In September 2014, a committee of six international Catholic media experts along with five Vatican officials began a series of meetings to review the Vatican’s hydra-headed, highly siloed media operations. Our appointment came from the Council of Cardinals, and our mandate from Cardinal George Pell of Australia laid out three priorities: a more effective embrace of new media, better cost control and improved collaboration among the various Vatican media entities.
After half a year of meetings, interviews, field trips and debate, our committee in March 2015 recommended a dramatic restructuring of the media operations. Our recommendations were in large part accepted, and in the remainder of 2015 a series of changes were made, beginning with the creation of a new Secretariat for Communications under the leadership of Msgr. Dario Viganò, until then the energetic leader of the Vatican’s television office.
How this restructuring will fare in the change-averse corridors of the Vatican remains to be seen, but I took heart from the fact that Pope Francis and the cardinals were in essence doubling down on the importance of a multipronged media effort to communicate with the world. The key to the committee’s recommendations was its recognition that the real payoff of the proposed reorganization would be in the multiplier effect of all the Vatican media arms working together. This collaboration would demand an enlightened leadership team that, while recognizing the unique needs and capacities of each medium, would for the first time coordinate resources, messaging and staff, bringing the power of print, digital, video and audio together.
A Distress Call
I left Rome optimistic that the fruit of such a reorganization may well be a world-class Catholic media operation that more effectively communicates the Gospel, the mission of the church and the vision of the pope. Back in the United States, however, pessimism may be more the order of the day. Our own Catholic media seems in disarray and retreat at a time when it is needed more than ever.
Rates of Catholic affiliation and sacramental practice are falling, and movements and ideologies contrary to Catholic thought are increasingly effective in dominating cultural conversations.
Yet it is exactly at this moment in history when we are seeing a general decline in the diocesan Catholic press in terms of frequency, news focus and numbers. Earlier this year, The Catholic Chronicle, the newspaper of the Diocese of Toledo, shut its doors after 82 years, citing financial reasons. Other events are also contributing to the feeling that the Catholic media industry is in decline.
Just in the past few months The Boston Globe’s quixotic two-year effort to develop an ad-based business model for its website Crux foundered (though John Allen quickly arranged a second act for Crux thanks to the support of the Knights of Columbus). And the bishops’ own Catholic News Service has been under economic pressure for some years as its competition has increased while its client publications—primarily diocesan publications—have been cutting frequency and changing formats.
According to figures released by the Catholic Press Association, its newspaper members have declined 17 percent in the last 10 years and its magazine members by 25 percent. Not all of this membership slippage reflects closures, but it is one gauge of the Catholic media’s general decline.
Catholic newspapers are in crisis today, and Catholic print media is bleeding. Identifying a cause is to a certain extent a chicken-and-egg challenge. Reduced circulation, declining budgets and scaled back editorial and design resources weaken publications, which in turn leads to further losses in both readers and budgets.
In addition, the digital world has introduced a host of new competitors: blogs; news aggregator sites, like New Advent; and various news feeds, like Aleteia, Zenit, News.va, Crux and the Catholic News Agency, many of which operate on a donation-based rather than a subscriber model.
Under this relentless pressure, Catholic weeklies become biweeklies, become monthly magazines, become websites. Our Sunday Visitor’s O.S.V. Newsweekly is the last truly weekly national Catholic newspaper, and only about 18 percent of diocesan publications currently publish 45 or more times a year, making timeliness and relevance an always greater challenge.
Because salaries and paper/print/postage are the two biggest areas of expense, finance departments target both. Staff is reduced. Experience and talent are judged to offer an insufficient return on investment. (“I know we can’t afford anyone other than the new and inexperienced,” one bishop told me years ago. “After five years, they’ll have to move on.”) The allure of digital media promises an end to paper, print and postage costs. If the diocesan site can simply aggregate press releases and news from other feeds, it barely even needs staff, the reasoning goes.
Each cut leads almost inevitably to further cuts. And cut by cut, closure by closure, one of the glories of the Catholic Church in the United States is fading away. Catholic readership is declining in many areas, but in the diocesan press, the decline particularly affects whom the bishops are speaking to and how effectively they speak.
Don’t Stop the Presses!
The irony is that polling data continues to show that Catholics trust their own media and particularly rely on its print incarnations.
A survey in 2011 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate of self-identified Catholics found that 26 percent of Catholics had read a print diocesan publication in the previous three months. Only 3 percent reported reading an online version of a diocesan newspaper. The poll said 18 percent of adult Catholics typically read a print copy at least once a month.
For engaged Catholics, those who attend Mass weekly, 55 percent read a print version of their diocesan publications weekly. CARA found that older Catholics are more likely to read a print publication than one online, and the same holds true for millennials. While 22 percent of millennials had read a print copy in the previous three months, only 4 percent had read the publication online.
A Marist Poll commissioned by the Knights of Columbus before the visit of Pope Francis in September 2015 looked in part at the news media in the context of the pope’s visit. It reported that a resounding 69 percent of practicing Catholics trust Catholic news outlets by a significant margin over secular print, television or digital outlets.
While Catholic news media usage could benefit from more—and more current—data, some observations can be made. The first is that there is no single silver bullet for reaching Catholics. The strong tradition of print Catholic media continues to have a hold on Catholic readers. This is particularly true of older Catholics, who often are the most consistent donors and have the time and inclination to be highly engaged. Rather than being disdainful of this audience, a parish or diocese should strive to stay connected with it.
Second, digital is attracting a certain percentage of Catholics, but its reach can be overstated. Surveys show that Catholics are more likely to visit a parish website than a diocesan, U.S.C.C.B. or Vatican site, but researchers suggest this may be simply for the purpose of finding out the times for Masses or other events. A large percentage of Catholics have no significant awareness of the Catholic online presence.
Investment is often justified in the digital arena as a way to reach a broader audience, but the metrics of success rarely get beyond boasts about numbers of pageviews or numbers of unique visitors. Who is looking, what they are looking at and how long they are looking at it or, indeed, what impact any of these pageviews are having, is left to a large extent unexplored. And the digital landscape is constantly reinventing itself, making investment both risky and effective only over a short term.
Digital is and will be a powerful communications medium, but print remains the ultimate “push” technology. It arrives weekly or biweekly and by doing so demands attention. As marketers and e-retailers can testify, email inboxes are crowded, and mobile media apps, while efficient, succeed if they meet a great need but are more likely to languish unused. One estimate is that 60 percent of mobile applications are never downloaded. Another 25 percent of all applications downloaded between 2011 and 2015 were opened only once.
Keeping Faith With Catholic Media
In this time of great cultural transition, the church faces some significant challenges in its use of media. For the foreseeable future, the only sound strategy is both/and rather than either/or, but the temptation to cut print efforts weakens communications efforts as a whole.
There are better arguments for the Catholic press, however, than the Monty Pythonesque “We’re not dead yet.” Indeed, the need for a viable, effective Catholic press remains great.
Whatever one thinks of the quality of secular media, its media coverage of the church is uneven at best, whether in newspapers, radio or television. At a time when the church often seeks to be engaged in the great issues of the day, its voice barely rises above a whisper in most settings. Stories about Pope Francis get play because he attracts readers, which is fine. But so do abuse stories. Stories about where bishops stand on particular issues, reports on events or issues from a Catholic perspective or profiles of Catholics who are living lives in fidelity to the Gospel are rare to nonexistent in secular media.
For Catholic media to make a difference, however, it needs to cultivate and highlight its own Catholic journalists, photojournalists, editors and designers who have, or should have, the knowledge to report accurately on local, national and global events relevant to a Catholic audience.
Accurate reporting of the news is a critical need if the church is also interested in both mobilization and formation. Regarding mobilization, it is only the Catholic media that can get the word out on events of importance, whether that is the “24 Hours for the Lord” initiative, immigration rallies or religious liberty campaigns. This kind of mobilization necessarily involves social media for specific events, but it is traditional news reporting, backgrounders and analysis that educate and arouse the interest of Catholics and explain what is important about the event.
And formation is one of the aspects of Catholic news media that is least discussed. For while the bishops have often talked about the importance of adult faith formation, Catholic news media remain the primary means of this formation. The regular appearance of a Catholic publication with news, analysis, columns and features in a virtual or actual mailbox does more to help form adult Catholics than any other method or tool.
For the Catholic press to survive, however, it will need more than lukewarm support or elitist disdain. It cannot continue to be kept on a low-budget, low-quality strategy of making-do. If church leaders want a vibrant Catholic media that can gain readers’ attention in a media-saturated environment, their leadership is critical.
First, we must make our own Catholic media a priority. This means investing in quality. Ours is a media-savvy world that expects strong writing and good graphics. Catholic readers want their press to provide context and inspiration. They are not looking for a safe, sanitized and noncontroversial publication that seems disconnected from what is happening in their communities and the larger world.
Making Catholic media a priority means offering not just resources, but also time and attention. If there is a church announcement or a scoop about church issues to be offered, it should not be going to the local secular news outlets first. That makes the diocesan media report on it days or weeks later look late or irrelevant. Use the diocesan media to make the big reveals and then direct the secular media to that source.
Second, we must keep the editor and the communications director in the inner circle. Papers where directors are aware of the priorities and concerns of the church’s leadership—whether at the Vatican or in a chancery—are much more likely to produce useful, informative and relevant publications.
Third, we should take a cue from Rome: Look at ways to integrate diocesan communications efforts. The divide between the communications director and the editor is fading in many chanceries in part because increasingly one is becoming the other. This blurring of lines offers its own risks, and it is also not a substitute for strategy. Whatever the outreach to the community—print, social media, websites, radio, television and other parish-linked communications efforts—there should be a collaborative and flexible strategy for getting the word out. It is critical that the integrity of each media channel be recognized.
A newspaper is not a collection of press releases. A Catholic nonprofit radio station not owned by the diocese must be seen as independent. Yet a sound, integrated communications strategy that engages Catholic media leaders collaboratively will pay great dividends for the church. This strategy can connect geographically far-flung dioceses or culturally diverse ones. It can also compensate for spotty or even hostile coverage in secular media outlets.
Fourth, we should put our mouth where our money is: Challenge Catholics to read, listen and learn. Bishops, pastors and educators have extraordinary influence if they make this a regular part of their messaging in homilies, talks and off-the-cuff remarks. Catholic media, especially local Catholic media, needs to be promoted.
Finally, we must support national Catholic media organizations that seek to promote best practices and professional training for their members. There are several, but the one I have been closely connected with is the Catholic Press Association. Its recently revived consultation process, funded in part by the Catholic Communication Campaign, is being used by more and more bishops. It is helping diocesan publications address their many challenges with the assistance of outside expertise.
One of the strategic goals of the press association is the professional development of its members through webinars and conferences. Decades ago, there was a school for Catholic journalists in Denver that taught both the professional craft of journalism and the teachings of the church.
Now, as then, those entering the Catholic press could benefit from opportunities to develop their journalistic skills and their knowledge of the church they are covering. A short-term strategy of low-paid positions occupied for brief periods of time benefits no one, neither the readers nor the church. The church needs to foster the vocation of professional Catholic communicators who strive for the highest standards of quality and who are capable of engaging the issues and events of the day as well as the teachings of the church in a context that is thoroughly Catholic.
The tumultuous changes now rocking journalism will surely continue. With thousands of jobs slashed and newspapers becoming thinner, traditional journalism is hurting even as the need for an intelligent parsing of the day’s events becomes more critical. I do not know where journalism will end up, but I know for certain that it will not end. It is an indispensable pillar of our democracy, and it is equally indispensable for our church.