Thursday, September 17, 2015

Thoughts on the shuttering of La Crosse's diocesan paper

A small part of me died earlier this month when I read an official memorandum stating that The Catholic Times, the newspaper of the Diocese of La Crosse, will cease publication following its Oct. 9 29 issue. Those who know me well also know that I invest myself whole-heartedly in pretty much every project that I undertake. From 2006 to 2009 I was the full-time staff writer for the Times, and I've written for the paper as a free-lancer ever since, especially during my graduate school years in Dallas. I'd estimate that I've published nearly 1,000 articles, columns, and reviews for this paper over the past decade. It's part and parcel of my identity as a Catholic writer, and so I can't help but feel a deep sadness at the Times' untimely demise.

Here I am accompanying then-La Crosse Bishop Jerome Listecki on his pastoral visitation
of the diocesan missions in South America.

Sadness, yes; surprise, not so much. Although La Crosse's paper joins a long list of diocesan papers that have shuttered in the last decade, the Times' situation is somewhat unique. I remember traveling the diocese and meeting many people who cancelled their subscriptions after the paper chose to run political advertisements during the 2004 presidential election cycle. Not completely unrelated, there are many other former readers, mainly of a liberal bent politically, who will forever associate the paper with Cardinal Raymond Burke, then the Bishop of La Crosse, and his strong admonitions (indisputably correct, I would argue) that Catholics vote in accordance with their pro-life values. By positioning itself so steadfastly and conservatively in the culture wars, though, the Times hemorrhaged a vast number of readers at that time and has, in many respects, limped along ever since. There were ill-received attempts to bring readers back on board: parish subscription quotas, for example, and the semi-annual mass mailing of the paper to every registered parishioner in the diocese. For all the distain that I have for the insipidness of many diocesan publications, I grudgingly hold up the example of the Catholic Times' demise as a compelling reason why so many of these "official" publications are adverse to the unambiguous proclamation of Gospel truth. Proclaiming the truth isn't worth much if only the choir remains to listen.

So, the Catholic Times' shuttering doesn't surprise me due to these reasons peculiar to this paper and this diocese. But it's also not surprising because print subscriptions of every kind, both religious and secular, have fallen off dramatically and the Times, like so many other publications, has struggled to adjust. Why can't diocesan papers put together decent websites and engage properly via social media? That's how most everybody stays informed these days. Personally, I love print and continue to subscribe to a number of hard-copy, snail-mail publications. But here I am writing my reflections on the Times' demise via an online platform because I know that's where people are at. I know online is the future, and I admire the work, for example, of The Texas Catholic, another diocesan newspaper that I freelanced for. Dallas' paper has websites oriented toward youth and toward older people, and brings in revenue with additional directory and sports-related publications.

To be fair, the Diocese of La Crosse is not abandoning print evangelization entirely. The plan is to publish a monthly/semi-monthly magazine called Catholic Life, which will be mailed to all registered households. I'm actually excited by the potential of the glossy magazine as a journalistic template. But with the transition, La Crosse is abandoning its proud history of independent, local journalism. While the magazine will include some local material produced by a "content manager" (seriously, who comes up with these titles?), the umbrella organization, Faith Catholic of the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., will handle most everything else. Basically, Faith Catholic will be personalized with ads and content for the Diocese of La Crosse. Since my adoptive Diocese of Raleigh, N.C., also uses Lansing's format, I can say that while the magazine looks nice, and generally has a nice, well written feature or two, it simply doesn't include much else worth reading. At least, I don't know of anybody who considers it their go-to source for Catholic news and analysis.

Excellence in Catholic news and analysis was what we were striving for when I was at the Times, on the other hand. It's what made me proud to be a Catholic journalist. I considered it a vocation, a way to serve the Church that I so love. The paper may not have been perfect, and it may have alienated some readers, but what we were able to accomplish at the paper during the years when I was there made me proud. I am feeling great sadness, therefore, as I see the Times and so many other newspapers cease publication at a time when we need serious Catholic writing more than ever. Perhaps eight or nine decades ago, the Times' predecessor used to be published, with some local content inserted, by the Archdiocese of Denver. It's sad to see the Church shrink and contract rather than grow and expand. 

By way of conclusion, I was taken aback by the spare language of the official memorandum. Admittedly, I took the language a little personally due to my own investment, my own thousand or so articles over the last decade. But my contribution is humble compared with the writing of dozens of journalists and editors who've served the diocese over many, many decades. The rumor is that current Times employees will receive first consideration for the positions at the newly created magazine. I pray that God be with them as they plan their respective ways forward, as they look for new ways to serve the Church that they, like me, love in good times and in bad. 

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