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Catholic press struggles to earn trust in Australia

Brussels, Richmond, November 6th, 2015 (SIGNIS/ Tim Wallace/Eureka Street). In September 2015, Australia’s longest-running weekly newspaper, The Record, won a Design Excellence award. It was, however, somewhat belated recognition for the Perth Catholic newspaper, established in 1874, from its peers in the Australasian Catholic Press Association. The last edition of the paper rolled off the presses in July.

The decision to close down the 140-year-old weekly apparently came after a five-month review and many years of significant losses as the newspaper’s subscriber base, and advertising, dwindled. That it survived as long as it did was perhaps testament both to the previous archbishop’s preparedness to subsidise it to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars a year, the dedication of its overworked staff, and the devotion of its ageing readership, many of whom bought it out as much out of a sense of religious duty than interest in its content, which was of variable quality.

There had in the preceding decade been other reviews and plans hatched to check the newspaper’s decline, including one ambitious idea to turn the paper into a freebie and emulate the business model of suburban press. What the newspaper never really had was a coherent strategy to transition online, leveraging its established brand, content and capabilities to connect with a wider audience. A monthly magazine available in print and ’a user-friendly, engaging and interactive online format’ is apparently what the archdiocese now plans in its stead.

With the demise of The Record, the competition for the claim of Australia’s best Catholic weekly newspaper has narrowed to a field of two, Brisbane’s Catholic Leader and Sydney’s Catholic Weekly. Only time will tell if those two publications can avoid the fate of the rest of their fellow diocesan press operations, but in maintaining viability they face more than just navigating the harsh winds of technological and demographic change.

The antagonisms facing the Catholic press are complex

At the heart of press operations funded by the institutional church are some problematic contradictions about the differing needs of stakeholders. All media operations deal with internal antagonisms, of course. In the secular press it is jokingly known as the division between church and state – between the journalistic pursuit of news without fear or favour and the pressure to skew content toward advertising markets in general or certain advertisers in particular. No man can serve two masters, according of the good book, but any media operation dependent on both reader subscriptions and advertising revenue must do exactly that.

The antagonisms facing the Catholic press are more complex, reflecting the nature of the institution it serves. Though to outsiders the Church can seem monolithic, with a power structure rooted in medieval aristocracy, in practice its politics are more byzantine. Obviously there is the ecclesiastical authority of bishops, each a prince of his own fiefdom, with control over the purse strings and the power to make or break career prospects. There are the professional bureaucracies administering the Church’s sizeable operations in, for example, education and healthcare, with the natural bureaucratic preference for reportage that blandly replicates the press release. There are the idiosyncratic sensitivities of parish priests, who can wield an iron grip over a newspaper’s distribution and promotion in their own territory because, say, they are deeply offended it does not capitalise every word associated with religion.

How to get an interesting relevant newspaper in the Church

Appeasing both clerical and bureaucratic interests poses a considerable hurdle to producing an interesting, relevant newspaper. Add to the negotiation the raw differences between progressive and conservative tendencies within clergy and laity, with what one camp esteems as editorial heroism being reviled by the other. It is possible to produce journalism that satisfies both groups – take, for example the work of John Allen, the long-time Vatican correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter, a US title regarded as theologically liberal, whose reportage was also held in high regard by conservatives. But what distinguished Allen’s work was the epitome of good journalism – a rigorous adherence to accuracy, fairness and balance along with a deep understanding of his subject – with a scope unencumbered by the pettier considerations of institutional politics.

Doing the same within diocesan-owned press, where the bishop is the publisher, is harder. Along with all the above tensions are existential questions over the proper function of a Catholic newspaper. Does it exist to report news or proclaim the good news, acting primarily as instrument of evangelisation? Should it seek to provide a perspective on the big issues, covering global and national news, or devote itself to reflecting the life of the local community, covering parish fetes, ordinations, official appointments, obituaries and the like?

Certain compromises have been glaringly evident. It would be difficult to cite one official Church publication in Australia that has, for example, done more than a perfunctory job in covering the issue of clerical sex abuse. Generally the issue has been politely avoided, aside from endorsement of the official line. For ordinary church-goers the deep disconnect between the coverage of the issue between their own religious and the secular media must be bewildering, feeding the very feelings of embattlement and persecution that Cardinal George Pell conceded to the royal commission had contributed to the Church’s institutional failure to face up to the problem.

Given the general acknowledgement of the effect the sex-abuse crisis has had on mass attendance and collection-plate contributions, it would be hard to conclude there has not also been a hit on the credibility of the Catholic press. Maintaining relevance in the light of experiences that show trust must be earned rather than assumed will take more than technical capability, slick headlines or social media sharing buttons.

SIGNIS

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