The future of the Catholic press
A Catholic laywoman reports on a meeting of last month’s Glasgow Newman Circle which discussed the issues raised by the sale of the Scottish Catholic Observer, led by journalist Kevin McKenna.
Kevin McKenna began his career as a journalist over thirty years ago with the Scottish Catholic Observer (SCO), and it was clear, from his talk to the Newman Association, that it is a time in his life he looks back at with great affection. Now a columnist for a national newspaper, McKenna remains an enthusiast for the idea that there is room in the current media marketplace for a Christian/Catholic voice.
He had a warning for the Catholic community: if you sit back and watch the SCO fold you’ll regret it. He came too, with suggestions and ideas for a way forward; a business proposition that he is convinced could save the SCO (or something like it); a new model to ensure a continuing, and in his view much needed, non-secular voice in Scottish civic life.
The SCO has chronicled, and been part of, Catholic life in Scotland since 1885, a constant presence in the porches of parishes and, for a large part of its history, the paper of record for Catholic community events. The paper is now up for sale. Circulation has fallen from 25,000 to the current level of 6,000. There are now only two working journalists and the back office has all but gone.
How has it come to this? The story of the SCO’s demise has many strands to it. On the face of it, a captive audience of 150,000, a gap in the market and historically low set up costs should be a recipe for success. There is no single reason or single group which can be blamed for the current parlous state but McKenna identified at least a few of the culprits. The paper is owned by the Catholic Herald group and, in McKenna’s view, run by a group of patrician figures who have demonstrated little interest in Scottish Catholic life or any enthusiasm for developing the paper.
Some years ago when SCO journalists sought to join the National Union of Journalists and have that union recognised as its negotiating body, the owners were outraged at what they saw as the employees lack of faith in their trustworthiness as employers. It took a non-believing official of the NUJ to remind the board that the Catholic Church had long ago advocated the view, articulated in Rerum Novarum, that workers had a right to unionise. Opposition crumbled and the journalists won the day.
In terms of financial management the evidence is that the SCO was regarded as little more than a cash cow. When times were good revenues were sucked to the centre, and little was done to invest or develop the paper. Now that times are bad its current owners seem determined to realise a profit, or as McKenna described it ‘one last bonanza’ from the SCO’s last remaining asset, its office; a prime piece of real estate in Glasgow city centre.
As well as the owners, the hierarchy and clergy must, according to McKenna, share part of the blame. A constant carping when the editorial line did not fit with their view of the world. A stream of low level criticism about the coverage of ‘important’ local events which had not been covered sufficiently well or had not enough column inches devoted to them, eventually dulled the edge of the paper’s editorial independence.
Much more significant than the complaining was the none-too- subtle arm twisting which came the editor’s way when controversial events, which merited substantial coverage, were either reported in such a way as to tow the, often anodyne, Church line or were not covered at all for fear that the paper’s primary distribution channel, those church porches again, would be withdrawn. In recent times that could be seen to apply to the coverage of the controversies centred on Cardinal O’Brien and the child sex abuse scandal.
McKenna admitted that neither of these events received the coverage they should have in the SCO. Not for the first time the institutional Church refused to recognise the value of a critical friend and the field was left open to the mainstream media, far less sympathetic and much less informed.
Notwithstanding these challenges to the SCO, the Archdiocese of Glasgow added another, more direct threat to the SCO’s revenue base, with the launch, thirty years ago, of its monthly archdiocesan newspaper Flourish. Subsidised by parishes, Flourish nevertheless competes for the same advertising market as the SCO but does so from a more assured revenue base.
To McKenna’s list of those who bear responsibility I would add another –the Catholic community itself. While a loyal core continued to buy a copy from the back of the church those of us who regarded the SCO as no more than a glorified parish newsletter said nothing, didn’t press for anything more substantial and stopped buying it, or turned to alternative publications like Open House. The founders of Open House, a small group of lay Catholics, were very clear that they saw themselves as complimenting, rather than competing with, existing publications. The first edition of December 1990 took the view that the Scottish Catholic community was well served by its weekly newspapers, which communicated news from around the church. Open House sought to provide something its founders perceived as missing – regular comment, opinion and reflection outwith the pressures and restrictions of a weekly publication.
Today, coverage of religious affairs in Scotland is cursory. What coverage there is, is often sourced in the SCO and when that goes there must be a question mark over the extent and depth of future coverage.
What now? McKenna, the optimist, sees this as an opportunity. In the often quoted modern, open and diverse Scotland there seems to be little room for a Christian perspective or anything which argues against the prevailing secular narrative. The trend line for religious adherence is still heading south but even now, over half of Scotland’s population identify themselves as Christian and a steady 16 per cent identify themselves as Catholic. That, McKenna argues, is the gap in the market which something new could fill.
His solution? Something new, funded with the help of sympathetic benefactors, a more co-operative model to involve other Christian voices, who he insists would leap at the chance to have a publication like the SCO. Or it could it be a co-operative model or crowd-funded from within the Christian community. Ideas worth exploring? Probably, especially in an era when setting up a publication has never been easier. More importantly if we are serious as a community about bearing Christian witness it’s surely our responsibility to explore these possibilities?
Some will argue that the SCO was the right vehicle for the times and maybe that time has come to an end, but McKenna is right to remind us that we often don’t value what we have until it has gone.
Florence Boyle is a specialist in IT who works in the healthcare industry and is treasurer of Open House.