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Catholic press struggles to earn trust


Last month 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 I suspect, like my parents, 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.

That the newspaper itself could not manage the transition into the 21st century is a matter of some personal regret. In 2011 I accepted a 12-month contract that included an understanding a major focus of my role would be improving its online capability. Some inroads were made, including a revamped website and entry into the social media space but, like many marginal print operations, the newspaper faced the quandary of insufficient resources to both serve its existing readership and chart a digital direction. Though its staff could take some pride that the newspaper punched above its weight, there was barely the capacity to make it from one week’s deadline to the next to leave any energy to think about, or execute, a bold online strategy. There were other, more fundamental problems too.

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.

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.

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 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.

Tim Wallace headshotTim Wallace is a Melbourne-based journalist who is a former associate editor of The Record.

Topic tags: Tim Wallace, sexual abuse, media, Catholic Church, newspapers, evangelisation, clericalism



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Existing comments

A large part of the appeal of any print media is the level of trust the reader has in the quality of the writing, the fearlessness and impartiality with which it is presented and the attitude of respect the media has for the reader. With church politics playing such an important role, it's little wonder The Record struggled despite the best efforts of staff. Perhaps the church needs to acknowledge that the readers of print or online media can quickly see through an agenda and want unbiased, quality journalism. A difficult path to tread but worth it.

Pam | 06 October 2014  

Cannot agree more. Having been a former contributor to the "Catholic Record", I cannot but emphasise the value of trust at all levels. Trust received and trust given between readership, ownership and institutional forces.

Tony | 06 October 2014  

The National Catholic Reporter is an independent publication which is why it is successful. The London Tablet and the Jesuit's America also operate free of diocesan control. Any paper owned by the Church is going to promote the official party line which immediately compromises its integrity.

grebo | 06 October 2014  

Sadly the review that The Record undertook of its future viability involved absolutely no consultation with its readers, who were , understandably, left feeling somewhat shocked and bereft. Sadly also a conscious decision had been made some months earlier to avoid any mention at all of the sexual abuse issue other than the publication of the Archbishop's letter ahead of the extremely traumatic Royal Commission hearing in Perth.I was told this to avoid causing distress to victims.A little puzzling given their courage in coming forward. All in all a paper that was so out of touch with its readers was not likely to survive in the 21st century.But its loss will continue to deprive the wider Church community in WA of a real opportunity to work together for the coming of the kingdom.

Margaret | 06 October 2014  

I grew up in UK in 1940s. My father bought The Universe and The Standard religiously every Sunday after mass. By the time the Second Vatican Council opened in 1962 our family had settled in Australia. Being in Melbourne Dad bought The Advocate and Tribune and as long as they published stories about Archbishop Mannix he thought it was money well spent. But he missed the news on what was happening in the church in UK and Europe. He loved Pope John XXIII but was surprised when he summoned Vat 2 to bring the church "up to date" (aggiornamento). Dad died the following year and was spared the effect of the winds of change through his beloved One Roman Catholic Apostolic Church. I relished it and for a time the catholic press in Australia took advantage of the new and incredibly efficient media which made connection around the world possible. But as we became exposed to styles of thought and feeling that were once limited, many in the Australian hierarchy became concerned, very concerned. And so began the stifling of the catholic press that led inevitably to the demise of catholic weeklies in Melbourne and now The Record in Perth.

Uncle Pat | 06 October 2014  

I gave up reading our local years ago. Now and then I scan it at my mother's to see if it has improved but still find it the same...you might think the sexual abuse scandals were only attacks on the church from outsiders - always 'positive' messages which go nowhere to help wounded congregations. I was also tired of seeing 'nice' pictures of 'nice' Catholic School children - those whose parents have the money to pay for a 'nice' education, or who lived where there was no Catholic education available. Overall I find it a snap shot of the fifties style and sorry, I left that era too long ago.

Pauline Small | 06 October 2014  

Some issues highlighted here that are important for all working within the Church. Our primary obligation must surely be to the Gospel; but that is exercised in the here and now. This will never be easy: the challenge is to be as wise as serpent and as gentle as doves.

Denis Fitzgerald | 06 October 2014  

Tim's points are well made - but I suspect he underestimates the fact that many of the "older" priests in the Archdiocese were increasingly dismayed by recent editorial direction of The Record. I wrote personally to the Editor, suggesting both the NCR and The Tablet as models worthy of study - but that was deemed as outlandishly radical! What a pity - this country desperately needs a paper after those models.

Michael Leek osb | 06 October 2014  

Fascinating article for a non-religious person who nonetheless follows Eureka Street looking for that same journalism that John Allen displayed, or a thought-provoking view on a current issue. If the church donation plate is being affected how do you measure the lack of respect OUTSIDE the church. I have a strong feeling its batten down the hatches at Church Central. I am most fascinated as to how the sex abuse crisis for the church is playing out amongst young Catholics, who surely have less to defend than their elders. Where is their voice in church publications/media. Thanks again for a ripper article.

Jan | 07 October 2014  

The 'Freeman's Journal' / ' Catholic Weekly' was founded by my kinsman Archdeacon John McEncroe. It was useless. The only way in Sydney that I could excitedly access the latest Vat Council II news was by purchasing "Time" = Robert Kaiser / Xavier Rynne. K. []

Kevin G. SMITH | 07 October 2014  

Thank you Tim, I hope that His Holiness also recognises the matters you have raised during his Synod focused on the family as its families who are the backbone of publications like The Record.

John Morkham | 07 October 2014  

Looks like a one horse race then; don't count the Weekly - a stodgy conservative rag that could not attract too many under 60, and will therefore justly disappear. Replaced by CathNews and Eureka St.

Pat Mahony | 07 October 2014  

Will the monolithic, from top down culture of the Roman Catholic Church in this country change, yes really change, or is it going to remain stuck a la Daniel Mannix circa 1914? Is Pell's successor merely another Mannix clone? It would be ludicrous to expect the average archdiocesan newspaper to be like The Tablet or National Catholic Reporter. For the simple Catholic faithful and Catholic intellectuals of the Gerard Henderson sort the NCR's approach would be tantamount to surrender to the evil leftist secular world out there, which is hell bent on degrading and destroying God's last bulwark against all evil. I think the only salvation for genuine thinking Catholics is something like Eureka Street, which is regularly pilloried on its own site by (hyper) conservative Catholics, who, I think, believe that the Second Vatican Council was the work of the Devil. Oh for the late, wise, saintly, internationally renowned scholar Max Charlesworth and his friends on The Catholic Worker. Will we see their like again? I do hope so. I think the hierarchy and Church bureaucrats need to accept that the 19th Century and all the liberties it brought happened. They have not as yet, I believe.

Edward Fido | 07 October 2014  

I find it astonishing Tim that you record the diminishing numbers attending Mass but fail to correlate that to the woefully poor sales of Catholic papers like The Record. Most people bought one after Sunday Mass.Your other points are indeed valid and an intelligent, motivated laity has found Cath News and Eureka Street supplies what was lacking in the Catholic newspapers. Quality of articles, differing views, fair and balanced reporting of important events always attract me and I feel sure many others too.

Ern Azzopardi | 07 October 2014  

I found this article and the comments very interesting as my great great uncle Joe was the publisher and owner of The Advocate in Melbourne until Dr Mannix made him an offer to buy it. When he was told it was not for sale Dr Mannix said that the Archdiocese would be setting up a weekly paper anyway and that the Advocate would be forced out of business. Joe capitulated and the paper was sold and became a tool of the Archdiocese. Incidentally his brother Samuel was the last Editor and General Manager of the Herald and Weekly Times, before Keith Murdoch took over. No strong arm tactics there, just a commercial business deal.

Joan Winter OP | 07 October 2014  

Annals Australia is the way to go.after its 115 years of outstanding Catholic output. Re present Editor Fr Stenhouse MSC: "Fr Paul and his writing stand very much at the ‘radical centre’ of the Catholic intellectual tradition,” Cardinal Pell said at Annals 115th birhday celebrations “ He knows where he’s come from; he knows where we are and understands the very, very real and hostile pressures that are working against the Church today." “ He uses his vast array of learning, his elegant writing and his intelligence to present genuinely Christian views on a whole variety of subjects and challenges that confront us.”

Father John George | 07 October 2014  

Well it's a bit like the comment Liberal Party MPs make when people complain about News Corp bias - it's a private company - they can write what they like. (ie Catholic newspapers are funded by the bishops)

AURELIUS | 07 October 2014  

And forget not Kairos genre http://www.cam.org.au/Kairos/Home.aspx

Father John George | 08 October 2014  

Please keep perspective, Synods are far far removed from higher magisterium of papacy or Ecumenical Council-overating even of latter, resulted in heresy of conciliarism! Spare us Synodalism which has a limited though important role

Father John George | 08 October 2014  

Tim, This is a well written and researched article.

Patricia | 08 July 2015  

How did the Catholic press fail to report on clergy molesting children in Australia? Why did they leave it to the secular press?

No trust | 23 March 2016