Sunday, October 23, 2016

"Like When Someone Has Been ill a Long Time": Two More Canadian Church Publications Close

The print world is in trouble.

Almost every month there is news of another publication shutting down or reducing the number of pages or issues.

While most of the attention is focused on the troubles facing daily newspapers and magazines, church publications are hurting, too.

In September, two venerable publications shut down: The Presbyterian Record, after 140 years, and the Western Catholic Reporter, after over 50 years.

The death of the Record, which publishes its last issue in December, “was sad, but not surprising,” says editor David Harris.

“It was like when someone has been ill for a long time.”

For many years, the publication benefitted from what was called an every-home plan, where churches bought subscriptions for their members.

That worked when churches were full and growing, Harris said.

But as membership in the Presbyterian Church has fallen, along with giving, churches looked for places to cut—and the every home plan was one of the first things to go.

“We lost thousands of subscribers in the last few years,” he says.

The magazine tried fundraising, and also turned to the denomination for help. “But it didn’t have the money,” Harris shares. “It’s facing large cuts itself.”

Facing declining circulation and revenue—the magazine was down to about 10,000 subscribers from a high of 88,000, and was losing almost 3,000 readers a year—the board decided to pull the plug.

“We did our best” to keep it alive, Harris says, but “circulation fell below the critical level needed to sustain it.”

A desire to go in a new direction played a role the demise of the Western Catholic Reporter.

In a letter to readers about the closing of the newspaper, which was owned Edmonton Archdiocese, Archbishop Richard Smith said that “the world of communications has changed dramatically . . . the current media environment, the way stories are told, and the way people consume news are all changing rapidly.”

As a result, he went on to say, the Archdiocese is moving to all-digital distribution of news through its website and social media.

According to Lorraine Turchansky, the Archdiocese’s Chief Communications Officer, falling circulation, combined with an aging readership, was also a factor—the Reporter was down from 32,000 at its peak to under 7,000 when it closed.

By doing more online, the Archdiocese will be “in same space” as its members, she says.

For former Reporter editor Glen Argan, the move was disappointing, but also not surprising.

“I could see the closure coming for a while,” he says.

Although he acknowledges that “the way people are consuming news is changing,” he thinks the Archdiocese set the paper “up to fail” by eliminating its every-parish plan.

Under the plan, which the Archdiocese ended in 2014, each parish was required to buy copies of the Reporter for its members. When the plan was eliminated, circulation plummeted.

Why does he think the plan was ended? “They [the Archdiocese] wanted to use the money for other things,” he says, adding that the Archbishop didn’t think that “reporting the news of the Diocese would help build up the church.”

He worries that whatever replaces the Reporter will just be a cheerleader for the church—and that will turn readers off.

“People want something with texture to it, not just the party line,” he says of the importance of an independent publication. “Those in power need to hear from those who might disagree with them.

The changes will make it harder for those “dissenting views” to be heard, he says.

David Wilson is the long-time editor of the United Church Observer. The deaths of the Record and the Reporter are unsettling, he says, but not unexpected.

Denominational print publications are “an embattled medium in a shrinking universe,” he says. “The challenges they face are enormous.”

With a circulation of 36,000, the Observer is doing better than many other church publications. But it had ten times that many subscribers in the 1960s and 70s.

As church membership declines, Wilson says, denominational publications “are feeling the effects.”

For Michael Swan, Associate Editor at the Catholic Register in Toronto and President of Canadian Church Press, the umbrella group for Canadian church publications, the closure of Record and the Reporter “is a great loss.”

Unfortunately, he adds, they won’t be the last to close. “All church publications in Canada are struggling,” he says.

Swan believes many church members want good Christian journalism—the kind that “engages the church” and that reports about “how the church engages the world.”

But if that’s what they want, “someone has to pay for it . . . we need to make a case for this kind of journalism, make a case that it is important.”

From the Oct. 22 Winnipeg Free Press.

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