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Catholic press struggles to earn trust

  • 07 October 2014

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