Vatican’s vast media

While the Church’s relationship with the media has a long and, at times, tense history, what is often less noticed is the Vatican’s own significant and long-standing presence in a wide variety of communications media.

As a member of the Vatican Media Committee appointed by the Council of Cardinals in 2014, I have a deep appreciation for the range and depth of the Vatican’s media efforts, which stretches from print and radio to video, the Internet and social media. It is, in fact, this extensive range of communications efforts that prompted the creation of the media committee. In his statement announcing the appointment of the committee’s six “international” and three Italian members, Cardinal George Pell of Australia charged it with three tasks:

“The objectives are to adapt the Holy See media to changing media consumption trends, enhance coordination and achieve progressively and sensitively substantial financial savings. Building on the recent positive experiences with initiatives such as the pope app and the Holy Father’s Twitter account, digital channels will be strengthened to ensure the Holy Father’s messages reach more of the faithful around the world, especially young people.”

The statement makes clear that the Vatican recognizes the impact of the digital revolution. It also recognized that in today’s 24/7 media market, coordination between varieties of media (print, digital, radio, etc.) is of critical importance. All major secular media organizations from Rupert Murdoch’s empire to Time Warner understand this to be so.

For the Vatican, its media empire starts with its daily newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, founded in 1861. It also publishes weekly editions in seven languages. For decades, it has published the many texts of the pope as well as covered both Italian domestic and foreign events. Under the stewardship of Giovanni Maria Vian, a member of the Vatican Media Committee, the articles — particularly in the culture section — have grown more interesting and topical, and the paper has become less Italian-centric and more international.

Vatican Radio broadcasts in more than 40 languages in short- and medium-range formats. It was established in 1931 with the help of Guglielmo Marconi, often credited as the father of the radio because of his scientific work. The Vatican has long been proud of its ability to broadcast around the world, including in countries where Catholics are often severely persecuted and the Church is restricted in its presence.

The Vatican publishing house (Libreria Editrice Vaticana or LEV) was founded in 1926. It publishes official documents as well as a wide variety of trade books, and today it owns three bookshops as well. The Vatican also has a photography service and a printing press operation capable of producing both books and newspapers.

The Vatican Internet office is responsible for Vatican.va and some dozens of other websites, while the Vatican TV office provides video coverage of all significant Vatican events. In the 21st century arrived new media channels, including a widely popular Pope App and a Vatican aggregator site known as News.va, both developed by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. In terms of social media, the Twitter account of Pope Francis (@Pontifex) has more than 19 million followers.

Finally, there is the Vatican press office, headed by Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi. While social media allows the pope direct access to millions of Catholics and non-Catholics, the press office handles formal media queries, press briefings and conferences, and plays an important facilitating role for the world’s media during such major Vatican events as conclaves and synods.

For any organization as bound by tradition as the Vatican, the status quo responds slowly to change. But for any media organization in the 21st century, change is the only constant. The challenge facing the Vatican is how its vast media efforts and the hardworking and committed staff who serve them will function in the multichannel, multiformat 24/7 media environment of the 21st century.

Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.