A rather unexpected honor befell me recently: I was elected president of the Catholic Press Association (CPA).
One can only wonder what the voters were thinking when they made this alarming decision, particularly since no one has questioned me about my birth certificate or place of origin. “Erlandson. That’s not a very Catholic-sounding name,” someone should have said.
The CPA celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, but in its long history have its members ever faced a more trying time?
Great changes are afoot in the media world. At the annual CPA convention last month, Helen Osman, the communications director for the U.S. bishops, compared the communications revolution now under way to the arrival of Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press.
And probably like the peers of Gutenberg, we are in a somewhat similar state of confusion. We look through a glass darkly, as St. Paul might say, squinting to see the future being born.
Of course, our revolutionary age is seeing not just one communications technology a la Gutenberg being launched, but dozens, as if the printing press, radio and television had all been born in the same decade.
Just think: In the last half decade, we have seen the arrival of YouTube and Twitter, the rise of Wikipedia and Facebook, the diffusion of the smart phone, the iPad launch and the Great Recession. Who knows what lies ahead in the next five years?
We live in the time of “both/and.” Publishers must provide both print and digital versions of their content. We have websites and social media. We need to charge so we can support our brick and mortar enterprises, but we’re also expected to give content away.
The Catholic media house has many mansions: book publishers, magazine publishers, diocesan newspapers, e-newsletters and old-fashioned newsletters, but we are also joined by bloggers and freelancers of all sorts. Catholic radio and television are in the mix as well.
Once upon a time, the rules of the game were pretty clear: With imprimaturs or various other controls — such as ownership of presses by religious orders — there were safeguards that more or less made sure that what claimed to be Catholic really was. There was a kind of accountability as well as a top-down control.
Now, in the digital world of tweets and posts, just about anyone who wants to call himself a Catholic communicator or journalist can set up shop. Organizations such as the CPA and the bishops themselves are trying to adjust to this reality. What makes something Catholic? Who monitors what claims to be Church teaching? In a fractious Catholic community, who referees? And who listens if he blows his whistle?
Of course, for most Catholic media leaders, debating these more philosophical points is less critical than facing some immediate financial challenges. Many publications, especially diocesan newspapers, are under intense pressure, with papers cutting back their frequency and laying off staff, sometimes even shutting down.
It is understandable that diocesan officials might feel that a website or an e-newsletter is just as good as a newspaper, at a fraction of the cost. But the evidence shows that print media still remains the most effective tool for reaching the most Catholics, a point eloquently made by Pittsburgh’s Bishop David Zubik at the conference.
Even in a “both/and” world, print’s demise has been greatly exaggerated. This doesn’t mean that its existence is assured, however. A renewed appreciation of the greater mission of the Catholic press — to inform and form — is still critically necessary on the part of Church leaders, laity and editors if the Catholic press is to survive and thrive in its second century.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.