Greg Erlandson is a lay Catholic journalist, editor and author who will become the director and editor in chief of Catholic News Service (CNS) on Sept. 12. Before being name to this post on July 20, he served 15 years as president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, a national Catholic publisher based in Indiana. He is also a former president of the Catholic Press Association.
Mr. Erlandson has also served as consultor for the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. In 2014, the Council of Cardinals appointed him as one of six international experts to the Vatican Media Committee to seek ways to reform the Vatican’s press operations. His earlier jobs include working as a foreign correspondent in the Rome bureau of Catholic News Service from 1986 to 1989 and serving as news editor for the National Catholic Register when it was based in Los Angeles. He co-authored the book “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal” (2010).
On July 27, I interviewed Mr. Erlandson by email about his work and the Vatican’s media strategy.
You recently were appointed director and editor in chief of Catholic News Service (CNS), which you served as a Rome correspondent in the 1980s. What is CNS and what are your goals for its future?
Catholic News Service is a wire service, like Associated Press or Reuters, which publishes articles, columns and other features for use by client publications throughout North America and around the world. It also has photo and video services serving clients and an active social media presence.
Although I am familiar with CNS, I still have a lot to learn, and I look forward to meeting with CNS staff and with senior leaders at the U.S.C.C.B. I will say that my goal for CNS is not simply to survive, but to thrive, and to fulfill our mission with passion and with professionalism.
You led Our Sunday Visitor, the leading English-language Catholic publisher, for 15 years before being named to the CNS editor’s job that you will officially start Monday, Sept. 12. What do you bring from that experience to your new job?
I started as editor of OSV Newsweekly in 1989 after having served for three years in the CNS Rome bureau. My background is journalism, and even as president, I maintained a close involvement with the Newsweekly. I’m a lifelong news junkie and have a passion for the Catholic news business. It is this experience and this passion which I will be bringing to my new job.
But Our Sunday Visitor also afforded me incredible opportunities to grow and to learn—about magazine publishing and book publishing as editor in chief, and then about publishing parish resources and religious education curricula as president and publisher. This has given me a deep appreciation for the multi-faceted, multi-channel world of Catholic publishing. Catholic publishing in this country is a phenomenal enterprise, for the most part not church-owned, yet dedicated to the mission of the church. It gives people—educators, pastors, bishops—real choices. I firmly believe that, collectively, the Catholic publishing enterprise is one of the crown jewels of the U.S. church. It is my hope that Catholic News Service will continue to serve this enterprise with excellence, and that we will find ways to draw upon the resources of, and work collegially with, our colleagues in Catholic publishing.
You have also served as president of the Catholic Press Association. What did you take away from that experience that stays with you today?
Serving as president of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada was a tremendous experience. I had a terrific board of directors, and I got to know so many Catholic editors, publishers and journalists. My respect for them grew as I learned about the challenges they face. So many Catholic editors are running a marathon on a starvation diet. Budgets are cut, frequency is reduced, quality suffers, and then they are told that their readership is down and they have to do things differently.
In this world of multiple communications channels and constricted resources, Catholic News Service is an important partner and collaborator with diocesan newspapers, websites and communications staff in serving Catholics in the pew both in this country and abroad. By helping them meet the needs of their readers and keeping them informed, we are providing a vital service for the church as a whole.
You’ve consulted for the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, and, in 2014, the Council of Cardinals created by Pope Francis commissioned you and five other international media experts to help reform the Vatican’s communications strategy. What did you learn from this experience?
It was a tremendous honor to be the only North American representative on the Vatican Media Committee, which was chaired by Lord Christopher Patten. This committee was one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences I have ever had.
What I find so hopeful about that experience is that the Vatican proved itself willing to double down on its investment in media. This is the significance of creating a communications secretariat and upping its stature while at the same time giving it the mandate of multiplying its impact through both leadership and collaboration. Yes, expenses must be cut, but dismantling some of the Vatican’s media silos will uncover opportunities to do that. Dismantling some of the silos will also make Vatican media more effective.
As for the P.C.S.C., I can’t praise enough the work of Archbishop Claudio Celli and Msgr.—now Bishop—Paul Tighe. They embraced the digital age and at the same time established collegial bonds with Catholic media around the world. Their leadership at a pivotal time when social and digital media were first erupting as a worldwide phenomenon was really prophetic.
As you see it, what’s the value of the Catholic press today?
We are inundated by information, and it arrives often instantaneously and unbidden on our tablets and smartphones. We are all aware of the basics: who, what,and where. But we are starved for the why. We are lacking context. Our information literally and figuratively is a news feed scroll, rushing by us like a fast moving river.
Understanding the significance of what we are seeing, putting it in context, avoiding the herd mentality that typifies much of news feed journalism—that is the task that the Catholic press can and must assume.
In addition, there is a lot of garbage out there. The Internet is still the Wild West, with unchecked rumors and unmonitored trolls distracting our attention and causing divisiveness and confusion. In the 18th century Jonathan Swift wrote that “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” The only difference in the 21st century is that the lies travel even faster. The Catholic press has a critical role to play here. This will take some courage. It also will call for professionalism and restraint in the face of really un-Christian hatefulness and arrogance, often driven by ideologies and agendas hostile to the church or its leaders.
Finally, Catholic media—independent and church-owned—are the only really consistent effort made at adult faith formation. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the Catholic press helps Catholics become more knowledgeable not just about current events, but about their faith and how it applies today.
The Catholic press has always been a small part of the press at large, but print journalism in particular appears to be in decline, with the ongoing downsizing of newspapers and other print outlets appearing to have no end in sight. As head of CNS, how do you intend to respond to this situation?
Yes, the Catholic press is a niche, and in many ways we should see ourselves as an alternative press. We are often covering the stories ignored or poorly reported by the secular media.
Yes, print journalism is under enormous stress, and it is a matter of revenues—ad revenue or subscription revenue. Yet the Catholic press is needed now more than ever. We need that alternative press that articulates a third way, that challenges the ideological assumptions of much of the media—both left and right—and that strengthens and informs the faithful.
This is obviously no longer a job just for print. Print remains the ultimate push technology, inserting itself into the home and accessible by anyone walking by the coffee table. It needs to be intelligent and graphically engaging to do its job well, and its job is needed now more than ever.
Social media—in all its rapid permutations and viral capabilities—is a terrific tool. So is video—a new frontier with its citizen journalists on one hand and its hunger for high-quality and effective story-telling on the other.
Finally, there is audio, especially radio. Catholics are beginning to take back drive time, but we need to mature quickly in terms of quality presentations.
Catholic News Service has access to these resources. Its challenge is integrating them and making them available to its clients in ways that their audiences will find most useful or appealing.
In our sound bite-driven digital culture, people often seem to react to things before reading them, leading many public figures to limit their media contact to very tightly controlled and brief statements. Yet the Vatican, thinking in centuries, continues to address documents of several hundred pages to ordinary people who do not know what to do with them. Recent popes, when asked to explain them in press conferences, often find themselves misinterpreted to suit different secular agendas. In this context, what do you see as the most serious challenges for the Catholic press today?
Well, this is certainly one more reason for a vibrant Catholic press, to help clarify the confusion and provide context to the sound bite. The challenge is to be informed, authoritative, intelligent, responsive. We have some well-educated Catholic journalists and editors, but we need to be looking toward the next generation. This is something that the Catholic Press Association can help address with its professional training webinars and courses.
Pope Francis has often talked about preferring a “Church of accidents” to a church closed in on itself. Circling the wagons, or on the other hand playing it safe and avoiding controversy, is no way to bear witness to the Gospel.
The church is a 2000-year-young embodiment of God’s love for us. It is dedicated to the renewal of the world and the salvation of souls. It doesn’t fulfill its mission by playing it safe or by being forever in a defensive posture.
Today what the Catholic press needs to do is report intelligently, honestly and from a perspective of faith, thus helping to both inform and educate Catholics. More educated and more intelligent listeners are the best antidote to the superficial, even erroneous reporting that one can find in the general media when it comes to church documents and statements.
It sometimes feels like the Catholic press, following the secular press, remains firmly wedded to 20th century methods of communication (wire services, press releases, radio, television, websites, carrier pigeon, etc.) which are now rapidly diminishing in influence as “new media” surges. While traditional communications platforms will always remain important, it is also clear that no institution can survive if it does not find a way to also utilize the latest tools of communion to share its message. What are your specific hopes for the Catholic press to embrace new forms of media in the future?
Well, we’ve not used carrier pigeons for months now. In truth, it is true that every media organization is seeking to use the latest tools to communicate. The challenge is finding the way to invest in the right tools, and to afford our both/and environment: print, blogging and social media, YouTube and livestreaming services like Periscope and Facebook Live, Instagram and photo services.
Catholic media doesn’t have to be on the bleeding edge of technology. But it needs to stay relevant and it must be obsessed with reaching its audience in the most effective ways possible.
If you could say one thing right now to Pope Francis about the U.S. Catholic press, what would it be?
Give an exclusive interview to Catholic News Service! We’ll make sure to get his words out to the vast panoply of Catholic publications we serve!
Any final thoughts?
We need Catholic communicators to care passionately about the church, and we need church leaders—at the parish, the chancery and nationally—to care passionately about Catholic communications.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.