Loss of print media seen as posing challenges to U.S. church communications

Now, readers of The Tablet, the newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY, see something on the paper’s website that only consumers of media like NPR were previously aware of.

A “Support Us” tab takes viewers to a site where they are asked to sign up for a tiered subscription program that allows them to directly support the operation of the paper, with additional benefits available for each level of financial support.

This approach to funding a leading Catholic newspaper such as The Tablet, published since 1908 and serving a population of around 1.3 million, is just one indicator of the massive changes happening to the Catholic media in the United States.

The Catholic media, like their secular counterparts, are facing a day of reckoning due to the rapid transition from print media to digital media, as well as the financial challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors. In both sectors, the work of professional journalists with years of experience is often sidelined in favor of rapid-fire content created for digital consumption, often heavy on opinion without the support of serious news facts.

This is a November 29, 2022, screenshot of The Tablet, newspaper of the Diocese of Brooklyn, NY (CNS/The Tablet screenshot)

“The current state of Catholic journalism needs to be put in context with the state of journalism in general – it is fragile,” said Helen Osman, a veteran Catholic journalist who was appointed by Pope Francis in September as a Vatican adviser to the Dicastery for Communication.

Osman is a former diocesan editor and communications secretary for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, who is president of Signis, the World Catholic Association for Communication. She is currently a communications consultant for the Texas Conference of Catholic Bishops in Austin.

“There are solid and credible journalists and journalism agencies in both the secular and Catholic worlds, but right now both are struggling with the idea that that’s somehow news or journalism just because you see it on the screen,” she said. “We know that’s not the case.”

Change has come wildly through the Catholic media landscape especially since the pandemic began, when many dioceses saw a drop in income as Catholics stopped attending Mass. . In 2021, among the casualties was The Catholic Miscellany of the Diocese of Charleston, SC, then the oldest Catholic newspaper in the country. It has since been replaced by a magazine of the same name.

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This year, the closings came even faster, including the loss of the Catholic Sentinel, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore., and Catholic New York, the biweekly paper of the Archdiocese of New York, which published the last November 17.

One of the biggest and most widespread blows came with the May announcement by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that the home offices of the Catholic News Service would be closed, leaving only the Rome bureau. The CNS bureau in New York closed on May 29 and operations in Washington will cease on December 31.

The loss of traditional print media and layoffs of Catholic journalists create a variety of communication problems of concern for the church, according to Catholic media veterans.

One of the biggest concerns is that the loss of professional journalists covering Catholic issues puts the church at risk of reporting news from a skewed or incorrect perspective. Some journalists, such as Osman, fear that the reporting of real news is being lost as some bishops and publishers favor turning to more closely controlled content that only leans towards a certain point of view. Others are wary of what can be achieved simply through digital media.

“Social media is not journalism,” said Vito Formica, executive director of content news and development for DeSales Media, the Brooklyn-based Catholic news agency whose products include The Tablet.

Rob DeFrancesco, now executive director of the Catholic Media Association, is pictured June 21, 2019, at the Catholic Media Conference in St. Petersburg, Fla. . (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

“It doesn’t provide fact-checking in most cases, as well as the perspectives reporters can bring to coverage. A two-line social media post won’t do the job of a professional journalist,” he told CNS. “A newspaper not only reports the news as it happens, but compiles history and a forum of ideas.”

Ed Langlois, former editor of the Catholic Sentinel, said that many Catholic papers not only helped readers learn more about their faith, but also made them feel connected to the church as a whole.

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“Taking hundreds of letters from grieving readers, I decided that our newspaper was the connective tissue of the diocese,” Langlois said. “It enabled parishioners to borrow ideas and be inspired. It helped Catholics in remote towns to feel part of the diocesan Catholic family. We still had letters to the editor, so we gave regular people a voice. Without all that connection, I fear that the evangelistic frame of the church would fall apart.”

National Catholic media and diocesan newspapers run by trained journalists also did the critical job of presenting news from an authentic Catholic perspective, said Sam Lucero, retired news and information manager for The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisc.

“The content in a diocesan paper is important because you know you can trust the information you’re getting, whether it’s from a national source or from the bishop, priest, vicar general or diocesan staff,” a Lucero said.

“Without the Catholic media,” he said, “there is the possibility of a lot of fake content being spread online, spreading misinformation in the name of the church. Catholic publications are important to prevent that.”

According to figures from the Catholic Media Association, which serves Catholic journalists in the United States and Canada, Catholic newspapers, magazines and newsletters have declined sharply over the past 15 years.

In 2006, there were 196 Catholic newspapers in the US with a circulation of 6.5 million. In 2020, there were 118 and 3.8 million in circulation. In Canada there were nine Catholic newspapers in 2006 with a circulation of 132,000. In 2020 there were two with a circulation of 56,000.

The same is true for magazines: In 2006, there were 224 in the United States with a circulation of nearly 13.7 million. In 2020 there were 72 national and diocesan magazines with a total circulation of 4.9 million.

Changing reading habits is certainly a factor. But the evidence that Catholics are flocking to new religious media while turning away from old media is not conclusive.

Data collected by the Catholic research organization CARA for Faith Publishing and distributed by the Catholic Media Association showed that diocesan publications reach a plurality of Catholics (24 percent).

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Many dioceses are taking a new approach to reporting the news. For example, the Archdiocese of New York has transitioned to a digital newsroom that will include video, audio and articles. Called The Good Newsroom, the new digital news outlet launched on 28 November.

Many dioceses have switched from newspapers to more cost-effective monthly and bimonthly magazines that focus on catechesis and formation rather than news, many published by Lansing, Mich.-based FAITH Catholic.

Turning directly to the faithful for support, as The Tablet did, is another approach that may be more popular, Osman said.

Established Catholic organizations are also doing what they can to ensure that the Catholic media remains strong.

Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic publisher of weekly newspapers, books and other resources based in Huntington, Ind., announced July 6, for example, that it would launch a new Catholic news service Jan. 1 to fill the void created by the closing. for the domestic operations of the CNS.

OSV reached an agreement with the USCCB to acquire rights to the platform used by CNS to produce and distribute its content, which will be on the same domain: Catholicnews.com.

The CMA is always doing its best to provide professional development, networking opportunities and other services to its members.

“The Catholic media, like the media in general, is constantly changing at the moment, and we are looking for ways to better reach audiences and communities, using all the changing ways in which people are getting information and throwing news,” said Rob. DeFrancesco, executive director of the CMA.

“Catholic journalism is vital to the future of our church because it is the central way we evangelize our communities and the most effective way we share the good news of Jesus Christ,” he said. “If we don’t speak up for the church, who will?”

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