"I am 42 and recently widowed. Suddenly having money to invest for income purposes and having no knowledge of financial planning and investing, I have found Washington Business an invaluable aid and learning tool."
Although the circumstances differ from individual to individual, the sentiment expressed above is the most common theme in about 1,000 recent letters to this section from readers of The Washington Post.
In our first anniversary edition of Washington Business on April 13, we published a questionnaire about this section, asked readers to fill it out and mail it at their expense, and promised a subsequent report to you on the survey results.
Our friends in the public opinion sampling business have cautioned us to emphasize the unscientific nature of this survey. They also told us such questionnaires generally attract a lot of negative comments that don't normally reflect a true cross-section of the readership.
There were negative comments, but among all of the questionnaires sent back, there were fewer than 10 that had nothing good to say about the Monday financial section. A handful said we don't do anything well, and one person suggested that this writer should quit since I appear to be underemployed.
Another group of three persons objected strongly to the emphasis on local business in this section and the absence of national and international news. "This isn't Kokomo," commented a Rockville lawyer. "Please deemphasize the local flavor some."
In the past year, we have received some similar comments in letters and telephone calls. Most of the readers with this viewpoint have moved to the Washington area in recent years, often because of government work. They find it difficult to understand that in a world capital, there is such intense interest in local developments.
But the overwhelming majority of readers who responded to the survey indicated that a key attraction of Washington Business is the specific local flavor, in a community where national and international events often dominate the news media. In addition, national and international developments that take place over the weekend are reported on Mondays in the Post -- either inside this section or in the front section.
At the same time, the survey showed that most respondents think of a region broader than the metropolitan Washington area as "local." More than 75 percent of the readers said they were interested in business and economic developments throughout Maryland, Virginia and the District. "From Baltimore to Richmond, at least," said a reader from Burke, Va.
In general, most of the questionnaire responses were full of praise for the performance of Washington Business in its first year. "Keep it growing," said one reader.
The responses also included hundreds of suggestions for improvements in certain areas and ideas for articles or regular features. "Washington Business was a step forward in responsible news coverage, a major asset to your paper," said a reader from McLean.
Two areas of interest were emphasized repeatedly in the readers' responses -- the desire for more personal investment information and education, as cited in the beginning of this column, and the expectation that Washington Business will publish more often in-depth articles on local corporations, such as articles in the past two weeks on Manor Care Inc. and Interstate Van Lines.
Leaders asked for more coverage of the pros and cons of investments other than stocks, guidance on how to read stock tables in the newspaper, articles on tax matters for small-business and self-employed persons, more information on the corporate and municipal bond markets, analyses of business annual report "beyond the information furnished by the companies themselves," and real estate investment developments and trends.
Given this strong appetite for investment and personal financial guidance, it is not surprising to see which regular features in Washington Business are most popular.
According to the survey, the single most useful feature in the Monday financial section is the weekly compilation of money market mutual fund performance, which is prepared by Donoghue's Money Fund Report. The table lists all money market funds with assets over $100 million that are available to individual investors.
A close second in popularity is the calendar of events for the coming week, compiled by editorial researcher Chapin Wright. Many readers said they have found the calendar particularly useful because it lists all types of investment seminars, programs and speeches, as well as career-planning meetings.
"The calendar for the week is of interest to us individually and collectively," said Sydni C. Shollenberger, of the Re-Entry Women's Employment Center in Annandale. "Everyone on the staff has attended at least one class, meeting or conference listed in the calendar section."
Overall, about 90 percent of the survey responses listed money market funds and the calendar as the secion's most useful features.
Next in popularity was E. M. Abramson's weekly "Your Balance Sheet" columns, which cover a broad range of personal tax, investment and financial questions. Abramson, a resident of northern Virginia who also writes the Post's annual series on income tax preparation, devotes most of his column to issues raised by Washington Post readers in letters they send to him in care of the Business and Finance section.
Jane Bryant Quinn's column, "Staying Ahead," was just behind Abramson. Quinn, who is syndicated nationally by the Washington Post Writers Group, also writes about personal finance issues and the pocketbook effects of national or economic trends.
Approximately four out of every 10 readers who responded to the survey listed Abramson and Quinn among their favorite features.
Almost as popular as these two columns is a weekly roundup of recent promotions for business and government executives, called "Newsmakers."
The other most popular features included a table of 100 selected area stocks, the "Lawyers" column, regional economic statistics and charts, and advertising in the section. Every regular feature in the publication was included among the most useful lists of some readers.
On several other specific questions in the survey, virtually all readers said they preferred the tabloid format to a full-sized paper, and many said they put the section aside for reference during the week.
A number of readers said they clipped regular features every week for permanent files. Most respondents said they read Washington Business either Monday morning or Monday night, and a large number said they read the publication on the bus or subway.
We at The Washington Post have been given a strong challenge to meet all of the needs outlined by readers in this survey. The message appears to be that we have been successful in finding an innovative way of communicating about business and economic news to a local audience.
But our readers also are impatient and are anxious to see better work. "Keep up the good work. But please - let's not have many lead articles about the progress of the insert itself," said one reader, as if to say: Get on with the job. Enough said.