By: Renee K. Gadoua and Jim Murphy
Survey shows ‘white paper’ on freedom and responsibility
has fallen on deaf ears within the church hierarchy sp.
LESS THAN TWO years ago, David Fortier was editor of the Catholic Transcript, a weekly newspaper in Hartford. Now he works out of his home, editing the fledgling American Catholic Northeast, an independent monthly paper.
Despite affection and enthusiasm for his career, Fortier chose to start his own publication rather than endure what he considered excessive interference from officials in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford.
Frustrated by changes that included the appointment of a priest as executive director to “review Catholic content,” Fortier left the paper in March 1993. The news editor, two priests and a laywoman who comprised the editorial board of the diocesan paper soon followed him.
“A paragraph was being moved from one position to another,” Fortier recounted.
“We couldn’t use a quote because it didn’t speak favorably of the church. I didn’t think those changes were honest.”
Fortier’s conflict over content reflects one problem journalists face at Catholic newspapers. Controversies such as this grab headlines and spotlight a fundamental difference between the Catholic press and its secular counterparts.
But for all the apparent differences, experts within the Catholic press describe a challenge strikingly similar to that of daily newspapers: declining circulation and an aging readership.
These struggles to survive the rapidly changing media world come at a time when the Roman Catholic Church faces its own credibility crisis, shrinking numbers of ordained priests and challenges to the church’s traditional teachings on such issues as sexuality, birth control and women’s roles.
The unique structure of Catholic newspapers creates some of the problems ? in most cases, a bishop is publisher and circulation is officially mandated by the local church, although most pastors ignore the mandate.
As the financial viability of Catholic papers weakened in recent decades, most shifted from private ownership to nonprofit status, operated by local dioceses. This change blurted the relationship between the institution and the press.
The newspapers, fluctuating between representing the church’s view as house organs and reporting for the public interest, are caught between bishop-publishers who often want to control information and readers and staff members who expect the hierarchy to account for its actions.
While acknowledging the significance of structural and content concerns, Bill Thorn, a journalism professor at Marquette University, sees the major issue for Catholic papers as a lack of a marketing strategy.
“Many people tell you that they don’t have enough time to read a Catholic newspaper,” he said. “But if you probe that response, you find that what they are really telling you is, ‘You are not meeting my needs.’ “
According to Thorn, who also directs the Institute on Catholic Media at Marquette, the 163 local Catholic newspapers are long overdue in defining and reacting to the needs of their readers.
“Editors have been reluctant to give the people what they want,” he said.
Thorn discussed some of the obstacles for Catholic newspapers this spring during a meeting with 40 editors, circulation managers and general managers from around the country during the annual convention of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, which also serves 262 magazines, 137 newsletters and 29 foreign-language publications.
Before presenting a nine-hour CPA workshop in May, Thorn surveyed recent circulation figures for 22 participating Catholic papers and found that 18 had lost an average of 8.4% of readership between 1991 and 1993.
Of the remaining four papers, three had modest two-year gains but were significantly below mid-1980s figures. Although reported figures suggest much more moderate changes for the Catholic press as a whole, the successes of a few and the expansion and addition of several newspapers offset significant losses at others.
For Catholic newspapers, circulation dramatically affects the bottom line. A survey of Catholic journalists who met with Thorn in May revealed that circulation comprises about 70% of those publications’ revenues.
Secular weekly papers, on the other hand, might earn 20% to 25% of their revenues from circulation. While secular newspapers might be able to absorb a slight decrease in circulation, for Catholic papers, that decline could cost a staff person’s job.
Clearly, the financial health of Catholic papers is tied to keeping and adding new readers. But a 1991 CPA survey conducted by Simmons Market Research forecasts an impending circulation crisis.
According to the survey, the average age for Catholic press readers was 61.6 ? an astounding 21 years older than that of the general population.
But if the atmosphere at professional meetings is any indication, Catholic journalists have been slow to recognize the significance of these statistics.
This fall, the CPA is conducting a survey and regional programs to begin addressing these and other issues. If finances and circulation top the list of concerns cited, the board of directors will develop a strategy in December to help members turn the tide at their publications.
Although the professional organization is beginning to turn its attention to more fundamental media concerns, the CPA has focused much of its energy in recent years on content and censorship issues.
For many Catholic newspeople, that issue highlights a significant effort to maintain credibility as journalists as well as within the church.
Numerous accounts in Catholic publications suggest that Fortier’s experience, while extreme, is not unusual. Since 1986, at least 10 Catholic editors have left publications and similar highly publicized controversies.
A 1991 CPA survey found that nearly 40% of respondents said they had experienced censorship in the Catholic press. Although they disagreed on the definition of censorship, more than 74% of respondents said they had “learned of instances of censorship in other publications.”
Ironically, the exodus from Hartford’s Transcript came within months of the CPA’s publication of a document, “Freedom and Responsibility in the Catholic Press.”
The so-called “white paper” defines censorship, outlines official church statements on the role of the press and provides recommendations for a good working relationship between editor and publisher. The purpose, several Catholic journalists said in interviews, was to prevent situations such as that of Fortier.
In a statement drafted as the CPA began writing the paper, the professional organization published a statement expressing concern over how church censorship damages the newspapers’ credibility.
“We believe there is no inherent contradiction in our mission as Catholic Christians and our calling as journalists,” the document says. “We believe that openness is preferable to secrecy, that accountability is required at all levels of the church, and that members of the church have a right to information regarding the activities of the church.”
Now, less than 18 months after it was ratified, published and distributed, there is evidence the document fell on deaf ears.
“Two of the people who were on the [drafting] committee were fired within a year,” reported Barbara Beckwith, managing editor of the national St. Anthony Messenger magazine and a former CPA president.
“These are people who wanted to clarify the situation and were trying to make sense of the situation and then found themselves kicked out,” Beckwith said. “I find it a very discouraging sign that they were both let go.”
Although Beckwith sees the document as an important tool for communication between Catholic editors and publishers, she sees a downside too.
“I think it can be used as a wedge,” she said. “We don’t want them to say, ‘Read this, you ignorant so-and-so.’ “
Fortier said that’s what happened in his case.
“After it was drafted, I gave the archbishop a copy,” he recounted. “I went to talk to him about it and he threw it across the room. He said, ‘You know what this says? It tells me I can do anything I want.’ He missed the point.”
The real point is a lack of consensus on the role of the Catholic press.
Fortier’s publisher, the archbishop, shared the view of many in the hierarchy. “He said a Catholic paper puts the pope in the best light possible and puts the bishops and priests in a good light,” Fortier recalled. “He said the stories should educate readers about the church, so when a young girl puts down that paper, she wants to be a nun.”
Many journalists scoff at the notion that Catholic papers should steer clear of controversial issues.
Tom Boll, former religion editor for the Syracuse Post Standard and an advocate for better religion coverage at daily newspapers, thinks any issue should be fair game for a Catholic publication.
“If it’s part of our world, a Catholic is going to run into it,” he said. “To discuss it as a Catholic among Catholics makes you better prepared. Whether it’s homosexuality or incest, that happens to people regardless of their faith. The better informed you are, the better armed you are. It’s in the readers’ interest to discuss controversial issues in a Catholic context.”
Numerous documents produced by the Catholic Church underscore that view. According to the Vatican II document on social communications, Inter Mirifica, the Catholic press is charged with “bringing a knowledge of the Church to the world and a knowledge of the world to the Church.” The document urges “a free expression of opinion and a wide variety of points of view.”
The task of the Catholic press, the document continues, is “to balance, to complete and, if necessary, to correct the news and comments about religion and the Christian life. At one and the same time it will be a glass that reflects the world and a light to show it the way.
A 1971 Vatican document, Communio et Progresso, went further, supporting responsible editorial freedom and condemning the notion that biased or suppressed views is appropriate.
More recently, a 1990 document called Ten Principles of the Catholic Church Press, adopted by the International Union of the Catholic Press, highlights the role of journalists.
“The basic role of the Catholic Church Press is to help Catholics to understand the world and to fulfill their role in it,” it says.
The document stresses the importance of “spreading the faith according to the teachings of the Church” but also calls for coverage that “reflects . . . the diversity and unity in the Church and in the world.”
But Art McKenna, former CPA president and general manager of Catholic New York points out that the secular and Catholic press do have different agendas.
“The goal of people who graduate from journalism school is to protect the press from unwarranted pressure from the government,” he said. “It’s a wonderful image ? to balance the scales of justice, to right the wrongs of society. They’re walking around with spotlights trying to ferret out evil.
“If the Catholic press took that adversarial stand, I can’t believe it would last five minutes.”
Despite ongoing conflicts between some editors and publishers, McKenna sees improvements in the Catholic press. “We’re moving in a direction of tolerance and encouraging of topics that never would have seen the light of day,” he said, citing priest sex abuse as one example.
Karen Franz, editor of the Catholic Courier in Rochester, N.Y., points out that secular journalists also must follow the boundaries set by their publishers.
“I don’t have the freedom of the press,” she said. “I’m an editor. That [freedom] is the right of the publisher. To rail against the publisher is pointless. As long as you’re on the payroll the publisher is the boss.”
Ultimately, content and circulation issues may be settled by readers.
A 1980 Gallup poll found that 52% of Catholic press readers want coverage of more controversial issues. Thorn’s research confirms that, and suggests readers want the same kinds of stories in their Catholic papers as daily newspapers: stories on family issues and topics that affect them as well as those that create community.
Thorn said many older Catholic press readers are “institutional loyalists” who allow the church “to define their moral and religious outlook on life . . . . They have a high level of trust of the church and the Catholic newspaper.”
But to expand readership, Thorn said, Catholic newspapers must target those “next closest to the core readership, those in their early and mid-40s.”
Many of these readers, Thorn said, have a different understanding of the church, are parish-oriented and are suspicious of the hierarchy and Catholic newspapers.
If Thorn’s research is on target, delicate negotiations lie ahead in order for Catholic newspapers to survive.
His advice is to begin shaping a marketing strategy that targets the changing readership.
“Catholic newspapers have to sharpen their image, define what they mean to their audience, how the product fits into their readers’ lives,” he said. “Don’t wait for a new bishop; it’ll be too late.”
?( Gadoua is a copy editor and reporter and Murphy is a reporter at the Syracuse (N.Y.) Newspapers) [Caption]