VATICAN CITY — The Catholic press in the United States can be forgiven for feeling beleaguered. Circulation is flat or declining for most publications. Catholic reading habits have changed. New technologies and means of distribution are allowing a proliferation of alternative, usually free, websites, blogs and social media to provide information and opinion to the most dedicated or devout. The majority of Catholics, on the other hand, see nothing wrong with getting the information they need about the Church from a secular media that is often hostile or uncomprehending.
Diocesan newspapers in many places are faced with waning support from their bishop publishers. Staff cuts hurt quality, and more and more are feeling the pressure to put their information online, even if it is unlikely to reach most of the potential Catholic audience in all but a few cases.
Shrinking markets, rising costs and changing consumer preferences all spell trouble, but a recent Vatican conference on the role and mission of the Catholic press reminded U.S. and other Catholic journalists that this is only part of the story.
More than 200 people from 85 countries listened to their peers address such topics as the rise of the Internet and new digital tools for distributing content, declining or changing readership, the abuses and potential of social media, and the ongoing need for both resources and editorial professionalism at the Oct. 4-7 Congress on the Catholic Press sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. I attended the conference along with Msgr. Owen F. Campion, OSV’s associate publisher.
The conference veered between a profound concern for the many changes now confronting the Catholic, and secular, press and an energetic optimism about how the new communications tools may allow Catholic communicators to be more effective.
Pope Benedict XVI, speaking to conference participants on the last day, echoed what was heard in the conference hall. “The media world is experiencing a profound transformation,” he said.
The pope stressed the role of truth, and expressed concern when virtual reality supplants reality, and truth and falsehood become indistinguishable.
“The search for truth must be pursued by Catholic journalists with passionate minds and hearts, but also with the professionalism of competent workers with sufficient and effective instruments.”
The conference was the fifth in a series sponsored by the pontifical council since Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli became its president. The archbishop stressed the conference did not have a pre-established conclusion: “We need to listen to each other, listen to the Spirit.”
The attendees from North and South America, Asia, Africa and Europe first heard what the situation was in the West: Amy Mitchell, of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, reported on the massive changes in the secular media, particularly noting the decline of daily newspapers and the shrinking staffs that provide the solid news reporting that the Internet tends to rely on. She documented trends in newspapers’ use of the Web and alliances they are forming both with other media operations and with their own readers and “citizen journalists.” Her bottom line: Journalism was no longer a product but a service.
Austrian media professional Michael Pruller took a somewhat contrarian view, noting the worldwide growth in newspapers and advertising, primarily in the Third World. In the West newspaper readership had been declining since the 1960s, and he refused to blame the Internet. He also argued that the business model for online success is still not clear, and that even if newspapers are in decline, they are more likely to be profitable than online efforts.
New media’s impact
The rest of the conference looked at the new media and its impact, opportunities and threats, and what the mission of the Catholic media looks to be in this brave new world we are still entering.
As president of Our Sunday Visitor, I spoke on the situation in the United States, expressing concern for the lack of education of many potential Catholic readers in their faith and the growing distrust of institutions that permeates American society. Both lead to a waning Catholic identity, with Catholics relying less on Catholic journalism for their news.
While these concerns were shared in other countries, the news was not all bleak.
Indeed, new social media like Facebook and Twitter, as well as widespread Catholic blogs, were having an impact in attracting new readers and adding liveliness to the Catholic conversation that was often not found in print media. Anna Arco of the Catholic Herald in England gave an impassioned survey of the Catholic blogging world. She acknowledged the dangers posed by blogs in terms of increasing polarization and anger within the Church. But she suggested that bloggers offer Catholics a more immediate and personal connection.
“In an age when people are cynical about the messages they receive from the hierarchical Church and the traditional media and are used to spin, the Catholic blogosphere can offer a refreshing antidote: Genuine discussion and genuine witness by real people,” she said.
Helen Osman, spokeswoman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke about the conference’s efforts to adapt to the new media, and praised the speed with which she is able to reach people through Facebook and Twitter.
“There are risks to engaging in social media,” Osman said. “But the greater risk may be NOT to engage. In the English language group in which I participated, everyone noted that the readers of our print publications are getting older. Almost half of the ‘fans’ on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Facebook page ... are under age 35. We can reach an audience with social media that we can not reach with our print publications.”
In other parts of the world, Catholic print media have problems besides changing readership. Harassment by non-Christian majorities, economic pressures and a lack of cheap Internet access were some of the problems recounted by speakers from India, Nigeria and elsewhere.
Work in progress
The conference succeeded in bringing together Catholic media professionals and allowing them to connect and hear each other’s stories. The role of the Catholic press in the 21st century is a work in progress, however. The relationship between an increasingly decentralized media world, particularly on the Internet, and a centralized Church authority still needs to be addressed. The need for the resources and investment in professional journalists who understand the Church and can communicate effectively both with Catholics and non-Catholics is also critical if we are not to become simply a forum for highly opinionated people shouting at each other.
What needs to be reconstructed is a spirit of collaboration between Church authorities and the Catholic press. Both have necessary roles in the new communications world being born. If the conference is a step forward in enabling a broader appreciation and collaboration between Church and media, it will have been a success.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.