What sort of Catholic media will we see in the future?

by PAT McCARTHY

As we hunkered down to church closures and online Masses a second time, I reflected on a friend’s question: Are we treating this Covid-19 lockdown as a period of hibernation or will we emerge from a chrysalis — and, if so, how will we be transformed?

As the Catholic community gains an accelerated experience of digital consumption, the question becomes particularly relevant for our Catholic media.  I believe it is time to launch a comprehensive online news and information service for New Zealand Catholics, accessible on a range of devices and platforms.

Worldwide, the news industry is disrupted. Catholic newspapers are closing, the trend hastened as Covid-19 halts church-door sales. It’s an unavoidable fact that most Kiwis now get their news and information online.

The high point of Catholic newspaper circulation in New Zealand was in the mid-1960s, when Zealandia and NZ Tablet between them each week published one paper for every 10 census Catholics. Today NZ Catholic each fortnight prints one paper for every 170 census Catholics.

The other New Zealand-based Catholic news service is the twice-weekly CathNews New Zealand, published by Church Resources Ltd. Primarily an online aggregator of material already published elsewhere, often by secular sources, it offers little original reporting.

NZ Catholic, published by the Bishop of Auckland, holds a valid place as our national newspaper for two strong reasons: No one else is reporting many of the stories and issues it covers, and many Catholics either still prefer print or are not online.

There are diocesan publications — WelCom, Kete Korero, Tablet and Inform — but their monthly or quarterly frequency makes news reporting difficult.

If NZ Catholic ceased publication, the Catholic community nationally would be in a “news desert” — the term used overseas for the increasingly common situation of a community bereft of local reporting.

Catholics would depend on secular news services, whose reporting of church affairs is generally superficial, and whose increasingly opinionated content is often antagonistic to the Catholic Church and its beliefs.

Catholics relying on two major secular news services, Stuff and the New Zealand Herald, would never have learnt of the appointment of Bishop Michael Gielen last January.

We can also access overseas Catholic news services, but most focus on the United States and some have a distinct conservative or liberal bias.

The Church consistently proclaims the need for Catholic media. The basic theology behind this is the understanding that a community (such as the Church) comes into existence through
communication. Without that communication — top to bottom, bottom to top, and between members — a community cannot be sustained.

Catholic media are part of the glue holding the Church together. If they are lost, the Church community suffers.

The Church’s key statement on Catholic media, issued nearly 50 years ago, is still relevant:

“Since the development of public opinion within the Church is essential, individual Catholics have the right to all the information they need to play their active role in the life of the Church. In practice this means that communications media must be available for the task.

“These should not only exist in sufficient number but also reach all the People of God. Where necessary, they may even be owned by the Church as long as they truly fulfil their purpose.” (Communio et Progressio, 1971)

As the last sentence suggests, the norm is for Catholic media to be owned outside the institutional Church, such as with major Catholic media outlets in the United Kingdom, North America and Europe.

Bishop Robert Barron, who founded Word on Fire media ministry in the United States, has said: “Word on Fire succeeded largely because it operated outside of the Church bureaucracy . . . . The bureaucratic element of the Church exists to serve the charismatic, but the trouble, and it happens very often in the
Church, is that the charismatic element gets smothered by the bureaucratic.”

The Catholic Church in New Zealand has been slow to use modern communications technology, lagging well behind our Protestant brothers and sisters. We had to go to a Protestant television channel to get Masses screened during Covid-19. (All three of our free-to-air Christian TV channels are Protestant.)

Evangelical Protestants, whose numbers are much smaller than the Catholic population, fund and operate multimillion-dollar media operations such as Rhema Media and the Christian Broadcasting Association (which produces award-winning Christian programmes for secular radio stations).

I believe an online national Catholic news and information service should be estabished, to reach those who do not read newspapers. It could:

  •  Keep online Catholics informed on what is happening in the Church and community, so they can “play their active role in the life of the Church”.
  • Share Catholic perspectives on issues of the day. • Show we have good news stories to share, even while we face up to issues like abuse cases.
  • Build up the identity and confidence of Catholics, and counter the trend to marginalise Christianity.
  • Reach youth, inactive Catholics and ethnic communities (through a translation facility) in ways that would be impossible in print.

Such a project would require the skills of IT people (those I have consulted are enthusiastic), journalists, marketers and managers.

And it would need money. I estimate an adequately resourced news service accessed daily by thousands of Catholics would cost around $500,000 a year — roughly half the cost of a Catholic primary school with 100 students.

Seeking income by paywall would probably be counterproductive. Advertising prospects would be limited. Sponsorship would be problematic, as sponsors might feel entitled to influence content.

Endowment and donations from users would be the most promising sources of funding. The Tablet (London) offers an endowment example: It formed a charitable trust in 1976 after several wealthy backers made donations. The trust invested the money and makes annual grants to the publishing operation.

And, as Pope Francis told members of the Vatican’s communications department last year, “No investment is too great for spreading the Word of God”.

What I propose may seem a bold leap from a chrysalis, but it would be modest compared to what the smaller evangelical Protestant community has been doing for years. To achieve it would require the Catholic community to provide the will, the talent and the resources.

Pat McCarthy was founding editor of NZ Catholic. He has also worked for Zealandia and CathNews New Zealand.

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