I’d like to share with you the text of a speech given at the Vatican by Greg Erlandson, the president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, presented to the Plenary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications on Thursday.
In his speech, Mr. Erlandson discusses the current state of Catholic media in North America, and the important role print and online communications play in not only educating Catholics about their faith, but also in fostering a stronger connection between Catholics and their parish and diocese.
The work we do each and every day at Catholic Stewardship Consultants in helping parishes across the country develop stewardship — in particular, through this blog, our customized parish newsletters, and the many other publications and communication materials we produce for our parish clients — is precisely the model Mr. Erlandson recommends and urges all Catholic parishes to follow. His speech touches on several key points that further explain why increased communications with parishioners through print and online media plays a crucial role in engaging more Catholics in the life of the Church, which is essentially what stewardship is all about.
Mr. Erlandson says print media, such as diocesan newspapers and newsletters, remains the “preferred medium by Catholics of all ages, and it is most likely to reach those Catholics who support diocesan and other church efforts financially. are the “backbone of the Church.” He goes on to say that Catholic media are the “primary form of adult faith formation and information in North America,” and that “when it comes to print, this traditional format is also a classic example of “push technology,” not waiting for a Catholic family to come and visit, but showing up in its mailbox.”
Below is the full text of the speech, which is posted currently on the Our Sunday Visitor website at the following link: http://www.osv.com/BooksNav/OSVAuthors/GregoryErlandson/MediaandtheCatholicChurch/tabid/8739/Default.aspx
Media and the Catholic Church
Presented to the Plenary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications on Sept. 19, 2013
By Greg Erlandson
Thank you for this opportunity to share my assessment of the current state of Catholic media in North America. While my primary experience is in the United States, I believe that at least some of my observations are applicable to Canada as well.
Catholic newspapers were originally launched in the United States with two important purposes. The first was to defend the Church from hostility and misunderstanding in an overwhelmingly Protestant and unsympathetic culture. Subsequent waves of Catholic immigrants — from Germany, Italy, Ireland and Poland — were often greeted with suspicion or hostility. In the early 20th century a publication called “The Menace,” for example, with a weekly circulation of 750,000, bitterly attacked Catholic immigrants for taking jobs from Americans while being beholden to a foreign power: Rome.
The second was to help strengthen a sense of community and a bond with the Church among Catholics who were strangers in this strange land. Catholic media provided information about the Faith, news of the Church — locally, nationally and internationally — and a dedicated channel for Church leaders to speak directly to their people.
For most of our history, Catholic media was primarily understood as print, with national and diocesan publications together printing millions of copies weekly. There were Catholic personalities on radio and television — most famously Bishop Fulton Sheen — but print was the primary medium for Catholic communication.
Today in North America, Catholic communications engages multiple media formats, but print remains a communications backbone in terms of reaching Catholics who are registered in parishes, attend Mass regularly or financially support their parishes (CARA).
According to the 2013 statistics of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, its members total 141 newspapers — national and diocesan — with a combined circulation of 5 million. Seventy magazines had a total circulation of 3.8 million. Other publications total an additional 1.2 million subscribers. Many of these publications depend for much of their news content on wire services: The largest is Catholic News Service, which is owned by the U.S. bishops. A relative newcomer is Catholic News Agency, which is allied with EWTN and Aci Prensa from Peru. Canada has the Canadian Catholic News, a cooperative wire service venture among Canadian Catholic publications, though Catholic News Service is widely used there as well.
Catholic radio is experiencing significant growth in the United States, with 243 stations currently broadcasting and an average of two a month being added. There is currently a campaign by the Catholic Radio Association to add significantly to this number by having dioceses and other Catholic entities apply for low power frequency licenses from the government. Dominant players in Catholic radio include EWTN, Ave Maria, Relevant Radio and Immaculate Heart Radio, among others. There are a small handful of Catholic radio stations in Canada.
Finally, the U.S. Catholic television presence is dominated by the Eternal Word Television Network, but there are diocesan inspired television ministries in Boston, Brooklyn and Trenton, among other places. In Canada, Salt and Light Catholic Television Network broadcasts in four languages and is now carried coast-to-coast 24 hours a day.
Of course, the area that has attracted a great deal of attention is the proliferation of Catholic digital efforts. There is an amazing diversity in Catholic resources on the web, including sites and blogs sponsored by existing Catholic media companies, by other Catholic organizations such as universities and dioceses, or independent efforts such as New Advent or the Catholic portal on Patheos. There are vast numbers of Catholic blogs and Catholic-inspired or sponsored social media efforts.
Getting a solid count on the number of Catholic blogs is nearly impossible, but according to a recent survey, one in 20 self-identified Catholic adults (or 5 percent of the Catholic population, potentially the equivalent of 2.9 million people) reads or follows a blog about the Catholic Church, faith or spirituality.
Despite the rather robust presence suggested by this brief statistical overview, there are many challenges faced by Catholic publishing.
These challenges include first and foremost the great changes taking place in the world of communications. Reading habits are changing, with a growing number of North Americans accessing information through digital readers, mobile devices, tablets and computers. I do not believe that print is dead, but today it is only one of many formats available to Catholics. The audience for traditional media — and this applies to television and radio as well — is also aging. Ironically, surveys show that more older Catholics than younger are visiting Catholic websites and reading Catholic blogs, while among those younger Catholics seeking Catholic resources, they are more likely to read print bulletins and newspapers than visit parish or diocesan websites. Half of all Catholics have no idea that the Church has any presence at all on the web.
Waning Catholic support
There is also the impact of waning religious praxis — evidenced in declining sacramental rates for baptism, first Eucharist and matrimony, and a more widespread shallowness of knowledge about the Faith, including religious language and concepts. One Catholic media company has a list of words to be avoided because they may not be understood, including “catechesis,” “apologetics” and “evangelization.”
More and more Catholics are drawing most of their information about the Church from secular sources. In a culture whose media elite is increasingly secularized, if not explicitly hostile to religious values and teachings, this means that most Catholics are getting news about their own Church from sources that are unlikely to be sympathetic to, or even knowledgeable about, Catholic concerns. Whether Catholics in general are educated enough in their faith to recognize such bias is an open question.
For Catholics who are inclined to read Catholic news and other sources, the issue of trust is significant. A study commissioned by the bishops’ conference found that Catholics who do seek out information have a high trust of their local parish bulletin and their local diocesan newspaper, and do want to find trustworthy web sources, such as Vatican, diocesan or parish websites. Their faith in the news they receive drops dramatically after that. There are many reasons for this, but one can speculate that the ideological divisions in the Church and the lack of any sort of authoritative status for Catholic websites contribute to this lack of trust. There are no recognized imprimaturs for websites or blogs.
A final, and significant, challenge to Catholic print media is the waning support by Catholic dioceses and archdioceses for their diocesan print media. This stems from the financial pressures faced by dioceses — particularly in the wake of both the Great Recession and the devastating financial settlements connected to the sexual abuse scandals. It also stems from a discomfort that Church leaders sometimes have with their role as publishers, a desire to avoid conflict or controversy, and a lack of support by pastors for the diocesan newspaper. As a result, many papers in the past decade have reduced frequency from weekly to biweekly, or biweekly to monthly. Some have ceased publication all together.
The decline of Catholic newspapers has been partially filled by Faith magazine, a Michigan-based monthly Catholic diocesan magazine that is inspirational in tone and has been franchised to more than 20 dioceses as a substitute for a diocesan newspaper. Faith is well produced and attractive, but it is not a primary source of news or analysis.
One unintended consequence of the decline in the diocesan media is that the talent pool for other Catholic publications and communications channels is shrinking, with fewer promotions and new hires coming from the greatly reduced ranks of the diocesan press. This means fewer professional Catholics trained in the profession and the discipline of journalism, which impacts national Catholic media both print and digital as they in turn look for trained and educated staff.
Catholic media opportunities
Despite these challenges, there are also great opportunities in North America for Catholic media, including print.
First, the existing print media structure still has many strengths. While it is costly to maintain, it receives both subscriber and advertiser support with very little in the way of promotion. Print media remains the preferred medium by Catholics of all ages (CARA), and it is most likely to reach those Catholics who support diocesan and other church efforts financially.
As Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh told a gathering of Catholic journalists in 2011:
“I am definitely and decidedly all for using every means of social communication — the Church must do that. But to abandon print is to abandon what remains our most effective means of communication today. I know that in our diocese, those who read the newspaper are the backbone of the Church — it is read by those most involved, those most dedicated, those quite frankly who supply the financial resources to our parishes, schools and diocese.”
Second, Catholic media are the primary form of adult faith formation and information in North America. There is no other effort at the parish or diocesan level that reaches as many Catholics on a continuous basis. And when it comes to print, this traditional format is also a classic example of “push technology,” not waiting for a Catholic family to come and visit, but showing up in its mailbox.
Third, the need for a trustworthy and informed Catholic voice is as great as ever. As in the 19th and early 20th century, the Church today faces an environment that is at best unsympathetic and at worst hostile. Just like a century ago, we are again an immigrant church, and again face racial, ethnic and religious prejudice. Two recent campaigns in the United States — in defense of immigration reform and religious freedom — have shown that without a steady media voice articulating and explaining its position, the Church is likely to be drowned out or dismissed, and even Catholics do not hear its words or respond to its challenges.
Renewed alliance between media and the Church
For this reason, I believe there must be a renewed alliance between media — both traditional and new — and the Church. While there will always be a diversity of viewpoints and editorial positions that can at times be unsettling, for the vast majority of Catholic media efforts and Catholic leaders, there are many benefits to be had from restoring a sense of collaboration between them. Both stand to benefit from a media effort that reaches and engages adult Catholics from every age group and — in the case of the web and social media — is able to contact non-Catholics as well as Catholics.
For this collaboration to be of value, however, I believe that there are three needs that must be addressed above and beyond the merely financial, three needs that may be worthy of focus by this assembly as well.
The first is that Catholic media must themselves renew their own sense of Catholic identity and mission. In its newly drafted mission statement, the Catholic Press Association concluded: “Because we know that the truth will set us free, and because we recognize that humility in the service of truth is the hallmark of every Catholic communicator, we dedicate ourselves to our vocation and profession of Catholic communications on behalf of the Church with integrity, honesty, intelligence and faithfulness.”
Second, there must be a renewed sense of the role of Catholic journalism. This reflection must engage both journalists and Church leaders. It must recognize Catholic journalism as both vocation and profession, a profession with its own high standards of balance in reporting as well as charity in how “the truth should be expressed,” to use the recent words of the Archbishop of Dublin.
Catholic journalism should not view itself as the surly watchdog of Church leaders. At the same time, it is not to be reduced to propaganda, a role that breaks trust with its readers and ultimately brings discredit to itself. A contemporary reflection on the role of the Catholic press in the modern Church should start with the words of our own Archbishop Celli, who in 2012 said, “The Church is not well served by those who … often out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, try to deny the existence of tensions and problems in a manner that ultimately may damage the credibility of the Church.”
In short, Catholic journalists and the Catholic media — whether in print, radio and television, or online, in a variety of new formats — must develop an ethos that is at once loyal, intelligent and honest, dedicated first and foremost to the simple faith assertion that the truth will set us free. Consistently applied, these principles will assure Catholics that Catholic media can continue to be trusted to both report and teach.
Finally, diocesan and national Church leaders — working with the wide variety of Catholic media — print, video, electronic, digital — must develop a unified communications strategy to both reach the Catholic faithful and communicate with the larger society. A centralized, top down command and control structure may have worked once upon a time, but in the multiplicity of media outlets and distribution channels, this is no longer possible. In fact, where bishops once used the media to communicate with their flock, their people now expect to use it to communicate with their shepherd. On the other hand, and adopting the language of Pope Francis, the modern media world allows for many more chances for “an encounter” with Christ and with his Church. One needs only look at the remarkable following of the pope’s Twitter feed, and the equally remarkable readership of his daily homilies, to recognize that a strategy of media diversity will allow us to reach a larger audience than ever before imagined, each at the level that they are ready to engage with.
Such a strategy will confirm the insight of Aetatis Novae when it declared that “Catholic media work is not simply one more program alongside all the rest of the Church’s activities: social communications have a role to play in every aspect of the Church’s mission” (17).
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.