The move to online publishing may seem inevitable but will the transition from print to electronic formats adversely affect the loyalty the Catholic media has built up over the years? That was one of the concerns voiced by editors of several national Catholic publications during a symposium co-sponsored by the Jesuit magazine America held in New York in early December that RW attended.
The conference addressed the Catholic media role in the “new evangelization” proposed by the Vatican, and it soon became clear that digitalization is as much a problem as a resource for the church and its media. Jeanette Demelo, editor of the National Catholic Register, said that the Internet has created an “info glut…on the web, everyone is an expert. Catholic journalists are one voice among many.” Under financial restraints, Demelo said it is difficult to provide on-site coverage while the blogsphere generates rumors and a contentious environment rather than dialogue.
The popularity of Pope Francis and his acceptance by the secular media was seen by conference participants as a new opening for the Catholic press after a decade of bad news surrounding the priest sexual abuse scandals. Several of the other editors saw navigating the new business media realities as a major challenge. Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, executive editor of the U.S. Catholic magazine, said the publication’s declining print revenue is not being replaced by the revenue from its digital presence, even if the publication “cannot afford to stay away from the social media.”
There was some debate about investment in digital media with the general agreement that print is not dead, at least for much of the Catholic media. Paul Bauman, editor of Commonweal magazine, said that older print subscribers are loyal to the brand while younger readers tend to “jump from article to article based on tweets.” While Commonweal pioneered the subscription-based model in the Catholic press, there has been a 70 percent drop in subscription revenue, leading the magazine to adopt a fund-raising based model.
R.R. Reno, editor of the conservative Catholic-oriented magazine First Things, argued that the church should steer clear of the new media and that print will make a comeback. “The social media may drive people to the website but does not engage them to commit to us,” he said. First Things, with a print circulation of 27,000, generates one million page views per month on its website.
But Reno says that half of the print subscribers can be considered “core” readers, those who read entire issues, while only 3,000 of the online readers fall into that category. It is the print core subscribers who tend to stay with a publication, even when they disagree with an article, and are loyal to the brand. “It is hard to leverage the pinging of the Internet; it’s not the same effect as the core group,” he added.
Even the much sought after tech-savvy younger generations are not necessarily hastening the demise of Catholic print publications. Matt Malone, S.J., editor of America, said that it is not print that is dead but only a mindset exclusively focusing on that traditional medium. “We offer content across multiple platforms, but our flagship is print,” he said.
The magazine has conducted focus groups and informal interviews with young readers and “they are saying ‘don’t stop printing’…It’s humanly impossible to curate the [Internet]. They are looking for brands they can trust, and that something is print, which can be curated. [Young adults] want to be able to talk [with others in person] about when they read, not to tweet it or go online with it,” he said.