By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
Budget crunches, the availability of free information from the Internet and suspicion about the Catholic Church in the wake of the clerical sex abuse crisis have all combined to present a serious challenge to the future of the Catholic press, said speakers at a Vatican conference.
But the importance of information in Catholics’ daily lives and the need for the church to communicate and to help people grow in responsibility and holiness also combine to encourage the Catholic press to find ways to stay afloat, they said.
The “difficult and painful” cases of abuse must lead “the entire believing community to a greater commitment to following the Lord and placing itself at the service of humanity with an even greater witness of life capable of demonstrating what we bear in our hearts,” said Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
Archbishop Celli’s office sponsored a Catholic Press Congress Oct. 4-7 to discuss the present and future role and challenges facing Catholic journalism. Representatives from 83 countries gathered at the Vatican for the congress.
The archbishop told the journalists and communications directors that the Catholic press must have a clear idea of its mission and role within the church and society, and must look at how it can help people face their worries and desires in a truly Catholic way.
“Of no less importance,” he said, is “the role that the Catholic press has within the church because it can be a privileged instrument in the not easy task of promoting and nourishing an intellectual understanding of the faith.”
Greg Erlandson, president of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing in the United States, told the conference that the Catholic press faces the financial pressures all newspapers are facing. But, additionally, he said, the Catholic press suffers because Catholics know less about their faith, there is “a growing distrust of institutions” and, consequently, there is “a resulting decline in Catholic identity.”
At the same time, he wrote in remarks prepared for the meeting, the Internet allows Catholic media to reach different audiences in different ways at a relatively low cost.
Erlandson also said the sex abuse crisis is, or should be, forcing the church to change the way it communicates.
“Church leaders have become increasingly aware that most of their flock gets its news about its own church from the secular media and that media is often an unreliable source,” he said.
He told the congress he hoped the experience would help church leaders understand the value of the Catholic press and the fact that if they allow Catholic newspapers to be “transparent and honest, they will gain in credibility over the long haul.”
Amy Mitchell, vice director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, presented statistics on the decline in U.S. secular newspaper subscriptions and their plummeting advertising revenues, as well as on the fact that people are increasingly “news grazers,” getting their news and information from an average of two to five media platforms each day.
In the new media environment, she said, “journalism is not a product, but a service” that gives people verified information.
By serving as a credible eyewitness and pulling together information from reliable sources, she said, journalists help people make sense of the news and empower them to act.
Even as outlets offering free information mushroom, the church — like society in general — needs trained journalists able to present accurate news and ask the right questions to help people understand what is going on around them, she told Catholic News Service.
Although the world of journalism has changed enormously over the past 20 years, “the principles of journalism haven’t changed. The ideas of verification, authentication, of being transparent with your readers or listeners about the information you know, the information you don’t know, about where you’re coming from, the influences you have — all of those remain constant,” she said.
“Covering important events from the perspective of a Catholic point of view still involves solid reporting,” she said, and Pew surveys have shown that people “really do understand the differences” between the various outlets they access for information. They go to different places for analysis and “sense-making,” than for quick takes or entertaining debate, she said.
Michael Pruller, vice director of the Die Presse newspaper company in Austria, was a bit more optimistic about the future of printed news because, he said, “to have something printed in black and white on paper still matters.”
While encouraging the Catholic press to look at new opportunities to create revenue with digital products, he said it would be stupid to kill off a Catholic paper “just because you are afraid it’s dying.”
Although newspapers are making less of a profit than they were 10 years ago, “it’s still easier to make money in print than online,” he said.
Pruller told the journalists one thing they still have going for them is “the irresistible force of curiosity,” which makes people wonder what is in each issue delivered to their home. “Your job is to make your customers curious about what is in each issue,” he said.