A friend once told me that going into print journalism today was like going into steam train engineering early last century — pretty soon my job would be obsolete. It is true that over the last ten years the situation has become pretty dire for professionals wanting to earn a living in the publishing industry. While the internet has given everyone the opportunity to have their voices heard, it has also created enormous pressures on the print publishing model. Even the largest newspapers in the country are struggling to find a way to provide content in the various formats people want it — print, web, smartphone, tablet, social media — while still generating revenue from advertising or sales.In particular, Catholic publishers are experiencing pressures from two directions. Along with the decline in print circulation has come a decline in religious practice, particularly in countries like Australia. So not only are we facing a business model that is becoming increasingly unsustainable, we are also publishing to a decreasing audience.
But it is not quite time to shut up shop just yet. Some religious publishing organisations are finding creative ways to utilise technology to reach out to Catholics and, importantly, non-Catholics. In making the transition from print to multimedia publishing, it is important to recognise social media's potential to create new and vibrant Catholic communities.
Writers and publishers will already know the importance of using the right language to communicate with an audience. One of the things that we try and do at Australian Catholics magazine is try to create a 'voice' that resonates with a broad section of the Australian community. For example, we know that there is a 'larrikin' element in Australia, which often gets turned off by formal Church language and an over-emphasis on traditional religious symbols. So when we published an edition focusing on Catholic moral teaching, we titled it 'How to be good', and put a picture of a child in a superhero costume on the cover. Given The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises were two of the biggest movies of 2012, we recognised that the parents and children who receive our magazine via their school community would be more likely to be invited into the topic that way.
The most successful websites have also created a 'voice' that resonates with a certain sector of the community. One of the more successful Catholic websites is Busted Halo (www.bustedhalo.com). Describing itself as an 'online magazine for spiritual seekers', the site is a ministry of the Pauline Fathers in the United States. Its editorial team puts out daily content, which includes articles on faith by young Catholic and some non-Catholic bloggers, podcasts and videos. You can tell from its name that its mission is to live in the real, broken world that we inhabit. Its humble moniker alone makes it stand out from many other Catholic sites.
Fr. Dave Dwyer csp, Director of Busted Halo Ministries, told me when I visited their offices last year that what people like about their publication is its voice. That same voice extends through the articles on the website, as well as the podcasts and the videos. Busted Halo has developed a voice that makes ideas around faith engaging, not only to Catholics but to people of all faiths and no faith. Teachers and catechists trust this voice to be able to speak to students and young people, where other resources cannot. The success of this voice is evidenced by the fact that a number of their more catechetical videos — 'Easter in two minutes', 'Lent in two minutes' — have been viewed more than a 100,000 times.
The other part of knowing and defining an audience is about working out what sort of content an audience wants. The Internet, with its ability to track user statistics, makes this much easier to do. Busted Halo produces a range of videos, but their '[Catholic topic] in two minutes' videos are the ones that have reached the biggest audiences.
At Australian Catholics, we have been concentrating on building online spaces targeted at specific sectors of our audience. For example, Catholic schools make up a large proportion of our subscribers, and we see the digital world as a place where we can increase the services that we provide to educators. Our site has a specific section for teachers, which includes classroom activities related to the magazine as well as a weekly classroom prayer resource. We have a regular email newsletter which provides materials about the magazine, links to online teaching resources and information about other initiatives which we run for schools including the Young Journalist Award and our media internship.
A website redesign later in 2013 will aim to provide even more content for Catholic teachers, as well as opportunities for them to connect with each other and contribute to the magazine. In addition, our media internship program has helped us begin developing a network of younger contributors, which may eventually allow us to build online spaces aimed at Catholic students. Importantly, it is the contributors — the teachers and students — who will tell us the sort of content the audience is seeking.
Social media is an essential tool for building communities in today's world. The more popular internet sites like Buzzfeed and Huffington Post specifically gear their content to be shared on social media. They know from their statistical tracking the sorts of articles that are more likely to be shared, and those that are less likely to be shared. This is not to say we need to copy those sites, as much of the content they produce would not be the sort of content we would wish to share. However we do need to think about what sort of content will be shared through social media to help define and grow our audiences.
The Catholic Memes Facebook page currently has more than 70,000 followers. Each day, the page's administrators post five or six humorous photos, or memes, aimed at reinforcing the faith and highlighting its more humorous side. The photos attract hundreds of 'likes' and dozens of comments, and get shared on other people's Facebook feeds for their friends and families to see. It is a site with a clearly-defined 'voice', which has managed to grow a large community of like-minded people from across the globe.
While humour has proven to be a very successful way to build communities online, it is not the only possible way. People can also be attracted to personalities; and tend to listen to people who articulate what they feel, and who they feel a connection with. Eureka Street, an online magazine, published by the Australian Jesuits, has managed to build a strong community through the expertise and personalities of its contributors. People are attracted to particular writers such as Fr. Frank Brennan sj and Fr. Andrew Hamilton sj, or to the general editorial direction the site takes on issues they care about such as asylum seekers, the environment or indigenous affairs.
Facebook and Twitter are becoming increasingly important vehicles for bringing new audiences to the Eureka Street website. The editors recently began publishing the next day's stories on social media as soon as they are submitted and edited, knowing the important role that these sites play in building a connection with subscribers. When people share Eureka Street's stories on Facebook and Twitter, they are increasing the reach of the site exponentially. Most importantly, many of those who are reached through these posts are generally outside the usual Catholic circles.
If you want to build a community, you have to involve your audience in a conversation. I think this is difficult for Church publications to come to terms with. We no longer live in a society where people will listen passively to what people in authority tell them. They will listen to what others have to say but they also want opportunities to respond. We need to find ways to continue to engage people in the conversation. Readers should be asked for their thoughts and feedback. Tweets and mentions could be incorporated onto the homepages of websites. We should not be afraid to blur the lines between ourselves and our audience.
This raises legitimate questions for Catholic websites on how they deal with content that contradicts or questions Church teachings, while still offering spaces for engagement. However, we have to model the sort of Church we want to live in, and people today want a Church that listens and engages, rather than being afraid to open up conversation on difficult topics. We have to find ways to do that courageously, while still being respectful of the teachings of the Church.
Moderated feedback on articles, where people's disagreements can be aired so long as they show a level of respect and decorum, are becoming more common in Catholic publications. A good example can be seen on Eureka Street. People know that someone expressing disagreement with Church teaching is not reflecting the editorial direction of the publication. In fact, it is more than likely another reader will respond to these kinds of comments without the editors needing to say anything.
Even, or perhaps especially, in an online world, it is important that we are out there engaging as human beings. One of the most successful Catholic authors and media personalities in the United States is Fr. James Martin sj. In an interview I did with him last year, he told me that there are three secrets to engaging an audience. These are:
- Be honest about your own personal struggles and flaws. Let the audience see that you're human.
- Use stories like Jesus did. 'You cannot approach writing like it is medicine', he said.
- Meet people where they are as Jesus did. What are people doing in their daily life? How does my message relate to that?
The publishing world may have changed a great deal over the last decade, but human beings have remained the same as they have been for the 2,000 year history of the Catholic Church. We continue to have authentic Good News to share with the world, a world that continues to need the hopes and desires expressed in the Gospels. What we need are new ways to engage with people in a digitalised world.
There is no guarantee that any site will manage to build and reach an audience, and find a way to do so with any financial sustainability. Many of the Catholic organisations investing in social media are doing so without a concrete plan as to how this will generate revenue. But they recognise the importance of the online space.
The great evangelists in the early Church risked a great deal to take the faith into new lands. Evangelists today need to be willing to do the same.
Michael McVeigh is Editor of Australian Catholics and Province Express. He is also Senior Editor at Jesuit Communications which publishes Eureka Street, Madonna, and Finding God's Traces.
This essay is part of a collection titled Word Made Flesh and 'Shared' Among Us, produced by the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference National Catholic Media Office ahead of World Communications Day. Download here