Longevity & Faithfulness

December 2013

Seeking longevity in a transitory world seems at times a fool’s errand. The NOR has been in continuous print since February 1977 and, during these thirty-six years (the next issue will mark our thirty-seventh anniversary), we’ve seen a good many colleagues and competitors come and go — some bursting onto the scene with grand ambition and deep funding, only to fall with a resounding thud; others seeking merely to present humble alternatives to the “big boys,” arriving quietly and disappearing in the same manner. We mention this not to gloat about being one of the remaining magazines in this fickle market, but because the precariousness of our existence has been ever-present in the back of our minds — we could easily have been, and could easily become, one of the casualties.

Of late that thought has been creeping to the fore. Our existence is more precarious today than at any point in the past two decades. To use a cliché: As soon as we plug up one hole, another one opens up. The hole most recently plugged was that, to our relief, we have reached our fundraising goal of $197,000, set in October 2012. We are exceedingly grateful to those of you who came to our aid, not only with monetary assistance but with prayer. But we’ve had no time to celebrate: Right after our readers’ achievement was announced at our annual board meeting this fall, the other hole presented itself: In the past fiscal year we suffered a nine percent drop in overall readership. While not a hair-raising figure, it is part of a seemingly ineluctable trend that we’ve been able to buck only once in the past decade.

So we’ve had to allocate some of the funds raised during this drive toward advertising, both in print and through direct mail. In the new year we will begin our project of making the NOR available on tablet and e-book platforms, one of the primary purposes for raising these funds. (The other was to offset the inevitable losses we incurred in 2011 and 2012.)

Now we find ourselves in a peculiar situation: We’ve raised money through the generosity of our readers, but at the same time we can’t seem to keep from losing readers. And in this, we’re not alone.

Across the aisle, the National Catholic Reporter has entered into a similar conundrum, though on a much larger scale. The flagship publication of progressive Catholicism was recently awarded a $2.3 million grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to “give greater voice to countless Catholic sisters around the globe” — which is in step with what NCR has already been doing, especially since the Vatican launched its apostolic visitation of women’s religious orders in 2009. Conrad Hilton was, of course, the founder of the Hilton Hotel chain (and he was indirectly responsible for unleashing debauched celebrity Paris Hilton on the world; she’s his great-granddaughter).

NCR’s editors announced (Sept. 13) that they will use the Hilton windfall, which will be doled out over a three-year period, “to build a network of editors and reporters not only to write about women religious, but to help them develop their own communication skills by working with them as columnists who report their own missions and challenges.” This will primarily entail “creating a website dedicated to the sisters’ stories and voices and will include some of its content on NCR’s other media platforms.”

Imagine, a cool $2.3 mil! We don’t dare to even dream of such a magnificent sum; we’re pleased as punch to have raised 8.5 percent of that amount in little over a year. As we never tire of reminding our readers, the NOR isn’t on any foundation’s list of bounty recipients; we rely solely on our readers for sustenance and hence are only accountable to them. Foundation money never comes free of strings: NCR Publisher Thomas Fox wrote (Oct. 11) that “the grant will require some internal company changes as we work to build our coverage networks. Specifically, by year’s end I hope to relinquish my responsibilities as company president/CEO.”

Fox also warned that the grant isn’t a panacea for all of NCR’s problems. “Like virtually every other media organization,” he writes, “we are in a transition from print to electronic journalism.” The NCR “print product,” as he calls it (funny, we never thought of the NOR in those terms), “has been our bread and butter for nearly five decades. But the future is clearly electronic.” How clear is it? NCR’s 2013 Statement of Ownership, Management & Circulation, a form the U.S. Postal Service requires every publication to file and print annually, which appeared in the same issue as Fox’s editorial, shows that its paid print circulation, which held steady for the past few years at around 40,000, has dropped to the 34,000 range — roughly a 15 percent decline. Meanwhile, Fox mentions that the traffic at NCR’s website has “dramatically increased in the past three years.” It’s not difficult to read between the lines.

But even this seemingly positive news about the growth of NCR’s online operation isn’t without complications: “We face the same problem other media outlets face: funding the enterprise,” Fox admits. “Very few news outlets have found successful business models to pay for these amazing technological innovations.” Which raises the question: Once the three years of receiving the Hilton grant are up, then what?

Luckily for NCR, its donor base is incredibly robust. Every September it prints its annual listing of the “Friends of NCR” — the equivalent of the NOR Associates list published in every March NOR — and this year’s edition far exceeded last year’s in both the number of donors and the amount of money raised. For example, four more parties donated $10,000 and above to NCR this year than last; six more parties donated $1,000-$4,999; and nineteen more parties donated $500-$999. Some interesting names appear among the high rollers. In the top category of donors one finds the Sisters of Providence-WA, the Sisters of Saint Anne-Internationally, and the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For those interested in numerology, perhaps something could be made of the fact that thirteen other orders of sisters are accounted for in the other three categories. Other noteworthy donors include Raymond Hunthausen, the retired archbishop of Seattle, and the Rev. Peter C. Phan — both of whom have had run-ins with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Progressive Catholic donors really do put their money where their mouths are — they’re exceedingly generous in sustaining NCR as the mouthpiece for progressive Catholicism.

In short, it appears that the money being funneled into NCR is considerable and ongoing. They’re fairly rolling in dough! Yet all the money in the world can’t stop the hemorrhaging of readers.

Adapt or die is the mantra thrown at print publishers these days. We’ve heard that cry — and its more specific spin-off, go digital or die — ad nauseam. But without a model to make it a financial success, that mantra is more a “both/and” than an “either/or” proposition, especially when people have come to expect online content to be free of charge. Adapting to a non-paid site without a deep funding source is a sure path to suicide. We understood this back in 2005 when we launched our website, www.newoxfordreview.org, which is a pay site. Secular news outlets like The New York Times are only now getting around to figuring this out. Still, only in good years does the NOR’s website manage to break even (when the money we put into it is equal to the money we get out of it); in normal years, our website runs at a deficit. The adapt or die idea isn’t as simple as it seems.

Back on our side of the aisle, the news is even worse for the old standard-bearer The Wanderer, the “conservative” counterpart to NCR. Over the past few years its paid circulation held fairly constant in the 15,000 range; this past year its paid circulation, as reported in its own Statement of Ownership, dipped to under 11,000 — an alarming 27 percent drop. That figure is even more troubling when one considers that in its heyday in the confusing daze of the 1970s, The Wanderer boasted a circulation of over 45,000. (For the record, our Statement of Ownership can be found on page 44 of this issue.)

While we’d like nothing more than to point to NCR’s circulation struggles as a sure sign of the exhaustion of the progressive Catholic paradigm, that would merely be an exercise in wishful thinking. The lesson here is that a publication’s theological inclinations have little to no bearing on its overall health. Liberal, conservative, progressive, traditional, ecumenist, orthodox — in every instance contraction is the order of the day.

We wonder whether we are witnessing the death throes of independent Catholic journalism. (And don’t try to tell us that bloggers present a reasonable, reliable alternative: Any kook versed in WordPress can start his own blog, spout off, and generate a following of like-minded kooks. There is simply no journalistic standard applied or expected, even in the Catholic blogosphere.) What, then, will we be left with? A recent Religion News Service dispatch (Oct. 17), which reports on a similar phenomenon that has been plaguing the publishing efforts of our separated brethren, is instructive: “The closing of several Protestant denominational newspapers, magazines and other news services has played a part in eroding the standards of professional religious journalism.” The worry is that the remaining publications, in order to stay financially viable — merely to continue to exist! — will be reduced to “playing public relations roles for their denominations.” Jay Voorhees, executive editor of The United Methodist Reporter, which ceased its print publication and went online entirely this May, said that print models are no longer financially viable. “The reality is that it’s very, very difficult to find a funding model that will allow for independent journalism that is not simply regurgitating what is coming out in press releases from denominational agencies.”

Regardless of what one thinks of the tone or theological perspective of either NCR or The Wanderer, we can all agree that neither one exists to regurgitate the party line, to make the Catholic Church “look good.” (Other national Catholic publications in essence already do this, acting as cheerleaders for the Church. We don’t believe that to be the raison d’être of the independent Catholic press. Where churchmen, even high churchmen, are out of line, it is the duty of the independent Catholic press to say so — and to say so without fear.) Both NCR and The Wanderer hold the hierarchy’s feet to the fire, as it were — for very distinct reasons, of course. That, in itself, is enough to validate their continued existence. (As for the argument that NCR promotes dissension from Church teachings, it could also be argued that the dissent already exists on the part of at least 34,000 American Catholics, and that NCR merely gives voice to their inward thoughts.)

A religious landscape shorn of independent journalism is bleak indeed. Just try to imagine the Catholic Church circa 2002, as the clerical sex scandals exploded nationwide, without independent journalists willing to wade through the filth and the muck in order to shine the light of day in the Church’s dark corners. NCR, for its part, did tremendous work in this regard. When the next scandal erupts — as it inevitably will; the Church has always been in scandal — who will be there to sound the alarm, to rouse the faithful from their slumber, to call the princes of the Church to account, and to get results?

If the NOR is to stand a chance of bucking this seemingly inescapable trend toward print oblivion, it can only happen, as usual, with our readers’ support and cooperation. (For obvious reasons, the institutional Church is largely suspicious of independent Catholic journals. Nobody enjoys having his feet held to the fire.) We urge you to consider giving gift subscriptions to anyone and everyone who might benefit from the witness we provide: colleagues, neighbors, pastors, bishops, children, grandchildren, complete strangers even! We offer a discount when two or more subscriptions are started or renewed at this time of the year. (See the “Christmas Gift Rates” notice on p. 37 of this issue for ordering details.) We also offer discounts on bulk subscriptions of five copies or more. Phone us at 510-526-5374, ext. 0, to inquire about receiving multiple copies of the NOR. If your intent is to leave a stack in the vestibule of your parish church, be sure to secure your pastor’s permission first.

Nobody knows what the future holds for print apostolates (or print “products” like NCR), but we know who holds the future. Trusting in His divine providence and unending mercy, we realize that, ultimately, even for what Hilaire Belloc called “apostolates of the pen,” what matters is not to find success but to remain faithful. This we will ever strive to do. Longevity might be an unreachable goal, but keeping the faith is a moral imperative, the one by which we will all be judged.

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