Forty years ago, a major Vatican document stated, "It is hard to see how people can keep in touch with what is happening in the Church without the Catholic press."
The document (Communio et Progressio) went on to say, "Neither can people keep a Catholic attitude towards what happens in the world without the help of commentaries on the news written in the light of Christian principles."
All of this should be obvious enough. The mainstream media will provide coverage of some Catholic events, but that coverage will be, at best, sporadic. Much less often will it help its readers and viewers to form a Catholic attitude to the world's events and trends.
The Catholic press should be an essential part of the life of the Church and Catholics should look to it to help form their consciences and stay informed with what is happening in the local, national and global Church.
However, these are not good times for the Catholic press or for journalism in general. In my 25 years as editor of the WCR, I have seen several Canadian Catholic publications cease publication, with only a very few new periodicals being started.
At the WCR over these years, circulation has remained constant . . . with occasional spikes and valleys. In the last two years, however, our circulation has dropped by more than 2,000.
Oddly, this decline started at roughly the same time as we conducted a readership survey in which the WCR's readers gave a ringing endorsement for the newspaper's current format and direction. The 1,800 responses in that survey were the strongest affirmation the newspaper has received during my time as editor.
Many times, when people cancel their subscriptions, they say they will continue to read the newspaper on the Internet. No doubt, some of these people do regularly visit our website. However, we are not witnessing an increase in our website usage that corresponds with the decline in print circulation.
The same phenomena is true for mainstream newspapers. Not only is their advertising revenue in decline, but so is their circulation. Across North America, people are turning away from legitimate journalism.
On a societal scale, this will mean a decline in an informed citizenry that is essential to democracy.
In the Church, we need to be concerned about the erosion in the number of people seeking to develop a Catholic attitude to societal and Church issues. We also need to be concerned about a decline in the number of people who keep in touch with Church news and views.
The WCR believes in the Internet as one way of serving the local Church and, indeed, Catholics who live much further afield. Sixteen years ago, we were the first Canadian Catholic newspaper to have our own website and we have found a new audience through that website.
However, we also know that people who get their news off the Web spend much less time reading online publications than do the readers of printed newspapers. Moreover, the expansion of online blogging is no substitute for informed journalism.
So, what is the WCR to do? It cannot throw up its hands in despair. The WCR must strive to provide the best newspaper possible within its resources.
We need to urge parishes to update their mailing lists as often as they are able. Adding parishioners to the WCR circulation list does not increase the cost to the parish, but it does enable more parishioners to realize those goals described in Communio et Progressio.
The Edmonton Archdiocese has made a strong and lasting commitment to the Catholic press through its parish assessment program. It has committed considerable resources to providing formation and information to as many Catholics as possible through the printed word.
Today, the WCR continues to reach 34,000 homes and Catholic institutions. It is far from being dead in the water. But we need to strive, perhaps more than ever, to enable this Catholic newspaper to reach as many Catholics as possible.