The Watchtower's market saturation

The New York Review of Magazines describes itself as "an unabashed celebration of magazines," so it's no wonder the annual magazine would eventually turn its attention to "The Most Widely Read Magazine in the World."

The piece on The Watchtower is no quick read, but it's worth considering for your weekend reading. Joel Meares draws us in by describing a day on the job as a Jehovah's Witness and the magazine that plays a vital role in the religion. I'll attempt to excerpt the good stuff and leave room for critique towards the end of my post.

Every month, nearly 40 million copies of The Watchtower are printed in more than 180 languages and sent to 236 countries. There are no subscriptions and you won't find it on newsstands, but it's still hard to miss. Thanks to the efforts of Witnesses like the Tavolaccis, The Watchtower is the most widely distributed magazine in the world, with a circulation of more than 25 million. Last year, the world's 7.3 million-strong Jehovah's Witnesses spent 1.5 trillion hours knocking on doors and "street Witnessing"--stopping folks in parks and on streets--to preach the "good news" with a copy of The Watchtower. Its closest competitors are AARP The Magazine (circulation 24.3 million) and Better Homes and Gardens (7.6 million). It doesn't hurt that The Watchtower has been free since 1990, with the option of a small donation.

Later, Meares gives important historical context to help us understand how The Watchtower came to exist. Here's a short excerpt, but look at the full piece for more background.

While some magazines have religious followings, few have actually started religions. The Watchtower did just that. Back then, it was Zion's Watch Tower and Herald of Christ's Presence, so named by its founder, the writer and preacher Charles T. Russell. A former assistant editor of the Second Adventist magazine The Herald of the Morning, Russell released the first edition of Zion's Watch Tower on July 1, 1879. It looked much like a newspaper of the time, with two columns, simple headlines and no images. Inside, readers learned that "we are living in 'the last days,' 'the days of the Lord.'"

The author also puts the Jehovah's Witnesses in a local context, showing just how influential it is in New York City.

The mammoth operation is funded by donations, mainly from Witnesses leaving anonymous contributions in boxes titled "Worldwide Work" at the back of Kingdom Halls. The money is funneled to the U.S. world headquarters to fund the publishing empire, as well as disaster relief. Just how much moolah makes that journey is unknown--as a religious organization, the Tract Society does not have to file an annual return with the IRS--but in 2001, Newsday listed the Tract Society as one of New York City's 40 richest corporations, with revenues of $951 million. Last year, a report stated that the Society had pulled in $125 million for the fiscal year ending in August.

Then, for media nerds, he explains the process of how the publication comes together. Since the 1940s, the publications have left off bylines because, as the assignment editor tells the reporter, "The glory should go to God." I'm guessing that's not how The Economist sees things.

The Watchtower then comes together like most magazines, Pellechia explains. A writer is chosen as a "Compiler," functioning like a magazine editor, and an assignment editor distributes briefs to writers--there are about 20 on staff. Copy is fact-checked, copy-edited and rewritten as it moves through the 70-person Writing Department. Illustrators and photographers, at a Witness training campus in Patterson, N.Y., provide the images.

Writers live with about 1500 other Bethel workers, including cooks, secretaries, cleaners and committee members, in five buildings throughout Brooklyn Heights. Meals, accommodation and an allowance are provided to keep the focus on God's work. One Witness-occupied residential tower on Wilson Street might be the best deal in New York, housing 500 Witnesses, a library, a medical center and a dining room. Witnesses call it the "Towers Hotel."

If you look at any magazine's archives, you might laugh at what was written 20, 30, 50 years ago, which is why I found this paragraph particularly interesting. I wonder whether they've discussed how much archived content to release online.

Of course, the magazine does not always agree with itself--or past versions of itself -- on these matters. Early in its history, for example, The Watchtower told followers that the mischievous men of Sodom and Gomorrah would be resurrected. In 1988, an article in The Watchtower reversed this position. "Our publications are not infallible," Pellechia says. "Certain Bible texts, certain doctrine, may need adjustment as more information is researched and understanding grows."

The piece covers a lot of ground with a lot of interesting anecdotes, colorful description, and informative quotes from adherents. However, because the reporter had a lot of space to fill, I was a little disappointed he didn't explore some more basics of the religion. If you convert to being a Jehovah's Witness, for example, what are the steps, what do you say, what do you commit to?

It's treated as a branch of Christianity, but how does it differ from Catholicism or Protestantism? Where do Jehovah, Jesus, and Satan fit in? How do Jehovah's Witnesses understand how people get to heaven? What, in their view, happens to non-Jehovah's Witnesses after death? Is there, for example, a concept of hell?

From a sociological point of view, have the Jehovah's Witnesses grown or shrunk over the years? What challenges does it face in growth? Since adherents believe that 144,000 Witnesses will ascend to heaven upon Armageddon (the others will experience paradise on Earth), does it face retention issues?

Also, an anecdote in the story left me wondering what happens if you formally leave the religion? The reporter speaks a woman named Kyria Abrahams who wrote about her experience as a former Witness. She explains that she hasn't spoken to her father since she left and has not heard from her mother in three years. What's unclear is whether that is common for those who "disfellowship" or whether that is her family's particular situation.

The reporter found an intriguing hook and provided some solid background. In a piece of about 3,700 words, though, I think we can ask for more doctrinal context.

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