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Paper cuts in major dioceses have some editors worried


When the World Trade Center towers crumbled to the ground on Sept. 11, it was perhaps the biggest news story ever generated in New York City. The lives of millions of people, many of them Catholics, were touched directly by the tragedy.

Yet, Catholics in the New York archdiocese had to wait three weeks before they were able to read news coverage of Sept. 11 in their archdiocesan newspaper. That’s because a week before Sept. 11, the newspaper, Catholic New York, had cut its publication cycle from weekly to monthly.

The cost-saving initiative, mandated by Cardinal Edward Egan, meant that many Catholics living in 10 counties in the New York metropolitan area had to wait until October for Catholic-specific coverage of Sept. 11.

In the Chicago archdiocese, The Catholic New World recently went from weekly to biweekly, a change that will save the archdiocese a bundle on mailing costs. The impact of the change is ameliorated by the fact that both the size of the paper and the circulation were increased substantially, said editor and general manager Thomas Sheridan.

Leaders in the Catholic press say such changes in two of the nation’s three largest archdioceses could have serious negative consequences for the church’s effort to get its message across. New York and Chicago have about 2.3 million Catholics each. Los Angeles, with 4 million Catholics, is the largest U.S. archdiocese.

Under its new format, Catholic New York publishes a monthly issue that is mailed incrementally to approximately 135,000 homes. Approximately 35,000 issues are mailed each week, but the editorial content remains the same over the four weekly issues. Only advertising may vary. The change resulted in Catholic New York’s staff being cut from 34 to 14 full-time employees.

Sept. 11 happened “on the second week of the cycle, and we reluctantly and unfortunately had to just stand by and wait until the first edition of October before we were able to put anything into the paper,” said Art McKenna, general manager and cofounder of Catholic New York, which is in its 20th year of publication.

Despite great disappointment for McKenna and his staff, Catholic New York’s hands were tied. The archdiocese is in the midst of trying to erase a $20 million annual operating deficit.

“There has been so much of a spiritual and introspective nature that has come out of the World Trade Center tragedy,” McKenna said. “That is absolutely the kind of material that a Catholic newspaper is exceptionally well-suited to handling. It is one of the most obvious limitations of a once-a-month cycle. Our challenge is to make the best of what we’ve got. We’ve gone past the point of lamentation and lying in the fetal position. You don’t cover much ground in that position, but surely our readers obviously are among the most loyal people in the world.”

While Catholic New York didn’t publish, two neighboring dioceses, Brooklyn-Queens and Rockville Centre, with weekly newspapers, were able to quickly get news of Sept. 11 into the hands of their own Catholic readers.

‘A tremor’

Liz O’Connor, who has been associate publisher and editor of Rockville Centre’s publication, The Long Island Catholic, since 1993, said the news of Catholic New York’s cutback “sent a tremor” in some of the Catholic press. “I think people in the Catholic press were distressed,” she said.

O’Connor said editors are worried that other bishops might follow Egan’s lead.

“I think readers read newspapers out of habit,” O’Connor said. “Our readers look for it. Once you break that rhythm you may lose readership.

“I think it’s unfortunate that they have gone to less frequent publication, and I would be very unhappy should our bishop make that decision, but I would also be somewhat surprised. I don’t expect it.”

While Sheridan says he can still deliver a quality product to his Chicago readers 26 times a year, he doesn’t believe he could do it if he only published 12 times a year.

“I couldn’t do it with a monthly,” he said. “I think that would be, for us, foolish. There’s a very important clause in that sentence, ‘for us.’ I don’t want to be accused of saying what Catholic New York has done is foolish. I think they’re doing the best they can under the circumstances.”

Most editors interviewed for this story echoed the opinion that the Catholic press offers its readers information they won’t find anywhere else. A longtime Chicago Sun-Times editor, Sheridan says Chicago’s local secular press does a good job of reporting Catholic news, but they often highlight the negative.

“A diocesan newspaper exists to tell the stories of the faithful Catholics within that archdiocese, or that diocese, in an effort to be affirming, informational, evangelistic, certainly all of that,” he said. “I’m not out there competing with the dailies who can do some things better than I can because they’ve got bigger staffs, but they can’t cover the church like I can. They can cover elements of it, and they can also highlight the negatives. I’m not going to highlight negatives.”

In August, Owen McGovern, executive director of the Long Island-based Catholic Press Association, published a column in The Catholic Journalist opposing publication cutbacks for the Catholic press.

“In many cases, the Catholic newspaper is the only Catholic publication that comes into the home,” he wrote. “It is the only contact that many Catholics have with the church on the national and international level. It is also the primary means of communication that the bishop has at his disposal to communicate with members of his diocese.

“That can be crucial at times when secular press coverage of church issues is filled with inaccuracies or misleading information. The bishop must be able to respond and, in some cases, defend church actions and policies in a timely manner. And, most importantly, parishioners want to hear both bad news and good news from the church because it is considered the voice of credibility and truth.

“While secular publications may strive to publish accurate information on church-related issues, it is extremely dangerous to allow the secular press to be the only voice to reach the people on a regular basis.”

A proponent of weekly publication for diocesan newspapers, McGovern says he doesn’t see a trend toward reducing publication cycles despite the decisions in New York and Chicago.

“Bishops don’t follow other bishops,” he said. “Most of the time they do what they feel they need to do for their diocese.”

While he has seen cutbacks, McGovern is also seeing dioceses that are dramatically increasing circulation, and in the case of the archdiocese of San Francisco and the diocese of Anchorage, Alaska, papers have recently been started.

Circulation increases

Overall, circulation numbers for the approximately 180 Catholic newspapers is at an all-time high, McGovern said.

McGovern likens the Catholic press to a merry-go-round. “One paper goes up in circulation or down in circulation or up in frequency or down in frequency, then another does the opposite,” he said, “like a carousel going up and down. It’s really not a trend in any single direction.”

McGovern said the onus is on the individual publications to show bishops how important -- and profitable --a paper can be. Improving the financial stability and quality of a paper might result in a bishop increasing publication frequency or increasing circulation, he said. Cardinals and bishops come and go, and while one prelate might introduce cuts, a new bishop may come in and change everything.

“It’s basically what the bishop wants for his communications,” McGovern said. “How can one bishop say, ‘We can’t afford a program or we can’t sell it to the priests,’ and he retires and a new bishop comes in and within a short time he says, ‘I want everybody to get the paper’ and it happens?”

In New York, McKenna hopes for just such a change in the archdiocese’s economic viability.

“We felt that the weekly edition of Catholic New York was an exceptionally good example of Catholic diocesan journalism, and we still think that the monthly is an exceptional example of good Catholic journalism, but they’re not the same,” he said. “They’re not the same obviously, yet we are all compelled to face a reality and we would hope -- and this is a personal hope -- we would hope that the circumstances that caused this to be required may at some point be relieved in the future, and we will be able to return to a more frequent schedule.”

In October 1995, shortly after he arrived in the Raleigh, N.C, diocese as editor of the NC Catholic, John Strange saw his paper’s publication schedule cut from 36 issues to 26. The dimensions of the paper were also reduced to save on the cost of newsprint. The NC Catholic is mailed directly to about 55,000 Catholic homes at no direct cost to registered parishioners.

Initially, Strange said he was worried that less frequent publication would reduce the paper’s status among readers. “I was worried that we wouldn’t be as relevant, as important to the parishes,” he said.

His fears were not realized. “Letters to the editor continued to come in. Requests for coverage did not abate. We continued to be a voice.”

Unlike Catholic New York, Strange is permitted to publish a special issue if warranted. On Sept. 11, the paper was just being put together, so Strange was able to switch gears and deliver full coverage of the events surrounding the terrorist attacks, but he said he would have likely come out with a special issue if NC Catholic missed the news cycle for Sept. 11.

The initial cutback in publication was financially driven, said Strange, who operates NC Catholic with just one part-time staff writer. To make up for the decreased number of issues, NC Catholic, like Chicago, went to more pages. In the case of the NC Catholic, the paper grew from an average of 16 pages to 24 or more for most issues.

For most newspapers, the big ticket item is mailing costs. NC Catholic costs more than $5,000 per issue to mail, Strange said.

Like Long Island’s O’Connor, Strange worries that changes in New York and Chicago could happen elsewhere.

“The newspapers in Chicago and New York have been models for the rest of us because they’re such big, important newspapers,” he said. “I think the question is, ‘How much of a role model are they going to be for the other dioceses [after the cutbacks]?’ It’s going to be interesting to see if the other dioceses are going to follow that leadership.”

In Los Angeles, Dennis Heaney, executive publisher of The Tidings, says he would hate to see his publication frequency reduced. With strong support from Cardinal Roger Mahony, the archdiocesan Catholic weekly has a circulation of 92,000 at a subsidized subscription cost of $10 per year for 51 mailed issues. In addition, Heaney oversees the publication of Vida Nueva, a free Spanish language Catholic weekly with a circulation of 65,000. It is distributed in churches and neighborhood markets.

Reduced publication, Heaney said, “just means that much less contact between the church and the people in the pew on a regular basis.”

“This is the way the church gets its message out,” he said, referring to the Catholic press. “And, boy, if anything has become evident since Sept. 11, it is that the church needs to communicate with the people, and the people want to have a stronger interest in things spiritual.

“There’s a sadness that’s going on now that some of these papers aren’t able to reach the people on as regular a basis as they used to. ... This is outreach; this is evangelization.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2001