Catholic Media Watch
Why not try faith in journalism?
by Michael Mullins
Earlier this year, the online version of the Catholic Weekly suddenly began truncating all its stories after five paragraphs. The Weekly had long provided one of the more generous web offerings among Catholic papers in the English-speaking world. But the new editor decided that five paragraphs was the limit of what the non-paying web readers should expect to get for nothing.
This month, the Weekly relaunched its website, with improved design and navigation and - surprise - no more truncated articles. But it seems to me that there's a bit of dust to settle, and he's still not made up his mind how much the Scrooges should get without paying.
Whatever path he takes, he's in an unenviable position. Is the paper a business that's expected to pay its way and even make a profit? Or is it an instrument of evangelisation that aims to transform people's lives by inspiring them with God's Word? Indeed is it too much to dream that it might be both? Or even more?
It's really like governments that aim to make their public transport systems pay for themselves, forgetting that they're really in the business of allocating resources for the creation of a better world, which many believe is one with more buses and trains and less cars, and more public money spent on public transport than roads.
Years ago - many years ago - Church papers used to own their own presses and operate a commercial printing business on the side that made the operation profitable, or at least financially sustainable. In those days, even the volume of sales was enough to keep the red ink off the balance sheets. The historical notes on the new website reveal that the Catholic Weekly had a peak circulation of 63,000 during the 1950s. It would probably be safe to assume that a significant proportion of today's readers were among those 63,000, and that they won't remain readers for much longer. The website does not quote the current circulation figures. It would make for very depressing reading.
Nobody is surprised that what worked in the 1950s is not right for today. There are scores of reasons - some sociological, others theological. How many of those 63,000 thought that they were improving their chances of going to heaven by buying a Catholic newspaper? That's not such a big selling point these days.
Few would pretend that they know the magic formula that would work now. Some papers have opted to continue publishing while they still have their Archbishop proprietors willing to support them and at least some readers prepared to buy the paper. Others are having a go at something new.
Some years ago, Adelaide's Southern Cross, which had previously gone out of business as a pay-to-read Catholic newspaper, was re-established as a giveaway. The massive circulation of its new incarnation was designed to generate advertising revenue that would do a better job of paying for the paper than the cover price income from the few who were prepared to pay. Perth Archdiocese had a bet each way. It maintained The Record, its newspaper, but it added the monthly Discovery. This is a giveaway magazine started on the assumption that putting sex symbol celebrities on the cover would be enough to persuade teenagers to take a look inside.
In some ways, it doesn't matter a great deal whether the paper sees itself as a source of information, or an instrument of evangelisation, or whether readers need to hand over a dollar for the paper. Instead it's the quality of the journalism, and the extent to which the proprietor supports and nurtures the paper in its engagement with the culture of journalism beyond the religious press. It's unlikely that any Australian archbishop is going to encourage investigative journalism that might embarrass the Church and appear to undermine its short-term credibility. But does he like to think his writers to set their sights on a Walkley, and not merely a Church or Catholic Press Association Award? Can he honestly believe that there's no basis for the assertion of the cynics that the Catholic press only prints what the Archbishop wants to read?
The Catholic Leader even had a column written by a Lecturer in Journalism at the University of Queensland. This association undoubtedly helped to forge the paper's journalistic integrity, which has probably earned it the most respect of any of Australia's Catholic newspapers.
Good standing in the community might not be as good for sales as the 'ticket to heaven' might have been in the 1950s. But what have they got to lose?