Longhurst: More losses for print

Jan 2, 2017 by

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More bad news in the world of Christian print magazines in Canada: In September, two of the country’s most venerable publications shut down: the Presbyterian Record, after 140 years, and the Western Catholic Reporter, after more than 50 years.

John Longhurst

Longhurst

The death of the Record, which published its last issue in December, “was sad, but not surprising,” said editor David Harris. “It was like when someone has been ill for a long time.”

For many years, the publication benefited from an every-home plan, in which churches bought subscriptions for their members.

That worked when churches were full and growing, Harris said. But as membership and giving in the Presbyterian Church has fallen, churches looked for places to cut — and the every-home plan was one of the first things to go.

“We lost thousands of subscribers in the last few years,” he said. The magazine tried fundraising and also turned to the denomination for help. “But it didn’t have the money. It’s facing large cuts itself.”

“We did our best” to keep it alive, Harris says, but “circulation fell below the critical level needed to sustain it.”

Something similar led to the demise of the Reporter. According to Lorraine Turchansky, chief communications officer for the Archdiocese of Edmonton, which owned the paper, falling circulation, combined with an aging readership, led to the closure.

In a letter to readers, Archbishop Richard Smith said the closure will give the archdiocese a chance to move to an all-digital distribution of news through its website and social media.

“The world of communications has changed dramatically,” he said. “The current media environment, the way stories are told and the way people consume news are all changing rapidly.”

David Wilson is the longtime editor of the United Church Observer — another venerable Canadian church publication. The deaths of the Record and the Reporter are unsettling, he said, but not unexpected.

Denominational print publications are “an embattled medium in a shrinking universe,” he said. “The challenges they face are enormous.”

With a circulation of 36,000, the Observer is doing better than many other church publications. But it had 10 times that many subscribers in the 1960s and ’70s.

As church membership declines, Wilson says, denominational publications are feeling the effects.

For Michael Swan, associate editor at The Catholic Register in Toronto and president of Canadian Church Press, the umbrella group for Canadian church publications, the closure of the two publications is a great loss.

Unfortunately, he added, they won’t be the last to close. “All church publications in Canada are struggling,” he said.

Despite the challenges, I believe many church members want good Christian journalism, whether that’s in print or digital.

I believe that many people want the kind of Christian journalism that “engages the church” and that reports about “how the church engages the world,” as Swan put it.

Without it, I believe that the church — both its discipleship and its witness — would be greatly diminished.
But that kind of journalism isn’t free. It needs to be paid for. And that’s the big challenge facing all publications today, print or digital.

Does the church want that kind of journalism? Is it willing to step up and pay for it? That’s a question that needs an answer — and soon.

John Longhurst, of Winnipeg, Man., is director of resources and public engagement at Canadian Foodgrains Bank.


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