Digital age, hostility, pandemic: Perfect storm for Canada’s Catholic media

The state of Catholic media in Canada today can be described with one word — transition.

The country’s traditional Catholic media outlets are trying to stay afloat as they transition from print to digital formats, find ways to cover a hierarchy that increasingly uses social media to get out its own message, and compete with secular and confessional websites.

Catholic media, like the church itself, also has had to deal with fallout from the revelations of crimes committed against Indigenous in the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries, and the effects of the pandemic that closed churches.

The competition from the digital age, combined with scandal and pandemic, have created a perfect storm for Catholic media, particularly print.

“My sense is that the print product is waning. People are getting their information differently, preferring to receive it virtually rather than reading a printed product,” said Andrew Ehrkamp, communications director for the Archdiocese of Edmonton, Alberta.

Ehrkamp’s experience shows that even a digital product is not always the answer. The archdiocese closed its print newspaper, Western Catholic Reporter, in September and created Grandin Media.

Ehrkamp came on as news editor of Grandin Media, an online outlet that served western Canada. Grandin Media offered a digital news portal, including photos and video; commentary and reflections; social media channels and a weekly digital newsletter.

But Ehrkamp said lack of money and staffing led to the website’s demise. It closed shortly after winning a Catholic Press Association award for best website.

Sabrina DiMatteo, chairwoman of the French-language digital agency Presénce Information Religieuse, said a number of factors have limited the agency’s reach since it was launched in .

“We set up as a news agency with the intent of functioning as an agency, but it never took off as we planned. There are multidimensional reasons for this, one of which is that dioceses were cutting back or had already cut back (for) communication in their budget when we began.”

While not as big as envisioned, Presénce is an award-winning site that provides a wide range of coverage from varied perspectives.

“We cover what is happening, but then realize that a disproportionate amount is scandal and all the negative stories. It is our job to cover that, but we also have to balance it with other things important to readers,” DiMatteo said.

Peter Stockland, publisher of The Catholic Register — the country’s oldest confessional paper, founded in 1893 and based in Toronto — compared the transition from print to digital as a kind of triage.

“It is a delicate transition. Print is still necessary, but we are working hard to move to a digital format that works for us,” he said.

He said Catholic journalism faces other obstacles, including access to information from the church’s hierarchy. He disagreed with the idea that the bishops were becoming more secretive by keeping the media from their general assembly. Instead, he said it reflected a new take on information.

“The bishops see social media as a new tool, as a means of speaking directly to the faithful without intermediaries,” he said.

The key point, said Stockland, is to not lose sight of the purpose, which is to reflect the lives of the country’s Catholic population. He said people want to see an image of themselves in the news.

This has also meant dealing with an upsurge in anger toward the church since the report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on residential schools for Indigenous peoples. For more than a century, until the late 1960s, the Catholic Church ran about 70% of the schools. The report details the litany of crimes committed against children at the schools and calls what the schools did “cultural genocide.”

Pope Francis visited Canada in July for a “penitential pilgrimage” to ask forgiveness for the church’s role in running the schools and their impact on Indigenous peoples.

“I would say there has been a kind of hostility toward the church, but the papal visit has created a new space. Pope Francis’ openness was really from the heart, and it (hostility) does seem to be percolating down,” said Stockland.

Polls taken after the visit support Stockland’s assertion that healing and reconciliation are possible.

After the papal visit, the Angus Reid Institute, a Canadian research organization, reported 59% of people polled said the visit was a step toward reconciliation, while 32% said it would not make a difference.

Ehrkamp said the church is on “a long journey, and certainly healing and reconciliation is going to take time. The Holy Father’s visit to Canada and the Archdiocese of Edmonton, in particular, was another step in the journey.”

The Catholic Register and The B.C. Catholic, the leading Catholic papers in the country, are working to seize the moment and relaunch Canadian Catholic News, an agency that had 15 members in its heyday but is now down to three print papers; theirs and The New Freeman in New Brunswick.

“We have fallen on hard times, and we have started a discussion to see what we can do about it. We are quite excited about the probability that we can reinvigorate CCN into something new, professional and helpful to Catholics across Canada,” said Paul Schratz, editor of The B.C. Catholic.

Schratz said if the plans work out, the revamped CCN would be beta tested by the end of this year and launched in early 2023.

“We want to get enterprise writing going, to tell stories that have national significance and are important to Catholics,” he said.

A recent survey by The B.C. Catholic asked readers where they received news about the church from sources other than the paper. According to the survey, 35% received information from the church itself, 20% from websites and 9% from Eternal Word Television Network. The rest mentioned a variety of sources, but what struck Schratz was the 20% that said nowhere.

“There is a large category of Catholics out there, and we can get them news because they are not getting it from anywhere,” he said. “We hope to have a good blend: news, opinion, personality features that cover the gamut from coast to coast for Catholics to read, because we cannot rely on the mainstream media to tell these kinds of stories.”

Jesuit Father Alan Fogarty takes the argument a step further, saying Catholic media has a place to balance “secular media motivated by sales and agendas other than the truth. This sounds strong, but it is real and we see it all the time, with false information and cooked-up stories that make people’s lives dramatic.”

Father Fogarty is CEO of Salt and Light Media, which runs a national TV network that broadcasts content in English and French, as well as offers written content. It will mark its 20th anniversary July 1, which is also Canada Day. Father Fogarty joined in 2020.

He said that, after the pandemic, Catholic media outlets, like society in general, are not only trying to figure out where they are going, but where they were and how they got there.

“I think there is absolutely a role for Catholic media. I think that as we transition, we must remember what we are doing is seeking the truth. Our hope is that we can cut through what is around us with the truth, with our lenses set on doing no harm, being Christian, being compassionate, and being honest and truthful,” he said.

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