Christian media face challenging times

  • May 21, 2010
Christian publicationsTORONTO - Christian media in Canada are feeling the heat to modernize their news delivery and increase subscriptions if they want to keep their publications alive.

The Canadian Church Press (CCP), which in conjunction with the Association of Roman Catholic Communicators of Canada (ARCCC) held its annual conference here May 13-15, has seen its members suffer a two-per-cent decrease in subscriptions across the board in the past year. The theme of the conference? “We’re all in the same boat.”

“There certainly is a demand for us to be more on board with some of the technology that’s out there,” said Trina Gallop, president of the CCP. “It can be a challenge for some of our publications because we’re struggling with resources, and technology costs money.”

Christian newspapers and magazines face the same challenges as secular publications in Canada, she said, but the problems for Christian media are compounded in many denominations by fewer readers due to declining church attendance. To reach new readers, CCP members are trying to increase their online presence, which is not feasible for some.

“We are doing more with less and it’s not just a challenge of finances but also of people,” Gallop said.

To reduce printing and distribution costs, some papers have gone from publishing weekly to bi-monthly, while others have significantly reduced the number of pages in each issue and cut staff. Canada Post raised its rates 5.5 per cent in January and has already announced increases for each of the next two years.

Three CCP members closed their doors in the past year, Gallop said. The CCP has 73 full-time member organizations.

The Catholic media isn’t immune to that trend. The Catholic Times in Montreal announced in May that it faced possible closure next year because of funding cuts.

Otherwise, Catholic newspapers are weathering the storm. Canada’s two largest Catholic papers, The Catholic Register and Western Catholic Reporter (WCR), reported increased revenue over the past year despite the recession, with WCR ad revenue showing a 12-per-cent rise. Circulation was up  3.3 per cent at The Register in the past year.

“We are sound financially,” said WCR Editor and General Manager Glen Argan. “But I don’t think we can afford to be blasé about the growing religious indifference in Canada and we need to be more effective in dealing with people’s rapidly changing media expectations.”

Circulation of the B.C. Catholic is up nearly 40 per cent from a year ago, but that is due to a mandatory circulation program initiated by Vancouver Archbishop J. Michael Miller. The paper also recently hired its first full-time advertising director.

Gallop believes that some larger newspapers have the resources to incorporate newer technologies, but the CCP should focus on helping smaller publications do the same through more collaboration.

Bill Kokesch, ARCCC outgoing president, points to Salt + Light Television as an example of an organization that effectively uses online tools, including video and social media. The Catholic Register, which recently launched a new web site that incorporates multimedia projects and a video feed from Salt + Light, has also taken an important step forward, he said.

Doug Koop, editor of ChristianWeek in Winnipeg, said the challenge for most publications is that the rapid pace of change has overwhelmed editors.

“The problem is we’re all yelling louder in a sea of amplification and effectively people are drowning,” said Koop, whose publication recently cut back from publishing 25 issues a year to 19.

How to address that will be the next challenge.

“Quality content will attract readers. How to afford quality content and disseminate it in a timely manner is difficult but the human need to communicate is not going to go away,” Koop said.

Essentially, the role of Christian publications is changing, said CCP treasurer Pamela Richardson. Publications must identify their audience and be aware of a Christian publication’s changing role in society, she said.

“I’ve think we’ve all saturated our own markets. But as the global atmosphere changes, I think we will be called on more to testify to what we believe and we’ll be held accountable by the world at large on what we are printing and for our beliefs and how we are expressing those and how we relate to the global world,” she said.

Some publications have even divided their efforts to address pockets of audiences — like publishing one magazine to help the new Christian grow in their understanding of the faith, while keeping their main publication going to engage more mature Christians on issues of debate and spiritual growth.

It helps in one sense to ease the newcomers into their particular market, which Richardson said her publication, The Salvationist, did nearly 12 years ago.

“I think there’s a place for both,” Richardson said.

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