Problems within the Catholic Press: Survey Shows 'White Paper' on Freedom and Responsibility Has Fallen on Deaf Ears within the Church Hierarchy

Article excerpt

LESS THAN TWO years ago, David Fortier was editor of the Catholic Transcript, a weekly newspaper in Hartford. Now he works out of his home, editing the fledgling American Catholic Northeast, an independent monthly paper.

Despite affection and enthusiasm for his career, Fortier chose to start his own publication rather than endure what he considered excessive interference from officials in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford.

Frustrated by changes that included the appointment of a priest as executive director to "review Catholic content," Fortier left the paper in March 1993. The news editor, two priests and a laywoman who comprised the editorial board of the diocesan paper soon followed him.

"A paragraph was being moved from one position to another," Fortier recounted.

"We couldn't use a quote because it didn't speak favorably of the church. I didn't think those changes were honest."

Fortier's conflict over content reflects one problem journalists face at Catholic newspapers. Controversies such as this grab headlines and spotlight a fundamental difference between the Catholic press and its secular counterparts.

But for all the apparent differences, experts within the Catholic press describe a challenge strikingly similar to that of daily newspapers: declining circulation and an aging readership.

These struggles to survive the rapidly changing media world come at a time when the Roman Catholic Church faces its own credibility crisis, shrinking numbers of ordained priests and challenges to the church's traditional teachings on such issues as sexuality, birth control and women's roles.

The unique structure of Catholic newspapers creates some of the problems -- in most cases, a bishop is publisher and circulation is officially mandated by the local church, although most pastors ignore the mandate.

As the financial viability of Catholic papers weakened in recent decades, most shifted from private ownership to nonprofit status, operated by local dioceses. This change blurted the relationship between the institution and the press.

The newspapers, fluctuating between representing the church's view as house organs and reporting for the public interest, are caught between bishop-publishers who often want to control information and readers and staff members who expect the hierarchy to account for its actions.

While acknowledging the significance of structural and content concerns, Bill Thorn, a journalism professor at Marquette University, sees the major issue for Catholic papers as a lack of a marketing strategy.

"Many people tell you that they don't have enough time to read a Catholic newspaper," he said. "But if you probe that response, you find that what they are really telling you is, 'You are not meeting my needs.'"

According to Thorn, who also directs the Institute on Catholic Media at Marquette, the 163 local Catholic newspapers are long overdue in defining and reacting to the needs of their readers.

"Editors have been reluctant to give the people what they want," he said.

Thorn discussed some of the obstacles for Catholic newspapers this spring during a meeting with 40 editors, circulation managers and general managers from around the country during the annual convention of the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, which also serves 262 magazines, 137 newsletters and 29 foreign-language publications.

Before presenting a nine-hour CPA workshop in May, Thorn surveyed recent circulation figures for 22 participating Catholic papers and found that 18 had lost an average of 8.4% of readership between 1991 and 1993.

Of the remaining four papers, three had modest two-year gains but were significantly below mid-1980s figures. Although reported figures suggest much more moderate changes for the Catholic press as a whole, the successes of a few and the expansion and addition of several newspapers offset significant losses at others. …