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The challenging particulars of Catholic publishing
Gasson 100 was nearly full on February 20 for a roundtable conversation on “The Future of Catholic Periodicals: Faith, Finances, and the Digital Age,” presented by Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century Center and the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. The forum took place during a period when Catholic journalists in general were talking about little other than the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI, a bombshell dropped by the pontiff into a speech given in Latin nine days earlier. Surprisingly, discussion hewed closely to the assigned topic, as the panel of three Catholic magazine editors weighed uncomfortable questions: Can truth-telling at times be a dicey business in their field of choice? Are their readers dying off?
In his opening observations, Tom Roberts, editor-at-large of the National Catholic Reporter and the event’s moderator, cited a wag’s remark of many years ago that “there isn’t any problem in Catholic publishing that couldn’t be solved with a good paper shortage.” It was a comment on the “insipid” quality of many Catholic periodicals, according to Roberts, who quickly added that the three magazines represented on the panel—Commonweal, America, and U.S. Catholic—are anything but.
Roberts introduced each editor with a bracing recent headline from his respective publication (it was an all-male roster that night). “Repeal the Second Amendment” was the intrepid title of an editorial in the February 25 issue of Jesuit-edited America, calling for stricter gun control. “That’s what happens when you’re away from the office,” joked Matt Malone, SJ, the weekly’s editor-in-chief, noting that he had been travelling at the time. “The New York Times Publishes Stupidest Story Ever about Papal Infallibility” was a February 18 commentary posted online by U.S. Catholic, a monthly edited by lay people and owned by the Claretian order of priests and brothers. And “This Will Do” came from the biweekly, independent, lay-edited Commonweal in its February 22 edition (like the America editorial, already available online). The headline introduced an editorial holding that the newly revised federal rules on private health insurance coverage of contraception, affecting religious institutions and their employees, should “put to rest the claim” that the Obama administration’s controversial birth-control mandate “wantonly violates religious liberty.” (The U.S. Catholic bishops had taken the opposite stance on February 7, in their own assessment of the revision.)
Besides Malone, the editors seated with Roberts at a small round table at the front of the room were Paul Baumann of Commonweal and Meinrad Scherer-Emunds of U.S. Catholic. Along with the National Catholic Reporter, known as NCR, the three magazines are among the most familiar brands in American Catholic journalism.
Commonweal, widely considered the leading voice of thoughtful, liberal Catholicism, and America, produced by the Society of Jesus in the United States, are opinion journals, both published in New York City. America does not identify itself as liberal, conservative, or centrist (and Malone argued at the forum that such labels don’t travel well from secular to religious discourse). U.S. Catholic, published in Chicago, reaches more broadly for the pews as a general-interest magazine that handles questions about Catholic teaching on subjects such as confession and capital punishment (in a department called “Glad You Asked”) and regularly surveys its readers on a wide range of non-religious topics. NCR, an independent biweekly newspaper with a daily online edition and headquarters in Kansas City, Missouri, is often cited for its unflinching coverage of the institutional Church, with in-depth stories on such matters as clerical sexual abuse and financial irregularities in Catholic dioceses and at the Vatican.
In part, the panelists aired the same digital-era worries that keep their secular counterparts up at night. Baumann said plainly that the “business model” of publications like his will have to change, because paid subscriptions, the traditional source of revenue, are waning. (Figures were not discussed, but America reports a print circulation of 37,000; NCR, 35,000; U.S. Catholic, 24,000; and Commonweal, 18,000.) Commonweal‘s demographics, Baumann added, are “frightening,” in that its readers are “very mature.” Malone, whose magazine is subsidized by his order, was more upbeat. Citing the success, lately, of long-form journalism online (at sites such as the Atlantic), he speculated that young people may be growing disenchanted with casual blogs and are “turning back to traditional sources of authority,” by which he meant “curators of content” such as the New York Times.
Other topics broached this evening would never surface at a meeting of the American Society of Magazine Editors—the catechetical role of journalists, for one. The general sentiment was that journalists are not catechists—people responsible for basic religious education. But Malone’s caveat was that Catholic periodicals should somehow speak to basic questions that even the most active young Catholics are asking, such as: “Do we think Muslims are going to hell?” and “What is the real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist?
During the Q&A, a tall, 20-something man in the front row asked the editors how they’ll reach the proliferating numbers of young people who, when polled on religious affiliation, check off “none of the above.” The short answer, by consensus, was that it’s hard to engage these “nones.” Catholic publications have little chance of drawing readers “who aren’t interested in the Church,” Scherer-Emunds noted.
Malone ventured, however, that religiously indifferent young people might begin to take notice if Catholic media were to proclaim a ringing message above the political and cultural din—about “the radical nature of the Christian call . . . and what it means to be a disciple in the United States today.”
Playing on one of Malone’s phrases, a 50-something man in the audience asked provocatively, “Why not be radically transparent to your readers?” His argument was that publications such as America should acknowledge that they have limited journalistic freedom owing to religious superiors and Vatican authorities. Malone, who last October, at age 40, became America‘s youngest ever editor-in-chief, didn’t concede the point. He described the magazine as a “media ministry connecting the Church with the modern world” and also as a “forum for commentary.” As such, “we actually enjoy a remarkable degree of independence,” he said of America‘s dozen-member editorial staff.
Malone reasoned that if America had been “shy” about saying what “it felt it really needed to,” then every editor-in-chief before him “would have happily retired voluntarily”—the implication being that they were usually sacked. In one publicized case, Thomas Reese, SJ, resigned as editor in 2005 after years of pressure from the Vatican’s Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), who objected to America‘s practice of airing commentary on both sides of disputed questions such as priestly celibacy and women’s ordination (despite Rome’s insistence that Church teachings and practices on those matters are not open to debate). Replacing Reese was Drew Christiansen, SJ, whom Malone pointed out in the audience, observing that he “actually is one of the rare exceptions who left [the magazine] voluntarily.”
“There’s a de jure way in which we can all say anything we want at any time, but de facto, we all face pressures to say or not say things,” Malone said. “And I think that’s also true for [a lay publication]. It just takes a different form.”