The Catholic Church in South Africa is a much smaller church than that of the United States. There are about 4 million Catholics—roughly 6 to 7 percent of the population. Roughly 2.8 million Catholics speak various local African languages. English-speaking Catholics account for the rest. There is only one Catholic weekly in South Africa: The Southern Cross. The newspaper carries both local and international church news and has been published in English since 1920. At the end of September, the 5000th edition of the newspaper will be published. The current editor, German-born Günther Simmermacher, has been working at the newspaper for 22 years. For 15 of those he has been the editor. I recently spoke to him about Catholic media in South Africa, his impression of the church and how he sees his role as editor.
You have been with The Southern Cross for almost 22 years, 15 of these as editor. The world of media has been revolutionized in those 22 years. The Southern Cross seems to have, so far, “weathered the storm.” What do you attribute this to?
Indeed, the newspaper industry has changed immensely in those two decades; consumer behaviour has changed—in large part because of the stupid decision by most newspapers to give away all their content for free—and that has resulted in declining circulations worldwide. Many long-established newspapers have folded.
We aren’t immune to that, but we have a very loyal core readership that really loves its Catholic weekly. And I hope that the quality of The Southern Cross has fostered that loyalty.
Some publications have panicked and tried to totally reinvent themselves. That sort of thing almost never works. We have confidence in our content, and we try to improve it all the time. But we won’t do anything silly to try and be “with it.”
Do you think that The Southern Cross has exploited new media well enough?
Within our limited resources we’re trying. We were one of the first newspapers in South Africa to offer digital subscriptions, and have more digital subscribers than some well-known secular newspapers. But in the digital world, much of what media organizations are doing is guesswork. We are confident that we are doing the best we can with the limited resources we have.
You speak of limited resources. How many people work full-time to produce this Catholic weekly?
We have a tiny full-time staff: Four in editorial—plus one, who comes in twice a week to proof the issues before they go to print—and five in administration.
What changes in Catholic life have you seen in South Africa over the last two decades?
I see three major areas. Firstly, the church has become more racially integrated. There’s still a long way to go, of course, but we’re on the way.
The African diaspora in South Africa is also having an impact on the local church. Some formerly “white parishes” are now mostly black, with Masses offered for different language groups. We are the universal church; now we have to act like one.
Secondly, the racial composition of the bishops has changed quite dramatically. Twenty years ago there were seven active black African bishops in the S.A.C.B.C. region, four of them in South Africa itself. Now there are 13, and I have no doubt that the number will increase. That has an influence on the way the church thinks and acts throughout the region.
Finally, funding agencies are giving less to the Southern African church now, so we are moving from being a dependent church to one that has to be self-sufficient. We haven’t arrived at that stage yet—we still need funding from overseas—but that is a very significant change.
“Catholic” by its nature is universal and therefore also means, it seems, that there will be differing views and opinions on matters Catholic. The church has always held diversity in its unity. How do you navigate opposing views, conflicting views?
The Southern Cross is the only national Catholic weekly, and that is an advantage in many ways, because we are a meeting point for Catholics who’d otherwise avoid other Catholics who hold conflicting viewpoints.
In countries like Britain or the United States you have different Catholic publications for people holding progressive, moderate, conservative or ultra-conservative views. That breeds a factional church and ghettos of ideology.
Now, we do have factions here in South Africa too, obviously. But at least these factions have a forum where they can meet. So The Southern Cross fulfils the function of being a home to people of diverging viewpoints.
And the fact that these conflicting viewpoints are expressed in the newspaper shows that we are providing a forum for all Catholics.
At times some clergy and hierarchy have taken issue with The Southern Cross because they feel that it does not express what they want to see. What have you learned about handling these situations when they arise in the last 22 years?
A couple of years ago a now-retired bishop wrote to me, saying something like: “There was a time when some people thought that you were not a good choice as editor but few would still say the same today.” Which was very good to hear.
I think that I might have come as something of a shock to the bishops in my early days as editor because The Southern Cross very clearly took positions, which in the climate of the church at the time were controversial and even taboo. I know that especially by speaking out forcefully about the clergy abuse scandal, I didn’t make friends in some quarters.
But since Pope Francis is saying many of the same things now, The Southern Cross isn’t really that “controversial” anymore.
I see The Southern Cross as being very much of the middle-ground. And if one looks back, it always was on most issues, certainly under my editorship and that of my predecessor.
And, of course, when a bishop or priest speaks out against The Southern Cross, that’s actually good marketing for us [laughs]!
How do you as editor—especially in the papacy of Pope Francis who generates headlines weekly—decide on lead stories every week?
There’s no science to it. On the front page, as a rule we try to have South African stories. And we look at stories that will inform, edify and/or entertain our readers, or make points that can inform our Catholic conscience.
We don’t seek controversy and don’t think it’s a selling point. As a journalist, I love working in an environment where we don’t need to do controversy or stitch people up.
Have you ever regretted any stories you published?
Oh, of course there are a few that could have been handled better. Stories with errors are annoying for any editor. Though we have remarkably few of those, in comparison to some other publications.
There is one story which I think was unfair to the priest involved, but that had more to do with the lack of cooperation from his diocese. We gave him the right to respond, and we resolved the issue amicably with the priest.
And that’s important: If we mess up, we must try to fix it.
What has been the highlight of your time at The Southern Cross?
The most incredible story was when an appeal we ran for a kidney donor for a teenage lad resulted in a kidney transplant, with the donor a future priest. That was a powerful experience.
It’s amazing how a newspaper can change lives. I also treasure the story of the prison inmate who decided to convert to Catholicism on the strength of having read The Southern Cross. That is humbling.
And for you, as a journalist?
There was a regular letter writer of a very conservative bent. He was not happy when I became editor. A late colleague told me that when he informed the regular of my appointment as editor he “turned on his heels and walked away, in disgust.”
Sometime later this same man phoned me about some amendment or other to a letter he had submitted. And then said: “You know, Mr Simmermacher, I really enjoy reading The Southern Cross these days.”
Around the same time Archbishop Hurley was also very complimentary about my work, which meant a lot to me.
What is the biggest challenge you, as editor, face today?
Keeping people like both Hurley and the letter writer I mentioned happy. I really mean that!
The challenge, as editor, is to produce a quality newspaper that can bring together people of different perspectives, backgrounds and education, and that all of them find something that speaks to them in The Southern Cross.
That’s what I hope to accomplish.