline reads “20 Things Your Bishop Won’t Tell You” or “50 Reasons Why Temples Are The Best.”

    On a serious note, I appreciate this post Kyle. It is thoughtful and fair. I wonder if you have any examples of religious publications you think the church should emulate. Apart from the Watchtower (which I think the Ensign trumps handsdown), I am fairly ignorant of what other churches are putting out. Is there anyone who is doing better?

    Also, it seems as though most people commenting on this post would like a more Dialoguesqe publication. If that’s the case, why hasn’t Dialogue’s readership signficantly grown as the gulf between it’s approach and that of the Ensign has increased? Pragmatically speaking, I think the most likely way to get the attention of the Ensign’s editors is for Dialogue and other “meaty” publications to significantly increase readership.

    Finally, I will give a “tip of the hat” to the New Era’s cartoons. In my day (early 90s) they were flat awful. The March 2014 edition, however, includes a reasonable (for teens) critique of the typical LDS practice of offering a pray that “refreshments” (20 different types of sugar) will nourish and strengthen our bodies.

  25. Dave K, no print periodical is flourishing these days. The Ensign does okay because 1) it costs little and 2) the Church basically begs us to subscribe. Dialogue has little hope of ever having such an endorsement, but meanwhile BYU Studies can actually fare pretty well.

  26. Re: international translation issues: Why not create a “good” version (per suggestions in this post) for English speaking while keeping the “vanilla” version for the rest of the world? If a given language or culture has enough traction (subscribers) to warrant their own “good” version, great! There’s nothing that says everything has to be 100% equal everywhere at all times.

  27. Oh, Ricardo.

  28. The content is there, it’s just not coming in the Ensign. I’d subscribe to something that looked like this post (JSPP folks work for the Church, in my understanding), the Mountain Meadows article, the Gospel Topics pages, etc. Church History actually seems to be doing quite well in Church media. Treatment of the Bible (and Book of Mormon, to a lesser extent) is still pretty dismal. I think the “biography” of Noah could have just as easily gone in the New Era or Friend.

  29. marginalizedmormon says:

    Thank you for this. The Ensign has become very depressing.

  30. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    I would totally pick up the Ensign to read “20 Things Your Bishop Won’t Tell You”, or “10 Things Your Primary President Wish You Knew About Your Child”, or “5 Tips to Ace Your Temple Recommend Interview”, or “Top 10 Complaints by Northeast Bishops for 2014″…

  31. But if the Ensign were more interesting, I’d feel guilty about not reading it.

  32. I’d read that too, Mack.

    To Dave K’s question, I like the magazine that Ben S is envisioning, or that reflects the faithful content that I read online. A front of the book that includes the 1P message and a bit of news…and then it’s part BCC, Dialogue, Juvenile Instructor, Keepa, and a bit of Feast Upon The Word for lesson-prep articles. Add a bit of culture, a bit of humor, a bit of the “I’m a Mormon” interesting-people-scouting…

    Basically, model it after a sacrament meeting program.

  33. I think we’re being too hard on the Ensign. From my experience, most of the avid readers of the Ensign are not college graduates. They have never taken a course in history, theology or phliosophy since high school, IF they graduated from high school.

    Various demographics of the church have differing needs. My teenaged children loved the Ensign and the New Era. I only read the conference issues. If the Ensign doesn’t fill your needs, there are other periodicals which do appeal to more discerning and educated readers. I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. I do suscribe to the Ensign because I want to support a publication that attempts to teach the gospel to EVERY soul.

  34. If there were only an annual swimsuit issue. Of course, nobody would read that either.

  35. Could we have a “Mormon Modest” swimsuit issue? One with illustrations of what-to-wear side by side with what-not-to-wear. Still no reading, but at least half the magazine would get examined.

  36. Does anyone else find it somewhat ironic that the Ensign seems to have taken a particular dive since President Monson acceded the throne? Thomas S. Monson. The publisher.

    At least it appears that with 2014, First Presidency messages are a bit longer, if meandering. I noticed a very clear contrast between the Hinckley and Monson eras with the FPM each month until now – very short, very pointless.

  37. I agree with EmJen! I’m mainly experienced with the Liahona, since I travel abroad a lot, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of the stuff in the Liahona goes over people’s heads. It’s so abstract or Western-centric, and the language used is often dense and academic or boring and simplistic. The articles don’t promote critical thinking and can get confusing where they don’t apply or translate cross-culturally. As an American, I was constantly asked to re-explain Liahona articles in a more locally relevant way.

    In other words, the American perspective as “vanilla” doesn’t work. So it couldn’t hurt to introduce a diversity of views with more stories and experiences from an international perspective. (By this, I do not mean those articles that are like: “Look, the church is the same everywhere!” Because it isn’t). Including international writers seems like a fairly non-threatening way to get around the apparent prohibition against publishing articles that don’t just rehash previous Ensign material. I’m working off the assumption that personal experiences are not as heavily edited, of course.

  38. “Top Ten Twelve Apostles”

  39. “Top Ten Twelve Apostles’ Beards”

  40. A front of the book that includes the 1P message and a bit of news…and then it’s part BCC, Dialogue, Juvenile Instructor, Keepa, and a bit of Feast Upon The Word for lesson-prep articles. Add a bit of culture, a bit of humor, a bit of the “I’m a Mormon” interesting-people-scouting

    This is kind of what we were aiming to create when we started up Bloggernacle Times eight or nine years ago.

    “You’ll Get the Type of Church Members You Write For” — this really is very true. For example, I haven’t picked up an edition of The Watchtower in about 19 years (and only then it was as a missionary and I was curious about what would be in that artistically wretched magazine). The way it’s written, it’s never going to invite me in.

    Unfortunately, the Ensign’s trajectory has steadily been in the direction of The Watchtower, on all fronts — the artwork, the branded messaging, even (especially?) the fundamentalist, empty material in there relating to scriptures and teachings such as these amazingly trite and one-dimensional — and simply dumb — “biographies” of Old Testament prophets that are now appearing in each issue (“Hi, I’m Noah” . . . ).

  41. Do it like it used to be done when the Church did it right. Go back and study classic issues of the Improvement Era, The Instructor, and the Relief Society Magazine. Where there was once meat – even back in the 80s with content like the 3 part series of articles by Nibley that explored the Atonement and all the symbolism – there is now bread and milk. Which is fine if you’re looking to support adolescents and new converts. But in a world where members are asking deep questions and looking for answers, the Ensign is doing a very poor job.

  42. I think that the Ensign represents my take on much of what the church provides us: a bland sort of starting point. I think this is appropriate. During the first years after my conversion, the church magazine were a blessing. I was truly clueless, other than a strong testimony that being a latter day saint was the right thing to be doing. My desperate thirst for truth and knowledge sucked up what ever what written in the Ensign, New Era, even the Friend. I don’t want to say I outgrew them, merely because it suggests I don’t need what is produced in their pages. More aptly said, I needed to create my own content. I needed to find my own personal belief and revelation. In general, I believe it is not the church’s job to define it all for me. That is my job. I am glad that they don’t go to deep in their magazines, Sunday School lessons, RS lessons, whatever. I don’t want them to deeply define me and my beliefs.

  43. Really interesting thoughts, Kyle. Thanks for posting this. I was particularly struck by this point:

    “The Ensign sometimes reads like it was written by and for committees of stakeholders, instead of for the readers. ”

    I think this absolutely rings true. Readers are secondary if not tertiary (behind multiple sets of stakeholders?) The Church magazines really aren’t *for* us. Pretty depressing.

  44. Kevin Barney says:

    Great ideas, Kyle.

    I agree with the Watchtower comparison–which is not a compliment.

    A gentle way to improve matters would be to go “back to the future.” That is, even if they didnothing else innovative, simply returning to the editorial approach of the earlier years of the magazine would be a huge improvement.

    For example, many of you are probably too young to remember they used to sponsor writing contests and then publish the winning essays. I know because I entered the 1989 contest and actually won first place, for an article on the uses of repetition in Old Testament poetry. This appeared in June 1990; you can read it here:

    https://www.lds.org/ensign/1990/06/understanding-old-testament-poetry?lang=eng

    Try to imagine the Ensign holding such writing contests today, or publishing non-GA content such as my article. It would never happen.

    Another great loss is when they ceased running the “I Have a Question” column, which used to be the first thing I read every month.

  45. I would be fascinated to see the reception of the general church membership if the Ensign began publishing the responses the church has been putting on their website to difficult history and doctrinal questions – for example, how much of an impact would something like the “Race and the Priesthood” essay have on the membership at large?

    I can also see some of the more reactionary and conservative members of the hierarchy responding unfavorably to that, as that might open up more questions than they are comfortable with.

    I love Kevin’s suggestion, though. With the wealth of well-written and well-researched scholarly content out there, I would be riveted to see what the Ensign would publish as a result of a writing contest.

  46. Exactly. Much of the good stuff is already on the church website. Why not put it in the Ensign too so more people will actually read it?

  47. Last Lemming says:

    Another great loss is when they ceased running the “I Have a Question” column,

    The loss was not when they stopped running the column, the loss was several years earlier when they started answering staged questions like “How can I make my prayers more sincere.”

  48. The Other Clark says:

    Great ideas here. I’m editorial director for a company that publishes trade magazines, so I’m somewhat familiar with the issues. I suspect the Ensign could very easily pick up rights to reprint some relevant story from the Mormon-related publications above. Similarly, they could ask speakers at popular BYU Education Week classes to convert their lectures into articles. Or just publish the already approved Church history articles from the Church website as others have already noted.

    Clearly, finding relevant, compelling (yet faith-promoting) content isn’t a challenge.

  49. John Harrison says:

    The deeper issue here to me is the fact that it is unacceptable to be critical of any church related content in LDS culture. There are a large number of members that cannot fathom the concept of a bad magazine article, a bad lesson (either as delivered or as written in the manual), or a bad sacrament meeting. As they say in The Lego Movie, “Everything is awesome!”

    As part of a member-run (on a local level) church we have embraced mediocrity so firmly that we even blame the victim. I often hear, without hint of irony, the President Kimball nugget regarding having never been in a bad sacrament meeting: because the responsibility for a good experience lies entirely with the listener.

    Well that might be a nugget, but it is a nugget of crap.

    LDS Magazines are often bland at best and harmful in some cases.

    Lessons are a mixed bag and until recently the materials were crap. The Teachings of the Prophets manuals sometimes read like a ransom letter made of individual words cut out of magazines. They are the epitome of the Velveeta that Steve mentioned above.

    Sacrament meeting talks can be sublime. More often they are poorly delivered recitations of general conference talks or a steam of conscious travelogue. The listener is not to blame, and some of the meetings are objectively bad.

    But nobody dares say that. The Ensign is the logical result of this embrace of the mediocre. LDS culture is broken in many ways. This is one. I would guess that if you asked most members to be critical of The Ensign they would be flat out unable to do so because we’ve been trained to never think that way.

  50. “a bland sort of starting point. I think this is appropriate.”

    If we grant The Ensign’s mediocrity is acceptable because it’s a starting point, where does the Church publish its middle point? Where does it encourage further growth and reading and maturity? This is supposed to be the adult magazine, the best of what Mormonism has to offer, right?

  51. Hmmm. It seems like virtually all of these concerns apply equally to the lesson manuals and to especially to General Conference. Could it be that he problem is bigger than just the magazine?

  52. John H., that is such an important and insightful comment. You are completely correct, as sad as it is to admit. I really wish that your comment were not such an accurate description of the problem. But it is.

  53. Curt Conklin says:

    Lets keep in mind that the average BCC reader is probably a college graduate. The Engsign can’t write and publish for us, it has to consider the average member, their reading, understanding and retention ability. Not that I am defending the mag. I have neither subscribed nor read it for close on 20 years now. Oh occasionally I’ll “renew” but I always let it lapse, it doesn’t even get its wrapper removed, even the May and November ones. One solution would be yet another publication . . . for the “intelligencia” of the Church. Sounds Elitist, doesn’t it.

    Also, I’ve noticed over the years that there is an extremely high turnover in the editorial staff at The Ensign. Lots of Zoobie Interns too. I’ve been around long enough to know that the office atmosphere in the COB and environs can be stiffling. Its even that way sometimes at the Zoo, I know, I spent 37 years there.

  54. john f.,

    I wish my comment were crap. There is a lot to be said in defense of amateur sermons, lessons, and magazines, but somehow we’ve gone about it all wrong. For many talks I would rather the speaker just read the Sermon on the Mount verbatim and then sat down. That would get old after a while, but it would still be an improvement.

    I have some hope though. The new Aaronic Priesthood lesson materials are much better. I think we’ll improve slowly.

    Curt,

    I think there is room in the Ensign to have one challenging article per month. I don’t think that every page of the thing has to apply to every reader.

  55. I think part of the reason it’s more bland is the Internet happened. If they want us to regard what is printed there as near scripture, especially what comes from the First Presidency, it needs to be throughly gone over with a fine toothed comb, because all media is immortal now and highly searchable and retrievable and infinitely broadcastable there is fear. Fear not only that it will teach wrong things but fear that it will certainly back to bite the collective church in the future. It’s one thing to say, we were very wrong 50 years ago, it’s another thing to have to say five months or five weeks ago we were wrong. The article this month that is controversial will only serve to increase the fear, of missteps so there will be more careful steps. Hopefully it won’t err in that direction again, but it also won’t be expansive in it’s content in other directions either. Unless there is a way to untether it from what it is viewed by many, expected to be by many and we start to view it as simply it is a monthly periodical publication, of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that isn’t supposed to be perfectly unerring full of unchangeable doctrine and position pieces, but a magazine with devotional, topical, interesting, educational, historical, cultural, articles while exploring and teaching some doctrine, promoting community and understanding in a worldwide church, a magazine, it will continue to be bland. Not only do we as members of the church have to find a way to view it that way, but because of the Internet the whole world can read it, and the powers that be need to accept that there is risk that some part of richer fuller content may be found wrong, or be misconstrued or be used to hurt the church. I just don’t see a way out of the quandary.

  56. Perhaps the early years of the current church magazines were a golden age. I miss the interesting content of articles such as “Man’s Dominion” in the 1972 New Era, but I also miss the Barnaby Bumbleberry cartoons in the Children’s Friend, and I even miss the stupid TV shows that I used to watch. Change is natural, and things that change can be worthwhile and good without meeting all our expectations.

    In its current form, The Ensign still seems to me to be a good source of ideas about how to improve the way that I live my life. Even in the controversial address by Elder Callister that is excerpted in the March Ensign, which mentions several ideas that I disagree with, I think that the speaker was making a sincere effort to help people to live better lives. The Ensign may be light reading, but much of the content is light reading that is filled with light. If I had perfected my application of the “milk” and could honestly claim to be ready to set it aside and move on to something more advanced, or if I was mainly looking for new knowledge and deep thinking, maybe I would have a different view. I plan to keep my subscription.

  57. Left Field says:

    Three commenters now have described the Ensign as “vanilla.”

    Oh, would that it were!

    If only the Ensign had the aroma, the flavor, the essence, the taste, the bouquet of the Delectable Bean! What could be more appropriate than for the magazine of the Lord’s own church to possess the literary equivalent of the Lord’s most delightful flavor?

    My palate yearns in anticipation of an Ensign, that like the fruit of the vanilla, is “made for the benefit and the use of man, both to please the eye and to gladden the heart; Yea, for…taste and for smell, to strengthen the body and to enliven the soul!”

    It had not occurred to me that the Ensign could aspire to such heights. But now I have seen the mountaintop! “Shall we not go on in so great a cause? …Let your hearts rejoice, and be exceedingly glad. Let the earth break forth into singing…Let the mountains shout for joy, and all ye valleys cry aloud;..and ye solid rocks weep for joy!” For the Ensign shall be Vanilla!

  58. Kevin Barney says:

    Last Lemming, I agree.

  59. Bonjo wins.

  60. Doesn’t he always?

  61. Kyle M, your vision is a pipe dream. The fact that the Ensign chose to publish the letter to the editor quoted by John Mansfield, above, should tell you that you tilting at windmills.

  62. Ben S.
    Yes there was a little editorial, but not much. Pretty unilateral, I’m afraid: do this or won’t publish your article…

  63. Thomas Parkin says:

    The magazine passes through correlation. All good ideas can only be implemented after removing this reality.

    Even the new apostle FB pages pass through correlation. The Apostles can not even speak to the people without being edited. My father worked on an exhibit for the Church History Museum, and he gave me some insight to the way that material went through correlation. (Note that he was not complaining about the process himself.)

    Dis-empower correlation, it is running roughshod over us. Restrict its domain. Let members speak tentatively and leaders speak from right out their hearts and minds. It is the operator that chokes off all real information. It is ok to be wrong at times and for a while. We are wrong anyway; correlation ensures that we are always wrong in the same ways.

    We need a much better set of operations for deciding where we stand in relation to reality, i.e truth.

  64. With Joseph Fielding Smith as the prophet for the PH/RS manual this year, it made me miss the old “Answers to Gospel Questions” column he used to write in the Improvement Era. While it is true that often the column could better be called “Non-Answers to Gospel Questions”, it happened often enough that he would begin a column by saying, in essence, “The person who asked this question either has not read the scriptures or does not understand them. But since I get this question often, I will answer it here.” A General Authority writing with snark! It was almost always a fun column to read. It is a shame that something like this cannot be part of the Church magazines today.

  65. Robert D, Booth says:

    I wonder how many of the Ensign’s detractors have an understanding, much less testimony, of the Restored Church. I believe many of these individuals would not have crossed the frozen Mississippi when the Saints were driven from Nauvoo.

  66. Ark steadying I tell you! And we know what happens to ark steadiers!

  67. I like some of the ideas written here, but I think it best to send those thoughts to the powers that be rather than an open forum that often leads to unkind sentiments.

  68. Why do you say that, Robert? Any specific things you disagree with or substantive things to say about anything in the post or comments?

  69. Robert Booth: “I believe many of these individuals would not have crossed the frozen Mississippi when the Saints were driven from Nauvoo.” So they would have rather suffered death at the hands of the mob? Doesn’t that make them MORE faithful rather than LESS faithful as you suggest?? Your comment is beyond ridiculous.

  70. Peter H. Bendtsen says:

    The vanilla flavor is already in place today with the Liahona, the very few articles with a little meat in it is taken out of that.
    I think that we could start by having the same magazine in all the different languages. Why are we as members in other language speaking countries than English having a different magazine?
    Why are they not called the same in every language?
    I think it is disrespecting to make a difference with the members in that way.
    On the contrary I think that many of the members outside of the states are in some aspects more aware of the difficult issues in the church because they have to more regular defend the church and it believes and therefore I do not understand why the articles with the more meat is taking away?
    Regarding the pictures in the magazine you will get a big surprise if you have been to see the Carl Bloch exhibition in Utah because every time that he paints an angel with wings those are not shown in the Ensign/Liahona. Why we are afraid to show that is a puzzle to me?

  71. Seems like a real dilemma, this Correlation situation. It makes think of Elder Ronald Poelman’s talk about distinguishing between the gospel and the church that was never printed in its original form. Was he warning us? Was that the rise of corporate correlation? I long for good will, candor and intelligence in local and general church discussions.

  72. There’s a very interesting statement about Correlation’s “mission creep” by Paul Dunn in the semi-recent McKay biography.

    I think what happened is what’s happening in government today, as I see it now, thirty years later. For example, the Supreme Court is supposed to determine the constitutionality of a law, but very gradually, the Supreme Court starts to make the law. That’s what is happening to correlation. Correlation creates nothing. That’s the process. It has no authority to make a statement that creates a position or direction. That’s totally out of harmony with what President McKay set up. Brother Lee understood that, and carried it out. Since the 1970s, I’ve seen the drift, where correlation is now telling me, if I write something to get through correlation, “You can’t say that.” And I write back and say, “Why?” And they say, “Well, because we think this is the interpretation.” And I write back and say, “You’re not the interpreter.”…And that’s where we got lost. Today, I see correlation, like the Supreme Court, becoming more and more the originator of the thought, rather than the coordinator of the thought…. So while I think correlation is good, I think it’s gone past its original commission.-

    McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism, 158.

  73. Left Field says:

    I’m very pleased to hear that at least the Liahona has some vanilla flavor. It would be great if we could get some of that in the English language magazines.

  74. Great book, great quote Ben.

  75. That is a fantastic quote, Ben S.

  76. Why are we as members in other language speaking countries than English having a different magazine? Why are they not called the same in every language?

    We should have different magazines for every language or region! Some of the problem of a blandness being produced by the church is probably in direct correlation with the homogenization of our church. While I often hear it quoted,” it is so nice that no matter where you go, the church is the same.” Ok, it is nice to now how to find a church, what to expect from church services and worship, and even the predictability on the lessons, BUT feelings, thoughts, ideas are greatly biased by the culture of the area and should be given license to be different within the boundaries of the truth. I have lived in several countries, different continents. Utah Mormon publications just didn’t satisfy what was going on in each of those. While they were stories of faith and such, it wasn’t personalized enough. Does that make sense? Fine, name all the magazine the same name, but allow the control of content to be local, so to speak. Makes me think of Paul, writing his different epistles to different regions of saints, hopefully based on their unique needs. I think the magazine could reflect that.

  77. Peter H. Bendtsen says:

    Suzy I agree with you that there need to be room for local content as there is today of new callings and so forth. But would you not find it interesting to know what other members are struggling with og having success with in other countries. Just as you mention the epistles of Paul although they are not written for me directly I still enjoy reading them and can still find them spiritually for me to?
    As we can see from many of the comments this task is not easy, to write a magazine that are apelling to all of the adolt members with all of our all good suggestions for a better magazine.
    I therefore imagine it to be something like our favourite newspaper we do not always read all of it but there are always one or two stories we find interesting and the stories that I read are not always the same that my wife read at first but if she has found something interesting and share it with me I will read those articles later and maybe also find inspiration in them.
    Maby our first goal should be to have the Ensign department start subscribing to BCC how did they miss that? :-) especially with all the good suggestions we are offering them. :-)

  78. Meldrum the Less says:

    I generally agree with the 8 suggestions. At the current state almost anything would be an improvement. Sheesh, when in college I used to write and produce a partially humorous 1 page (both sides) monthly periodical for the stake young adults with the old silk screen method and I think it was about as inspiring and useful as the current Ensign.

    Someone mentioned “pipe dreams.” Here is one; Why is the Ensign the second most impactful way to teach us after General Conference? Why not make the Ensign the first most impactful way to teach us?

    The pen, not the tongue, is more powerful than the sword. It is my understanding that Brigham Young disagreed with Orson Prat on a number of topics including the Adam-God theory. Both were persuasive public speakers. But Pratt’s ideas won out because they were better expressed in the written word and carried more influence. The Ensign should live up to its name and be the first source of light and truth flowing from the living prophets like a flag waving in the wind over a community. Just a thought…….

    General Conference could be like a church family picnic were we browse a few nutritious grasses while the Ensign becomes a trip to the library to feast on steak and chocolate.

    I agree with Bro Harrison, the slavish devotion to mediocracy hatched from over-compliance with correlation is at the root of this and many other problems. Another root is that “the church leaders travel around so much the Spirit can’t catch up with them,” according to J. Golden Kimball. When we present a gospel centered on living prophets and apostles who are like celebrities, they or their surrogates must travel to visit and bless the people or else we must switch faith prompting tactics. The trap with celebrities is that they never live up to expectations. Our beloved leaders probably don’t have the time or frankly even the inclination to produce an Ensign that we on this blog envision. Give it over to those who do.

    Today at ward conference, we heard a gospel of repentance or change. Even after cleaning out the rolls our ward remains at about 25% active (not counting a likely larger number in the lost members file-so realistically make that 10% active) and we are admonished to reach out to all these people in an effort to change their hearts. It struck me: the church preaches a gospel of change but doesn’t practice it. The church presumes that after 75-90% of its members have left, it doesn’t have a problem; all those backsliders are the ones with the problem in need of correction. Preposterous! We are not going to change any but a very few of these our brothers and sisters if we as an institutional church don’t change our ways. I was barely able to suppress the powerful promptings to stand and loudly prophecy this message from the back row during the Stake Presidency counselor’s talk.

    I guess I need to stop reading the Old Testament prophets and renew my lapsed subscription to the Ensign.

  79. You forgot “get rid of correlation.” In a perfect world The Ensign would be like this blog … with a comment section … that wasn’t edited

  80. “like this blog, with a comment section that wasn’t edited”

    Oh Granger.

  81. I know … haha … but wouldn’t be great if we could have a say? Democracy is messy and sometimes exposes the emperor’s nakedness but it keeps people interested.

  82. I find it interesting that the church has spent decades seemingly carefully crafting a public image of its members and day to day mormonism, yet the “i am a mormon’ campaign often presents jarring contrasts that don’t ‘fit the mold’. Until these two factions are more aligned I think we will continue to see the Ensign as highly watered-down. I’d welcome more member submitted stories and experiences of what following Christ means to each member, and much less focus and dissection of some of the past pronouncements and positions of some leaders. I really like many of the worldwide spotlight articles, doctrinal deep-dives (fewer and farther between it seems recently), and some of the ‘ask a question’ were great – more please.

    In full disclosure, I don’t remember how many years it has been since I’ve subscribed – there are usually plenty of these laying around the foyer at church, and of course online. I’ve never considered it an obligation of membership to subscribe fortunately.

  83. @Suzy – agree!! the church is ‘the same’, but in reality is is quite different in other areas around the world, and even in north america. Showcase those distinctions more and help we as a church body move forward and leave some of the ‘traditions of our fathers’ on the trash-heap of mormonism where many of the non-doctrinal customs and ‘unwritten order of things’ belong IMO.

  84. I would love to see the magazine produced outside of “Zion,” in the mission field. You know, somewhere exotic like New York, or Portland, or Sacramento.

    Maybe the Liahona, (why does English lose out on the cool name? I’ll take the English-language Liahona please) could even move the editors and writers into “offices” in countries and regions around the world.

    It might be easier to write for and about people outside Utah, if you know, you go outside Utah. /snark

  85. The Other Clark says:

    Well, the Church already tried the regional publication approach. It was enormously successful, and succeeded for well over 100 years before succumbing to Corrolation in the early 1970s. (See Millenial Star, Der Stern, etc.) I’d love to see it resurrected, but I lack faith it would ever happen.

  86. Nameless-Faceless-Placeless Stories——
    When you speak to everyone you end up speaking to no one. Nameless- faceless– placeless stories just don’t do it. To tell a story, you need a setting and a character development!

    Photoshop—–
    Does anyone know the photoshop settings for the B&W pics printed in the conference editions every year? There is a Norwegian gossamer blur and cranked-up contrast, done just right. It isn’t a “Barbara Walters” heavy soft focus, so we almost don’t notice it. Perhaps it’s just the glow of their countenances? Where are the wrinkles and pimples? Faded away I tell you . . . and you can see halos around figures as tho they had been backlit in a studio. But No! Look! These are just casual snapshots on semi-cloudy days! That’s how they look, perhaps. Doesn’t everyone just-seem-perfect?

  87. I couldn’t disagree more! With adding “The” to the title, that is. Why not “an” or some other article that is assumed anyway? Of course, AMEN to all the rest of it. It’s time for some better bathroom reading. At least more emotional and absent of positivity platitudes. I’d also like to tell Dallin H. Oaks in an Ensign article he wrote last year that Africa is not a nation, nor is it a country with one sweeping, monolithic culture. But that might be a blog post of my own.

  88. Last one here… It is correlation, duh. If it cannot be correlated, it cannot be published by the Church. Correlation takes the meat out of everything. (Metaphore: Church is Food) We are starving to death on Church nourishment, sugary, watery, floury, paste. We could not live on Church nourishment alone. So, the Savior said that we cannot live on bread alone, but one every word which proceeds from the mouth of God. What we have proceeding from the Church cannot be that. How many die of malnourishment? How many bright children of promise perish for want of real food?

    The Church has been forced to respond, on the Church wed site, to issues of women and the priesthood, polygamy, and blacks and the priesthood because of the plethora of information on the web on these issues. It needed to have a response. It was forced to have a response, otherwise it would not have done it. The Church would love to rewrite history, leaving out these parts and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

  89. I agree with DW’s comment of just shooting for even one lengthy article that really stretches people. That strikes me as a realistic goal. I have to imagine that filling a magazine month after month with groundbreaking content would be nearly impossible. I can’t think of any magazine i’ve read that accomplished that for me. However, most magazine’s i pick up have at least one thing that catches my eye. From my own limited experience, i feel the current rate is about one really great article each year (excluding conference issues). Right now i feel like i’m searching for that diamond in the rough. It would be nice to actually find one each month.

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