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Five California diocesan papers break with Catholic Press Assn.

NCR Staff

Five Catholic newspapers in California have withheld their dues from the Catholic Press Association this year, charging mismanagement of the organization's advertising network, poor member services and a bias that favors East Coast papers.

In withholding their dues, the papers have effectively withdrawn from the CPA, a service organization that represents 167 local diocesan papers plus 13 Eastern rite and five national papers. It is headquartered in Ronkonkoma, N.Y.

The defectors include The Tidings, the paper of the Los Angeles archdiocese, the largest diocese in the country; The Inland Catholic in San Bernadino; The Catholic Voice in Oakland; The Valley Catholic in San Jose; and The Catholic Herald in Sacramento. Together the papers have a combined circulation of 221,000, based on figures in the 1997 Catholic Press Directory.

Perhaps the most vexing issue for the California papers centers on the Catholic Advertising Network -- CAN -- which is owned and operated by the association. CAN solicits advertising from national clients on behalf of local papers.

The California editors argue that the commissions charged by CAN have been too high, forcing them to inflate their own advertising prices, and that profits generated by CAN serve primarily to line the press association's coffers.

"[CAN] is about how the CPA can make more money, not about how it can help Catholic papers," said Tim Holden, business and marketing director for both The Catholic Voice and The Catholic Herald. "It's about benefiting a few individuals at the expense of the members."

"That's just blatantly wrong," said Owen McGovern, executive director of CPA. He argued that the association has not even recovered its original investment in CAN. Moreover, the network's purpose is "to serve the members," McGovern said, "not to enrich CPA."

In fact, McGovern claimed that since CPA and CAN are legally separate entities, the network "does not generate a dime" for CPA. Nevertheless, he acknowledged that he serves as president of CAN, that CAN is operated out of the press association's offices and that CAN has reimbursed CPA for some expenses. McGovern said he couldn't supply a specific figure for how much advertising income the network has generated to date, but said "it hasn't taken in a lot of money."

Until May of this year, whenever CAN sold an ad the local paper paid a sales commission of 15 percent as well as a 15 percent commission for administration. If an advertising agency placed the order, the paper also paid 15 percent to cover that agency's commission. Since CAN's contract specifies that papers must give the network their guaranteed minimum rate for advertising space, many papers were forced to mark up their rates for all advertisers, sometimes by as much as 35 or 40 percent.

In a letter dated Nov. 22, 1996, the editors of the California papers argued that CAN's commissions amounted to "excessive overcharging" and were arguably illegal as a form of price-fixing under federal restraint-of-trade laws.

At the national CPA convention in Denver in May, CAN unveiled a new policy on commissions. It now charges a 15 percent total commission to for-profit papers and 10 percent to nonprofit. "This makes us among the lowest around," McGovern said. McGovern said these changes were already "in the works" at the time of a February meeting in Oakland to air the editors' concerns.

"Twenty years from now when CAN is a tremendous success, our members won't even remember this struggle," said Christopher Gunty, CPA president and editor of The Catholic Sun in Phoenix.

The commissions might be worth it, said Julie Sly, editor of The Catholic Herald, if CAN brought in a higher volume of ads. "They don't generate enough ads to justify what they're charging," she said. Sly added that she was also irked by the CAN advertising agreement, which asks papers to sign over exclusive rights to solicit national advertising.

Holden argued that CAN sales patterns reflect a regional bias. "Most of the ads they sell run in the East Coast papers," he said. "It reflects the CPA's East Coast orientation."

"That's probably close to being accurate," said Gunty. "This is something I've been concerned about for years. ... It's hard to convince a New York agency that California or Arizona is the best place to spend their money," he said, adding that he hopes CAN will add a full-time sales representative in the West.

Instead of sales help, however, the California papers said that what they really need is assistance in marketing strategy. "When I talk to potential clients, they have no idea what a Catholic newspaper is, that they even exist," Holden said. "CAN needs to lead us in raising the visibility of the Catholic press, which doesn't mean you have to have salesmen in the field," he said.

McGovern countered that most Catholic papers rely on CAN to tap the national market. "If [the California papers] think they can go around the country and solicit their own ads, good luck to them," he said. "This isn't what I hear from most of our members."

The editors of the five California papers also criticized CPA for the poor quality of national and regional meetings. "From an editorial point of view, there's almost nothing for us there," Sly said, arguing that conventions generally offer basic writing, layout and photography sessions of limited utility to editors. She also said information about the conventions was not communicated quickly enough to members.

"Maybe it's time to recognize that local staffs don't usually have the capacity to take on a national convention," Sly said, referring to the CPA practice of relying upon the host newspaper to make most of the conference arrangements. Sly said that the California editors plan to hold workshops tailored for their own needs and possibly to attend Society for Professional Journalists events.

"All I can say is that the Denver convention had a 95 percent approval rating," McGovern said. "I was told several times -- in fact, I was told just today -- that it was the best convention ever," he said.

"I think there's a lot of depth at the conventions," Gunty said. "We do a good job of offering something for everyone, both in terms of issues and process."

The California group also raised concerns about the speed with which CPA notified them of important matters such as changes in postal rates. In an Aug. 1 letter to the California editors, Gunty acknowledged the legitimacy of such concerns, promising to rely more on fax and E-mail to disseminate information.

Finally, the editors said CPA should do more to facilitate relationships among member papers and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In his letter, Gunty said he did some "nonchalant lobbying" at bishops' meetings, taking the form of comments such as, "Bishop Smith, I'm glad to see you. You've got a great newspaper there in the diocese of Flagstaff."

"I personally wouldn't want him [Gunty] approaching my bishop," Sly said. "I wouldn't know what the point of that was." Instead, she said CPA should involve the bishops and editors in "serious dialogue" about the role and function of diocesan newspapers.

Gunty argued that the primary burden for such communication should fall on the local editor. "We can do as much as we want to on the national level to get bishops and editors to listen to each other," he said, "but it won't matter if the local editor doesn't have a good relationship with that bishop."

Tod Tamberg, editor of The Tidings, said CPA's regional bias in favor of the East Coast is reflected in its ignorance of trends facing newspapers in the West. "They don't understand the pressures we face toward regionalization," he said. "They're unaware of the cooperative advertising arrangements we're evolving."

Sly said the withdrawal of the California papers is not a once-and-for-all maneuver. "We're taking a wait and see stance," she said. "If at some point CPA responds to our concerns, we're willing to reconsider."

"We always take member concerns seriously," McGovern said. "Maybe we can't meet all of their concerns, but I think we've shown a lot of improvement."

Tamberg, however, was not hopeful about the prospects of a rapprochement. He noted that at the very time the five California papers were involved in negotiations with CPA over their future as members, they were receiving nasty notes from the organization's business office demanding that their dues be paid up. "It does make you wonder," Tamberg said.

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 1997