There is always a moment when my seatmate on a long plane trip asks me, “So what do you do?”
Telling someone you work for a Catholic publishing company can be a bit of “conversation contraception,” as in the questioner gets a slightly worried look and gives the kind of response that makes it clear there will be no further questions that don’t involve sports.
But just as often someone will be interested in pursuing the conversation, and many times the person is a Catholic. Ask a few more questions and I find that he is usually unfamiliar with most Catholic media. In fact, when one looks at surveys of Catholic media usage, it is striking how many have no contact with Catholic newspapers or magazines, with Catholic television or radio, with Catholic websites or books.
Having spent more than 30 years in the Catholic press, and just concluding two years as president of the Catholic Press Association, it pains me to ask if we really need Catholic journalism anymore.
In the middle part of the last century there was a robust Catholic press. There were training schools for Catholic journalists, publications with a million or more circulation, and a robust book publishing environment. Not coincidentally this was a golden age of Catholic lay organizations. In addition, there was often — if not always — a collaborative relationship between pastor and publications. Catholic media were appreciated for helping foster knowledge of the Faith and strengthening Catholic identity among a growing Catholic populace.
Today looks quite different. There are small numbers of highly committed Catholics who avail themselves of Catholic periodicals, books, television and radio. I include the readers of OSV Newsweekly in that hardy band. Most Catholics, however, feel no particular need to get their news about the Church or the world from a Catholic publication or website. They may occasionally read a Catholic book, but it is just as likely they will read a Protestant book.
Changing reading habits and technologies are having a growing economic impact. Many publications are closing or cutting back. The economics of book publishing in our brave new digital world is squeezing publishers (and authors).
The spirit of collaboration between pastor and publisher has waned as well, often because of a distrust or insecurity about what is being published and by whom. Yet right now there is more reason than ever to need solid Catholic coverage of a wide variety of issues, because an authentic Catholic viewpoint is rarely given voice in the secular media. In truth, the Church has no really effective method of adult Faith formation except for the Catholic press.
Whether learning about the provocative homilies of Pope Francis or finding out what a “Fortnight for Freedom” is, the Catholic press is irreplaceable. Yet saying so doesn’t make it so. This time of constriction and closure is also a time for Catholic journalists to be asking, “What does it mean to be a Catholic journalist?”
Russell Shaw, the dean of Catholic commentators, told me not long ago that a Catholic journalist is called to be honest, intelligent and loyal. I think that’s not a bad place to start. We aren’t propagandists. We shouldn’t speak down to our audience. Nor should we view ourselves as self-appointed scourges of our Church and its leadership.
Ours is both vocation and profession, and our service to the Church occasionally comes in the form of greater transparency and some discomfort. But whether we are communicating to tens of thousands or the guy next to me in Row 10, honesty, intelligence and loyalty are a good place to start.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.