The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date: May 30, 2003
Finances, bishops watchful eye among the constraints on journalistic impulse
By DAN MORRIS-YOUNG
Long before the U.S. invasion of Iraq, editors and reporters working for diocesan newspapers knew about being embedded journalists.
On one hand, it can provide a kind of heady backstage pass to the inner chambers of the church mysterious. On the other, it can be La Brea tarpit journalism -- dark, sticky, terminal, and perhaps headed for extinction.
Following a year during which disturbing news about the Catholic church battled terrorism for front-page prominence in the general press, NCR interviewed more than 30 writers, editors and publishers employed in diocesan publishing ventures to find out what the Catholic press thought of itself and its ability to handle tough issues. I knew many of them as colleagues during my more than 35 years in the Catholic press, many of them as an editor of a diocesan paper. In a broad sense the subject -- press freedom, the prerogatives of bishops and the limits of journalism at a diocesan paper -- were also familiar. They had often been the topics of conversation in the past.
Diocesan papers, dependent for existence on the very institution they are charged to cover, have always balanced precariously between competing impulses. On the one hand, they want to be legitimate news operations; on the other hand, Catholic editors always know their newsgathering instincts can run up against the boundaries of what a bishop considers legitimate.
More and more today, though, questions arise. Has the balance tipped? Are diocesan papers more journalism or public relations? What subjects are they allowed to cover and discuss? What subjects, individuals or groups are taboo?
It is not surprising that the answers vary from diocese to diocese, bishop to bishop. But some points of consensus arose over the course of the interviews:
The most pessimistic wonder if the local Catholic press -- there are 167 diocesan publications in the United States -- is being methodically diminished, even dismantled. They point quickly to Catholic New York, a much-watched newspaper that fell victim to archdiocesan budget woes almost two years ago. Overnight Catholic New York was slashed from a weekly to a monthly. A staff of 32 now stands at 14. The editorial department had filled a dozen chairs. Now its three.
Remaining personnel and chancery officials there, however, claim the drastic cutbacks were meant to balance archdiocesan budgets, not quash the newspaper.
I can honestly say that what the cardinal did here in New York was not an attack on the paper. He cut back across the board, said general manager Art McKenna .
I would not see it an indicator of what necessarily will come to other dioceses nor interpret it as a shot across the bow, added the newspapers editor-in-chief John Woods. McKenna, on the other hand, has fielded calls from different parts of the country seeking background on the New York monthly model. My suspicions are that [the callers] are gathering information in anticipation of being asked questions by their boards, he said. We are the 800-pound gorilla people watched go through this, and we do have some insights into it.
West Coast boomDiocesan press proponents, however, need only look to the opposite coast for encouragement. Its a different story in California. In Los Angeles circulation of the weekly The Tidings has moved via mandate from 33,000 three years ago to 100,000-plus today. Up the coast, the San Francisco archdiocese launched a full circulation (nearly 100,000) weekly in 1999. Total circulation of diocese-based newspapers is a hair under 6 million, according to the Catholic Press Association.
Many papers have agreements with the diocese or parishes for some form of mandate plan. The plans force feed the newspaper to a percentage of -- sometimes to all -- registered households.
Circulation is one thing; journalistic freedom is another. Most say their freedom to pursue germane topics of the day is no more hampered than at any community newspaper. At the same time, many Catholic journalists raise eyebrows at what they view as significant encroachment in recent years by policies and personnel with a public relations emphasis.
Kay Legreid has concerns about the latter. Associated with The Catholic Northwest Progress in Seattle for more than three decades, Legreid charges, One of the worst things that can happen -- and I have seen it in many places -- is that between the bishop and the editor is the PR guy.
I dont want to paint all public relations people with the same brush, she said, but where there is a structure in place where the communications director really exerts influence on the paper, it can be extremely problematic.
Former Catholic Press Association president Ethel Gintoft agrees. I know many editors who think they are independent journalists, but they are not, particularly when a newspaper is also headed by a dioceses director of information. That director, in my opinion, cannot possibly be journalistically objective. I know it is happening, but it has to be very tough.
My guess is, those directors will provide plenty of content coaching to newspaper personnel under their authority, added Gintoft, a recipient of the St. Francis de Sales Award, the highest honor conferred by the Catholic Press Association. She was for many years a leader of the Milwaukee Catholic Herald.
Another St. Francis de Sales winner and former CPA head disagrees. Christopher Gunty, associate editor of The Catholic Sun, reports to the director of the Phoenix dioceses communications department and pinch-hits as diocesan spokesperson in emergencies.
I have been the editor one minute and then answering calls from the media in the next, Gunty said. You can structure things any way you want, but the end result is what comes out in the paper and what your purpose is.
There are places in the country where this is done badly, he said, and places where it is not.
San Francisco, Dallas and Evansville, Ind., are all places that would like to think they rank in the places where it is not group. Heads of newspapers in all three -- as in many locales -- double as diocesan spokespersons.
Journalism or public relations?
Paul Leingang embodies the realities faced in many smaller dioceses with limited resources. He is director of communications for Evansville as well as editor of its weekly, The Message.
He displays a sense of humor about it. I havent compromised my principles, but at times I have had to accept the strange and strained reality that I know things as the director of communications that I dont tell the editor.
Bronson Havard in Dallas dons multiple media beanies, but grudgingly. I dont like the two-hat situation, but sometimes it is necessary where the church cannot afford an editor and a spokesman.
Some editors come from the nonprofit journalism ranks and think their role is to be public relations, said Havard, executive editor of The Texas Catholic, a biweekly. A lot of them are getting their roles confused. Too many do not report directly to the bishop, but answer to a communications director with a public relations background -- a pretty face or a pretty voice and they want editors to make them look good.
The dual role is a conflict of interest and we have to admit that, Havard said.
No, we dont, could well be the response of San Franciscos Maurice Healy. If one says the spokespersons job is to lie and coverup, while the editors job is to discover the facts and present the truth, there is a conflict of interest. But it takes a pretty dumb person to accept this dichotomy.
Wearing two -- or more -- hats has not been an issue for him, Healy said in an
e-mail. Healy, who spearheaded founding of Catholic San Francisco four years ago, is executive editor. He ran a successful communications consulting business before being hired by the archdiocese. For me to be successful in my overall job of director of communications, the newspaper needs to be successful. For the newspaper to be successful, it needs to be a credible and respected source of news and information. I am very protective of the papers reputation for fair, balanced, accurate and complete reporting.
Covering sex abuse
For much of the diocesan press, coverage of the explosive clergy sexual abuse story was new ground. Was it a litmus test for a church that seemed to be saying it wanted its dealings to be transparent and open, or was it a boot camp for spin?
Some editors and reporters said the scandal helped their own bishops come to fresher, more appreciative views of the diocesan newspaper. Leingang, for example, said, The omnipresence of the sex scandal coverage has had a somewhat surprising effect of widening the scope of what we cover. Specifically, we have published some comments and viewpoints in recent months related to sex and sexuality that we probably would not have published a few years ago.
In Florida where six of the states seven dioceses cooperatively publish the weekly Florida Catholic, Miami communications director Mary Ross Agosta said an in-house embezzlement added to the national and Florida sex scandals to prove that it is important to have a means to communicate to the Catholic population to get your message out without having to depend on the secular press -- and the editing or filtering you find there.
Catholic media and the press are vital in times of crisis, said Agosta, who chairs the Florida Catholic board of directors.
Most editors said they kept coverage of localized aspects of the sex abuse story to bare-bones, facts-only reports. Even these, however, were often difficult to pull together. Running stories past lawyers became common. Becoming familiar with legalese became mandatory.
For some reporters, the most wrenching aspect of the stories was, in the words of Phoenixs Gunty, I know some of these people involved.
I hate writing these stories, he said. But there are important lessons to be learned. Our challenge is to make sure our readers can count on us to let them know what is going on -- and in a context they need.
To buttress coverage, the Phoenix paper purchased the Internet domain Integrity.org and often tags stories with directions to their Web site for background pieces and documentation on the sex scandal as well as other issues.
Catholic Press Association president Dennis Heaney, however, wrote in the January issue of The Catholic Journalist that he was concerned at how poorly some diocesan publications were used in getting out the message of the local church on the clerical abuse story. I talked to a number of diocesan newspaper editors who, in one way or another, have called simply to vent and chant the Rodney Dangerfield mantra, I dont get no respect. They told of how their papers were used to run diocesan statements reacting to the revelations or interpretations of the local secular press while the diocesan paper was limited in what it could report and sometimes even told not to report on the crisis.
One diocesan editor, Heaney wrote, was told that his diocese was working very closely with the local daily newspaper so they would get better treatment, and that meant that the daily would have access to the bishop, something denied the diocesan editor.
San Franciscos Archbishop William Levada said he has had conversations with the Catholic San Francisco staff concerning coverage of the situation of priests in the archdiocese. Maury [Healy] is inclined to take the position that the best thing is to put out the whole story and not hold back.
Levada, who is the newspapers publisher, pauses. I am in agreement with that in principle, but sometimes there are aspects that might bear on the question of how the whole story is told. In the main, Maury has had his way.
Ironically, some see the sexual abuse scandal draining dioceses already thin financial resources, which can indirectly affect a newspapers ability to cover the story.
Sometimes editorial decisions that look to compromise journalistic standards and integrity are partly the result of insufficient staff to present informative, balanced stories, said Sam Lucero, associate managing editor of Milwaukees The Catholic Herald. It is a situation he believes will not soon change, particularly in dioceses that have suffered major financial setbacks due to the scandal.
In the diocese of Tucson, Ariz., Maggie Burnett has found herself shifting from initial concerns about her boss, the community relations director, writing stories for the monthly there, The Vision. Now the young managing editor is grateful for the help.
At first I was uncomfortable letting a PR guy write stories for the paper. It seemed a breach of ethics, which Im sure some could argue is true, she said. However, I consider our director of communications here to be a very knowledgeable source of information about sensitive topics that I simply am unable to take the time to investigate.
No wonder. Burnett is basically the staff. She designs ads, prepares and mails invoices, writes, reports, edits, keeps tab on freelancers, takes photos, oversees the budget, attends meetings, and all but peddles the publication to subscribers.
In this, The Vision is not unique. Many diocesan publications are shepherded to press by persons who work incredible hours at sometimes embarrassingly modest wages with little recognition.
As one editor put it, There are a few heavy hitting places that have fairly decent sized budgets and all of that, but then there is the rest of us. Its two different animals. Basically, these papers are being put out with minimal staffs and certainly minimal budgets.
Julie Sly, editor of the Sacramento, Calif., Catholic Herald, echoes the point and speaks for many when she says, When you are bi-weekly or even monthly you are very seldom on the breaking end of stories.
Said Lucero in Milwaukee: We should not fool ourselves into thinking Catholic journalists are investigative reporters looking to uncover scandal. It is not our mission and its not feasible. However, our journalistic responsibilities should include in-depth analysis from a religious perspective.
One solution: change the name
Some argue that diocesan publications should simply cease wrestling with the journalism mantle. Concede resource deprivation and a public relations agenda. Substitute publication or periodical or something else for newspaper.
Seattle has done just that. In its masthead, the Progress no longer describes itself as the archdioceses newspaper, but rather its official publication.
This was done on purpose, said Legreid, a one-time Catholic Press Association board member. We have to really ask ourselves what it is we are publishing. For example, diocesan publications, like university magazines, can be informative tools, but they are very clearly what they are. We need to say so.
Renee Horton is adamant on the topic. Until recently a Catholic press columnist and freelancer, she feels some bishops are just fine with financially hobbled publications -- public relations rags they call newspapers.
With minimal resources, editors and reporters simply do not have time to develop the big story, she said. And thats OK with the bishops. If we are only going to focus on the so-called uplifting of the community thats fine. Just do not call it a newspaper.
Horton has moved to the secular press, now covering, among other things, religion for an Arizona weekly. She would no longer tolerate bishops in the newsroom or professional journalists being told they do not know what the news is.
Catholics need to know the good, the bad and the ugly, Horton said, because Catholics in the pew right now do not trust the leadership. Truth is the way to correct that. She described crossing purpose-of-the-Catholic-press swords with Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas when she was a freelancer, then staff member there.
Horton said she had several columns yanked at Kicanas direction while the same pieces appeared in other diocesan papers.
The bishop, she said, made it clear he did not want negative news to be featured in his publication and that he wanted to be able to defend whatever it carried.
Like many bishops, he feels Catholics do not know how to think, she charged.
Kicanas, who will succeed Bishop Joseph Galante as chair of the U.S. bishops communications committee in November, said his disagreements with the 17-year Catholic press veteran had more to do with tone than with content.
Writers have different styles, different ways of expressing things, the bishop explained, and in my conversations with Renee there was the question of the harshness. She does, I think, admit she comes across a little too direct at times or perhaps not as nuanced as she could be. I felt some of it was not appropriate for a diocesan newspaper.
Both Kicanas and Galante emphasized bishops interest in a newspapers teaching role and its potential to unify a diocese, notably in geographically large dioceses such as Tucson.
Stated Galante, who is coadjutor bishop of Dallas: The Catholic newspaper must first of all recognize it is one way in which the church -- or the bishop primarily -- speaks to his people. Through it he is able to inform and form people.
The most important thing at any Catholic paper, he said, is to be accurate, truthful and faithful to the mission of the church.
Defining the mission
Galante readily agrees that arriving at a mutually acceptable understanding of faithful to the mission is where tensions can arise between prelates and press people.
The bishop has the primary responsibility of teaching in his local church, Galante said. If the newspaper teaches contrary to that -- I am talking about church doctrine -- then that is a problem.
That problem has stung many publications. The topic of womens ordination appears particularly troublesome. Within the last six months alone it has rankled publishers, editors and readers in at least Tucson, Milwaukee and St. Paul/Minneapolis.
The Vision took heat from some Catholics of the area for ignoring a womens ordination event at a local parish, according to Burnett. On the other hand, The Catholic Spirit in St. Paul/Minneapolis and The Catholic Herald in Milwaukee both sparked ire for material they ran.
In January The Catholic Spirit carried a column by local freelancer, John Rosengren, in which he advocated womens ordination and did so in a way that was hostile to the hierarchy, almost calling it a force of evil, according to Bob Zyskowski, associate publisher.
We have an arrangement by which we can print controversial things as long as we make clear what the church teaches, he continued. So, a small paragraph quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church on church teaching on ordination was inserted.
In retrospect, Zyskowski said, It was hardly enough to counterbalance the column. The paper was taken to task by many, notably 11 pastors who wrote the archdiocese in protest, some threatening to withhold a portion of their assessment, others saying they were going to remove parishioners from the newspaper mailing list. (The weeklys 87,000 circulation rests on a mandated subscription plan.)
Zyskowski wrote an open letter for the next weeks front page. He affirmed church teaching on ordination as well as outlined a newspapers role in providing a forum for discussion.
A wonderful dialogue continued with readers for the next four weeks, he said. It made for great reading and was very informative from all kinds of perspectives.
He and editor Michael Krokos were asked by Archbishop Harry J. Flynn to meet face to face with each of the 11 pastors. The directive has been portrayed by some as a form of sanction, but Zyskowski said the one-on-ones were an enlightening experience in almost all cases.
I picture a lot of those pastors differently now, he explained. I think I had put some of them into a box and almost dismissed their opinions. I came away with a much broader appreciation for their gifts and their values. And I hope they picture me differently now, too -- not as the dissident journalist trying to overturn the church.
Many Catholic press folk share Zyskow-skis conclusion that there are a small number of voices on the extreme left and a small number on the far right and a whole lot of us in the middle who wish it would all stop. We learn that we have common ground as Catholics pure and simple without all the ideological slants. We just want to be able to live out our spiritual lives as best we can, and I think a Catholic newspaper is supposed to help people do that.
However, he added, just by reporting on an issue readers even today too often assume the newspaper -- or the prelate publisher -- is endorsing a particular view, person, or movement. And somehow the Catholic newspaper ends up being the bulls-eye in the middle.
Disturbance in Milwaukee
Milwaukees newspaper staff knows the feeling. After March 25 front-page coverage of a World Day of Prayer for Womens Ordination service held at a local parish, the story writer and associate publisher were summoned by Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan. The next issue ran an editorial reaffirming church teaching on ordination and apologizing for any confusion that might have been caused. It also carried the text of a letter of apology from Fr. David Cooper, pastor of St. Matthias Parish in Milwaukee where the event took place. (See related story, Page 15.)
One dominant theme emerged among all those interviewed: The local bishop can make or break a newspaper. Editors repeatedly underscored the importance of having easy access to their ordinaries for clarity, background and context -- and to perhaps provide bishops a heads up about upcoming stories or letters.
It has long been a running joke that such advance no surprises warnings for bishops are timed by daring editors to coincide with the start of presses. Being ready to apologize is better than asking permission, said one.
It is rare to hear reports of bishops requiring advance review of pages. Not one editor or reporter interviewed said diocesan officials must, as policy, approve copy in advance.
Some said they forward stories or commentary on contentious topics to chancery officials if they are concerned that a bishop might object. Malea Hargett at Little Rocks Arkansas Catholic, for example, at times asks the papers theological adviser to review such material including wire copy on issues such as the sex abuse scandal.
Generally I know what our bishop or Msgr. [Francis] Malone [theological adviser] would find acceptable or appropriate for our paper, the weeklys editor said. I look at it more as guidance. Its a good protection plan or safety net. ... I feel safe if something [adverse] happens. If something comes up, well, Msgr. Malone read it and approved it.
The bishop is the publisher. What the publisher wants is what we will do, Hargett said. You cannot think that you run the paper.
Widely published freelancer Beth Dotson Brown echoes Hargett. Its certainly the bishops right to use the paper as he sees fit, so it might very well be used for PR or development. Is this the ideal situation for the news purist? Of course not. But its also no different from secular papers where the publisher might have specific interests that he or she is likely to encourage or discourage.
It would be interesting to sit in on a discussion involving Brown, Hargett and Ethel Gintoft.
Yes, I do think there is a trend toward controlled news, said Gintoft, the now-retired publisher of Milwaukees Catholic Herald. In most of these cases, they are being subsidized by the diocese, she said. And if you are getting money, they do own you and have a right to expect some control. I know a few, however, that are totally controlled.
According to San Franciscos Levada, It is quite possible to do a house newspaper which presents the panorama of views of church and society, that gives various sides of an issue, but still does so in a way that clearly identifies what the Catholic church teaching is.
Outright oversight is rare
Seattles Legried said, You might have a bishop who really believes in the free flow of information and provides great latitude for his paper, trusts his editor implicitly. But, I dont think there was ever a totally free flow, no matter how golden the era.
Still, she added, there were topics dealt with at length in the Progress in past times that probably would not find their way onto its pages today in any significant depth -- clerical celibacy being one example.
According to Catholic Press Association president Heaney, outright oversight or must-see policies are rare. I have not seen a trend toward house organs happening, said the recent St. Francis de Sales awardee.
In the top-management position at both The Catholic Spirit in St. Paul/Minneapolis (1980-98) and most recently The Tidings in Los Angeles (1998-2003), Heaney said neither paper labored under taboo lists.
Inherent in the press in general, though, we all tend to self-censor sometimes. But then again in the places I have worked I have not seen any dont touch this and dont touch that. Have I seen it in other places? Sure. I hear things like, My guy doesnt like this, or my guy doesnt like that.
Interestingly, interviewees pointed to oppressive policies at other newspapers, but rarely their own. Maybe this is related to what Frank Maurovich calls the farther- franker theory.
The farther you are from somewhere , the franker you can be, chuckled the 25-year editor of Maryknoll magazine who was founding editor of Oaklands The Catholic Voice in 1964.
Diocesan journalism is a tough bag to be in, Maurovich said. In one sense, the editor has to be leading the bishop. A Catholic paper tends to be as good as the bishop allows it to be. If you look at the Catholic press, it is a kind of reflection of the kinds of bishops we have.
Its an anomaly that bishops publish papers, Maurovich said. Its the same as if George Bush put out The Washington Times.
Even the most pro-open-press bishops can find themselves hamstrung, he added. For example? The Vatican comes out and says women in the priesthood is a nonnegotiable issue, perhaps even infallible someday. The bishop would say the Vatican has spoken on this, so we are not free to discuss the issue. Everybody struggles with this.
Various editors, who asked not to be named, said a list of unspoken, youre-asking-for-it subjects would include subjects such as liturgical dance, features that highlight former priests, womens ordination, the gay Catholic organization Dignity, and interviews with church personalities such as Fr. Richard McBrien, Fr. Charles Curran or Sr. Jeannine Gramick.
For Thomas Sheridan, editor and general manager of The Catholic New World, the Chicago archdioceses biweekly, one editors taboo is another editors common sense. We focus on stories of faith and religion, locally and worldwide, and we do so from the perspective of the Catholic church, he said. Ignoring liturgical dance would be an unusual taboo and former priests involved in appropriate ministry would surely pose no problem. However, from the perspective of the Catholic church, womens ordination and Dignity, a Catholic gay advocacy group -- among many other topics -- are stories of neither faith nor religion and not a focus for us.
My role as communications director, said Floridas Mary Ross Agosta, is to be sure the information I need to get out there is carried in the newspaper and other diocesan media outlets on a timely basis.
When asked if the paper had a taboo list, Agosta stated, Absolutely not.
One Catholic press journeyman said his experience was that most of the censorship is self imposed.
You just know, he said. A certain bishop has probably never said, Do or do not print this, but you just know. Certain areas are going to raise a red flag. My dad was an editor for Standard Oil and he said there were a lot of things youd like to write about Standard Oil, but you cant while you are working for them.
Them to many editors and reporters is not just bishops and/or directors of communication. Chanceries are populated with office and department heads who often have communication agendas of their own. Or, as Havard puts it, The chancery tends to want a paper about the chancery, a paper that will promote meetings and bureaucratic projects and make them look good.
Healy of Catholic San Francisco is more politic: As part of my preaching, I say were interested in printing newsworthy stories of interest to our readers. We are not a chancery newsletter. This adherence to news judgment has been well accepted.
Job security is not a small issue in the diocesan press. A short generation ago, many, if not most, diocesan papers were headed by clerics. If fired, they were not cut off from income, health care benefits, or a retirement plan. Most editors today are laity, many with families and mortgages. No job, no income. No income, no house.
You work knowing you are one mistake away from losing your job, said one journalist.
That should not be the case, emphasized Havard, who praised Dallas Bishop Charles Grahmann for allowing him the freedom to be the best Catholic editor that I can be. He gives me the freedom to make mistakes. That is critical.
Bishops wrestle with striking a balance between meddling with the free flow of information and being responsible as the dioceses chief teacher.
Every publisher has that challenge, said Dallas coadjutor bishop Galante, and we have to keep in mind he is the person ultimately responsible for what his publication puts out. At the same time, I dont think the bishop should be held to a different standard than the local secular paper. That [publisher role] gets worked out at any publishing enterprise.
San Franciscos Levada knows the drill. Claiming he does not do any kind of censoring, Levada said balancing lines of authority, the needs of readers to know, the latitude of journalists to report, and the teaching role of the church can be a delicate matter.
It is indisputable that Levada sees Catholic San Francisco as his newspaper and as a fundamental vehicle for communicating with his archdiocese. He defines its primary functions as teaching, unifying and providing the churchs take on events.
Thats why he pushed for saturation circulation. I am absolutely convinced that if you are going to go to the trouble of putting out a good diocesan newspaper, you just have to bite the [financial] bullet. The Catholic newspaper ought to be in every Catholic home.
I was Levadas editor from 1998-2000 and it was clear to me that he had given considerable thought to the difficult terrain of the editor-publisher relationship. It is important that a bishop and editor have an understanding, he said, so that things can be talked out in advance before there is a crisis.
Crises and delicate matters have been abundant in San Francisco, including financial scandals at the top of Catholic Charities, controversial parish closings, multiple sexual molestation charges against priests, and showdowns with city hall.
The people who work on the staff [of Catholic San Francisco] are professional journalists. They do not want to have me looking over their shoulders. We have to respect that and recognize that Catholic journalists are a part of an apostolate, and yet they have their own professional ethics. I think it can work out, but the lines of communication have to be open and secure.
I tugged those lines from time to time. One anecdote perhaps sheds light on Levada and other bishops sense of their newspapers. During a pre-hire interview, I told the archbishop I was confident he did not want his editor to be a lap dog. Smiling, he replied, You know, Dan, one persons lap dog is another persons loyal employee.
Dan Morris-Young, who worked for more than 35 years for Catholic diocesan newspapers, now is a freelance writer living in Arlington, Wa.
National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 2003
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