A Gathering Force
November 1995By Dale Vree
The NEW OXFORD REVIEW was launched in February 1977. In February 1996, the NOR will enter its 20th year of publication. This is a rather surprising realization for those of us who put out this small magazine.
Looking back, we now recognize it wasn't very prudent to start the NOR. Ninety percent of magazine start-ups fail. But we didn't know that at the time. And it's a good thing we didn't, because if we had, we might never have gone forward. On top of that, those who began the NOR had no formal training in journalism. How foolhardy we were!
Many magazines never get beyond their first issue. That's because people who start journals of ideas, which is what the NOR is, often think that all that's involved is getting some neat ideas onto paper and having a printing company make the result look like a "periodical." You assume that the world will beat a path to your door to buy your "brilliant" little magazine. But it doesn't work that way.
"Marketing" isn't something so-called idea people like to think about -- and so it comes as a rude awakening that somehow you've got to make people aware of what you're doing and persuade them that your scrawny magazine is worth buying. Gradually you realize that there's much more to sustaining a magazine than getting ideas into print, and that the chores involved can be daunting.
So you learn about many things -- in the school of hard knocks. In addition to marketing, you learn about the technical requirements of the printing process, getting your publishing entity incorporated and obtaining tax-exempt status, fund-raising, the art of editing, getting people to write for you when you can't pay them, proofreading, postal and tax regulations, the murky libel and copyright laws, accounting, computers, and 1,001 details.
Had we foreseen all the headaches, we probably wouldn't have gotten involved in starting the NOR. No doubt our lack of awareness was a grace bestowed.
But there was one obstacle we were well aware of. Let's phrase it as a question: Can an orthodox Catholic journal of ideas exist? You see, in 1977 none existed. To be sure, there were orthodox Catholic newspapers, newsletters, priests' publications, and other highly specialized periodicals. But there was no general-interest magazine of ideas, what in the trade is called a "thought-leader" periodical (like what National Review, The New Republic, and The Nation are in the political world).
General-interest magazines of ideas are important and influential because, while ideas have consequences, ideas only have a noticeable impact if they're able to reach the generally educated reader.
Format and focus are crucial. A newspaper is too busy reporting the news, too caught up in the rush and crush of events, to be able to deal with a wide variety of grand ideas in a leisurely, playful, or in-depth manner. An academic-style quarterly or documentary periodical is, on the other hand, too technical, too staid, too esoteric. A newsletter is too abbreviated. A magazine devoted to, say, spirituality or apologetics is too one-dimensional. All of these sorts of periodicals have a vital role to play, but, on the battlefield of ideas, nothing can substitute for a general-interest magazine of ideas.
Consider, for example, a graduate student entangled in the thicket of competing worldviews, or a religion writer for a secular newspaper researching a story, or an alert layman trying to piece together a coherent theological outlook. In 1977 he says to himself, "Well, the liberal Protestants have The Christian Century and Christianity & Crisis [the latter has since folded], the liberal Catholics have America and Commonweal, the evangelicals have The Reformed Journal and Christianity Today [the former has since folded and the latter is now more of a "marketing catalogue" and "news service," according to Richard John Neuhaus], and the Jews have Commentary, but the orthodox Catholics have nothing. Apparently, orthodox Catholicism has no intellectual standing, doesn't count for much, and can therefore be safely ignored."
This was a plausible conclusion to come to in 1977. And there were two other reasons for coming to that conclusion: (1) The Vatican, the font of orthodox Catholicism, was at the time in the grip of post-Vatican II confusion, and seemed paralyzed by indecision and timidity. (2) L. Brent Bozell, whose name graces our masthead today, had launched Triumph, an orthodox Catholic journal of ideas, in 1966. But it folded at the beginning of 1976. So, 1977 wasn't a promising time to start an orthodox Catholic magazine. Nonetheless, the NOR was started then, but with a twist. We were Anglo-Catholic, and referred to ourselves as "pan-Catholic," signaling our intention to be a magazine for Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics, and the Eastern Orthodox (easier said than done!). At the same time, Anglicanism was in deep crisis, and lots of traditional Anglo-Catholics wondered if it could be saved. As they wondered, many looked toward Rome for some direction.
On October 16, 1978, Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope. Soon Pope John Paul II lowered the boom on dissenting theologian Hans Küng and began his crusade to revitalize orthodox Catholicism. Editorially, the NOR was an immediate supporter of John Paul, and, in March of 1980, ads for the NOR began appearing with the headline, "Support the Pope." They created something of a sensation. As a result of one of those ads (a full-pager in Harper's), a story was done on us in Newsweek (Jan. 12, 1981), wherein it was stated that our "undoubted paragon is John Paul II" and that "it is probably only a matter of time" before we, like Newman, "drop anchor in Rome." Then, with our October 1983 issue, we fulfilled that prophecy by announcing that the NOR had become Roman Catholic.
For the NOR, the transition from Anglo to Roman wasn't a giant step. But it was for many of our Anglican and Protestant readers and writers, who then abandoned us. We are especially grateful to those who stayed with us, most notably our beloved columnist Robert Coles. These were among the most difficult years in the magazine's life. Our survival was in doubt. But the transition was made successfully. Another grace bestowed.
If the NOR has one legacy, it is this: At a critical time, it proved that a general-interest journal of ideas which supports the Pope and Catholic orthodoxy could exist.
Today, we are happy to report, there are many such journals. In addition to the NOR there is Caelum et Terra, Catholic Dossier, The Catholic World Report, Crisis, First Things, and 30 Days, and maybe several more (such as Fidelity and Inside the Vatican), depending on how one wants to define "general-interest journal of ideas." Each one has a distinct personality (e.g., First Things, which is not Catholic in a formal sense, is more ecumenical than the others). These journals don't always agree with each other, notably on political issues. Each one, including the NOR, has various strengths and weaknesses. But taken together, they unmistakably demonstrate that orthodox Catholicism is back -- and in force.
Significantly, there are now more orthodox Catholic journals of ideas than dissenting ones. And the combined paid circulation of the orthodox ones far exceeds that of the dissenting ones. What this means is that the ideas circulated in the orthodox magazines will likely become the dominant ideas in Catholic schools, colleges, and universities, and in the seminaries, chancery offices, and pulpits. This will likely add up to a revolution in U.S. Catholicism. Now, none of this would have happened without the determined leadership of Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Ratzinger, Mother Teresa, et al., who, among other things, inspired this orthodox journalistic activity. Though all of it would have happened without the existence of the NOR -- because what has happened is, we believe, providential -- the NOR is hugely pleased to have played a pioneering role, however minor.
A skeptic might wonder if there are enough orthodox Catholics to sustain so many orthodox journals of ideas. Isn't the bay (of orthodox Catholic readers) too small for so many sailboats (journals)? Won't the boats crash into each other? No, the polar ice (the deep freeze in which neo-Modernism held the Church in the postconciliar aftermath) is melting, and a rising tide is enlarging the bay itself. As long as none of the boats has a gaping hole in it, all should be able to stay afloat, perhaps even enjoy happy sailing. Put another way: An orthodox Catholic journal of ideas isn't a "product" aimed at a predetermined "market niche"; no, it's a converting force. A battle of ideas is raging, and orthodox Catholicism is winning lots of new adherents. Which is the whole point of publishing a magazine of ideas in the first place.
Which brings us back to the founding of the NOR. We had lots of ideas, but little else. Eventually we learned the ropes of publishing. But the ideas are what sustain us -- what get us out of bed in the morning. If you lose your fervor for ideas, you lose everything. We've seen periodicals, even Christian ones, start with an idea and end up as in effect a jobs program -- keeping people employed became the end-all and be-all of the periodical. When that happens, the soul is gone, and death often follows.
As we approach entry into our 20th year of publication, we're grateful to find ourselves part of a gathering force of orthodox Catholic journals of ideas. Some have larger circulations than others -- the NOR is in the mid to high range (longevity has its benefits!). Some are more hi-tech than others -- the NOR is relatively low-tech. Recently, we were talking with an editor of a Christian magazine who was imploring us to be more hi-tech. We moaned about the expenses and complications involved. He, a computer whiz, countered by telling us about all the time we'd save. Later in the conversation, which was in July, we had occasion to inquire as to why the last issue of his monthly magazine we'd received was dated February. He allowed as to how they had "fallen behind." And so, we were reconfirmed in our conviction that hi-tech is not magic, that it's wise to weigh the pros and cons carefully and not get carried away.
Finally, some of the orthodox Catholic journals of ideas are better funded than others -- the NOR is not among the better funded. We are not part of a larger parent publishing firm. And there is no big-bucks benefactor blowing wind into our sails. We sail under our own wind, and are at the mercy of the economic crosswinds and doldrums.
As we look ahead, we see some of the wind going out of our sails. The NOR is mailed to you via the second-class nonprofit postal rate. Of late, this rate has been going up every October, and is scheduled to keep going up every October through 1998. On top of that, we're now contending with the fact that the domestic postal rates for all classes of mail went up substantially last January and the international postal rates went up in July.
But the spiraling cost of paper is what's really distressing us. In the last year, costs have gone up over 50 percent, and the hikes are not expected to cease until the end of 1996. The paper mills are, for their own legitimate reasons, hitting the printers with higher prices, and the printers pass those prices along to the periodicals they print. These huge price increases have been a major factor in the recent deaths of the Houston Post, The Baltimore Evening Sun, and New York Newsday, and in the massive "downsizing" at the Los Angeles Times.
What to do about rising costs? Some people will always reply: "Raise your subscription prices." But the last time we did that, we lost 30.2 percent of our subscribers. Financially, it wasn't what you'd call a "smart move." Moreover, we exist to reach more, not fewer, people with our message. Plus, we don't want to price the NOR out of the reach of the young or less prosperous. And burned in our mind is the fate of The National Sports Daily and Canada's 102-year-old Anglican Magazine, both of which recently ceased publication, largely because of the sharp drop in circulation which attended the raising of their prices.
Recently, several Christian magazines have had to reduce their frequency of publication -- e.g., from monthly to six times a year. Doing that is an act of desperation. A periodical by its nature wants to maximize its "presence," but to reduce frequency is to minimize it. Indeed, reducing frequency is often interpreted as a "death rattle." In the mind of the reader, a periodical which appears less frequently comes to be regarded as unreliable, marginal, and dispensable ("out of sight, out of mind"). Readers drift away. And sure enough, periodicals which reduce frequency often find themselves defunct before long. And so, a cardinal rule for us, even when our situation has been desperate, has always been: Never reduce frequency. And our second rule is like unto it: Never reduce the number of pages in the magazine. And we know you, our readers, well enough to understand that that's how you want it.
We've always believed that if you want us to stay healthy, you will see to it that we do. One way of helping the NOR is to give friends and/or relatives gift subscriptions for Christmas. But we really need donations. The funds raised go to paying our burgeoning bills and, beyond that, to expanding the readership of the NOR. The NOR is a nonprofit entity and has 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. Donations are therefore tax-deductible to the extent allowed by law.
As we now contemplate the twilight years of the magnificent papacy of John Paul II, please do your part to insure that the period in Church history he inaugurated is not an interlude or aberration (as the enemies of a robust Catholicism desperately want it to be), but a period when the disheartened forces of orthodoxy regained their confidence, coalesced, and moved forward to carry the day. If you do your part, if you put more wind in our sails, we can do our part. Please send your donation to NEW OXFORD REVIEW, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley CA 94706. Please do so now, before this editorial is "out of sight, out of mind."