Britain's Catholic publications are looking for new readers. ~Can they find the answer that has eluded so many of their secular counterparts?
Church attendance continues to slide but the Catholic press fights on.
There are four newspapers and a new major online presence.
The combined sale of all four papers comes to around 85,000, set against a Church attendance of 850,000, which suggests that one in 10 church goers also buys a paper.
But like so many publications in this digital age, the titles are under pressure. Could the arrival of the energetic and charismatic Pope Francis help Catholic journalism find a new generation of readers?
The print publications, with the exception of the Catholic Times, have a long and esteemed history.
The weekly magazine the Tablet has been celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, with a series of events, including, a mass at Westminster Cathedral, lectures and other celebrations. It has a circulation of 20,000, as well as a growing online presence. In many ways the magazine could be described as the New Statesman of the Catholic world, liberal and slightly left of centre politically. It has been edited since 2004 by Catherine Pepinster, who previously worked on the Independent. The papacy of Pope Francis has been good news, with his pronouncements on social justice and many other areas of Catholic doctrine being more in line with the Tablet and its readership.
The Catholic Herald is at the other end of the spectrum. Founded in 1888, it is very much the publication of right wing Catholics. Owned by Conrad Black and Rocco Forte, the paper has been edited since 2004 by Luke Coppen. The previous conservative Pope Benedict would be more to the taste of Herald readers, who struggle with some of the more liberal utterances of Pope Francis.
The Herald recently dropped the weekly broadsheet format in favour of a magazine combined with an upgraded online presence. Circulation stands at 20,000 to 24,000, with readership claimed to be 45,000. The Herald claims to have put on an extra 1,000 subscriptions since in it moved to the magazine format last December. “We now focus on breaking news stories daily online and providing news analysis, features and punchy comment in the magazine,” said Luke Coppen, editor of the Herald, since 2004.
The paper that claims the largest circulation is the self-styled Catholic Universe with 30,000. Established in 1860 by the writer Archibald Joseph Dunn, the Universe has seen circulation decline from the halcyon days of the 1950s when it used to sell 300,000 copies a week..
The Universe has traditionally been a tabloid, taking in both traditional and liberal views in the church – though over recent years it has appeared to veer to the right. Editor since 1992, Joe Kelly recently took the paper down the route of moving to the Berliner format, signing up to a deal with Guardian Media Group to publish the paper at its production centre in Manchester.
The latecomer to the newspaper market is the Catholic Times (CT). Established in 1993, the CT is also published by Universe Media Group (UMG). Produced virtually single handed by long time editor Kevin Flaherty, the CT was originally aimed at the Catholic Herald market, however, it has carved out its own niche as a right wing broadsheet. UMG roll out 10,000 copies a week. The CT is the only one of the Catholic weeklies that does not have an online presence.
Finally, there is the one woman band that is Independent Catholic News (ICN). This is an online only product that has been going now for 15 years. It is the one production that has grown extensively over the past decade, moving up to the point where it attracts four million hits a month from 230,000 visitors. ICN though struggles to create a business model that works, generating little revenue beyond what it takes to meet editor and founder Jo Siedlecka’s costs. “ICN is funded by a few subscribers, a few donations, a couple of grants and advertising,” said Siedlecka. “The advantage to being just online is that it means we can be really flexible. If something happens we can report it very quickly, Its cheap to run and has a instant worldwide reach.”
The miracle of the Catholic press over recent years is that not only have the four newspapers survived but that the presence has actually increased with the arrival of ICN on the scene. That said it is a market that is in decline. The average age of the readers is rising in a way that mirrors the decline in the numbers going to church.
The distribution structure has been something that all the titles have struggled with over the years. The main outlet for the Catholic Herald, Universe and Catholic Times has been very much the churches. So the churches provide a ready made distribution network but this has pluses and minuses. Few churches promote the Catholic press in anyway, as a means for say the laity to play a fuller role.
Instead, the papers for the most part just lie at the back of the churches, many remaining unread. There is also the disadvantage that the unaccountable authoritarian structures of the Church mean that if a paper offends a particular or number of parish priests they can cut off the supply line without redress.
The papers have tried to address the vagaries of this distribution network by using the secular outlets such as newsagents as well but this has been of limited success.
The limitations of the church distribution network in terms of obtaining a return on exposure were aptly demonstrated back in the 1990s, when the then media friendly and well networked editor of the Catholic Herald Cristina Odone was getting huge exposure in the national media. Odone would be a regular on programmes like Question Time, the Late Review and Any Questions, as well as writing in the Telegraph but this exposure did not feed back into sales of the Catholic Herald. It was a real weakness that those who may have been attracted to the paper had to go into a Catholic church to buy a copy – Odone’s exposure certainly did not, as it should have done, resulted in better sales.
The dependency on the churches has never been as much of a problem for the Tablet, which has a higher proportion of subscriptions (86%) making up its sales. The Tablet has a large number of Anglicans among its readership. It also draws a lot of its readership from the international forums, particularly the United States. “The four British Catholic titles are all serving different markets and so in some ways we are not competing. I think our competition nowadays is more with other titles abroad, given that people can so easily access the Catholic press online. So we are as much keeping an eye on Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter in the US as we are on the Herald here,” said Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Tablet.
The limitations of the church distribution network though remains a problem for the other three print publications – though less so the Herald, now it has a bigger online emphasis.
Former Guardian religious correspondent Stephen Bates believes that the more traditional titles like the Catholic Times and Universe survive because they have the same sort of resilience as a paper like the Daily Express. “They have an old and declining readership, that wants to be comforted and told that things are going to stay the same,” said Bates, who believes Pope Francis is good news for the Catholic press as well as the Church itself. “The Catholic Church was getting mired in gloom and paedophilia. Pope Benedict was not a regenerational figure. Francis has done a lot to re-energise the Church,” said Bates, who believes the Francis papacy represents increasing problems for the right wing publications like the Catholic Herald but is good news for the Tablet.
Bates sees the need for the Catholic publications to develop their online presence more, as with much of the secular press, if they want to continue. Failure to do so will see the papers die out, at about the same time as most of their current readers.
Religious commentator and former Times journalist Clifford Longley sees many of the same problems in the Catholic sector as face the secular press. These include primarily the need for a greater online presence and then how you make money out of that medium.
A major question though going forward has to be whether there is a limited shelf life for the sector with a revenue return for a sustained period, until the readers die off or if there is a real possibility to draw in new readers. The jury on these questions is out.
Longley sees one possible lifeline for the Catholic press with the influx of migrants to the UK. The incoming numbers from countries like Poland have boosted church attendances in a way that has not happened with the Church of England. Longley though points out that migrants have not yet turned into readers. “They may do in a generation or two, “ said Longley. Though the Catholic media generally has been slow to reflect the diversity of a Church whose racial make up has changed massively over the years.
Longley believes that the survival of the Catholic press is essential to the life of the Church. “It is the only obvious channel for the clergy and laity to respond on things that matter to them,” said Longley, highlighting the hierarchical unaccountable structures of the Catholic Church which does not have a decision making body like the Church of England’s synod.
Looking forward Longley sees the Tablet as the paper most likely to profit from the papacy of Pope Francis, with its more enlightened take on the faith chiming with that of the new pontiff. He believes the Herald will continue to struggle with Pope Francis. In terms of the Universe Media Group, Longley describes the publications as “rather directionless,” choosing in the main to adopt a partisan, almost party political approach, of “whatever our lot are doing is good.”
Pepinster is not despondent about an ageing, falling churchgoing population and is optimistic about the opportunities offered by new migrant arrivals. “The challenge is to find ways of engaging that new potential readership. It may take a while, but if they follow in the footsteps of previous Catholic migrants, they will enjoy a good education thanks to Catholic schools, and hopefully will become the next generation of high-achieving, graduate professional Catholics that make up our readership,” said Pepinster. “The difficulties we face are to do with being a small publication with limited resources in a media world that offers people huge amounts of information. If your potential audience can get so much online, for free, then are they going to opt for you if they have to pay? That means we have to offer better analysis, more expert insights, more intelligence than you get for free. We do offer a certain amount of The Tablet for free in order to try and attract new readers - but the risk if that your free offer is so good, it won't translate into sales. And we need sales if we are to survive.”
Former news editor of the Universe and now editor of the not for profit quarterly Justice, Lee Siggs, believes the Catholic press is trying to perform a balancing act, seeking to grow their online audience, whilst making money from the web and not losing traditional readers “In some respects, all the Catholic titles have been more contemplative and feature-led in nature so perhaps this has safeguarded them from the more pressing demands facing the regional media to provide a fully-fledged 24-hour news operation,” said Siggs, who has been impressed with the moves made by the Herald, moving to a greater online emphasis and magazine format.
So interesting times for the Catholic media, as it continues to cater to an ageing readership via old and new mediums. The readerships it seems are old and loyal, and perhaps the challenge going forward is whether these outlets can harness the new life and energy generated by Pope Francis. If they can then the afterlife beckons, if not the revenue stream will no doubt dry up - disappearing as the readers depart this life.
* published in British Journalism Review - 3/9/2015
* published in British Journalism Review - 3/9/2015