19 June 2024

Sharp drop in religious press could spell loss for community

More religious press publications are changing to digital-only models. Picture: iStock.

Jenan Taylor

6 June 2023

Religious communities might have to rely on polarised reporting as many faith-based publications face closure, a religious media body warns.

The Australasian Religious Press Association said many communities could lose independent coverage of important stories because denominations were discontinuing their publications or switching to digital-only models.

It said several religious press employees had lost their jobs and were moving to external media outlets.

ARPA president Sophia Sinclair said since June 2019 Australian member publications had dropped from 56 to 18, while associate memberships were down from 14 to three.

Publications cited the impact of COVID, changing communications models, tighter budgets and closure, Ms Sinclair said.

She said they were also losing journalists and advertisers, mirroring what was happening with secular mainstream media.

Read more: Eternity News to shift away from news reporting

The downward spiral would come at a cost to religious communities because readers would have to rely on polarised reporting or opinion from people who did not have journalism training, along with less dialogue and robust two-way communication., Ms Sinclair said.

She said rather than being externally resourced publications, with independent editors and journalists to report on the diocese or news relevant to the sphere, publications news teams were being absorbed into communication roles closely linked with the diocese.

“Journalists who had been focussing on reporting and editing have had to apply their skills to internal and low-cost external communications methods such as podcasts, writing email newsletters and other new media,” Ms Sinclair said.

She said the trend was reflected in the wider media, too, and that the shift made society as a whole worse off because of it.

But she said the Australasian Catholic Press Association was reporting that its member publications were bucking the downward trend.

The body’s website says it has about 140 members and that it had built up its numbers after they declined to record lows in the early 1990s.

Read more: Why we’re introducing social media community standards for The Melbourne Anglican

Eureka Street editor David Halliday said the Jesuit publication transitioned from print to digital in 2006 and had not been too affected by the challenges other publications faced during the last three years.

Mr Halliday said there had been a few small changes including daily mail outs and a slight drop in the volume of stories being published, but that had been part of the shifting landscape.

He said his team was continually focused on how to make the digital publication work, including running some free content, and extra items behind a paywall.

The news team had been bigger at the outset in 1991 but now it was pared back and the publication had several columnists and regular contributors, Mr Halliday said.

He said that it was possible the Church structure and stronger identity played a role in the resilience of the publication, but that loyalty from highly engaged readers in a highly engaged part of the Church, helped as well.

“There’s always interest for issues that affect the Catholic Church, and worldwide, as well as in Australia. That’s always been part of our content offerings since inception,” Mr Halliday said. “We’re very conscious to be outward facing and to be partaking in the wider conversation, hopefully inspiring, constructive conversation about important issues.”

Last year Christian publication Eternity News moved away from reporting on news after more than a decade, citing the need to focus on delivering content that would ‘equip, encourage and inspire believers’.

It now prints twice annually and publishes online every day.

Ms Sinclair said she had also noticed an uptick in the numbers of religious citizen journalists or discernment bloggers in the space.

She said although some were bringing a necessary focus to some issues in the Church, such as abuses, the untrained storytelling wasn’t always a positive thing.

“There’s a largely negative tone. It’s not always very charitable, often, very messy. But at the same time, there’s a real work of shining light in the darkness there, so there’s something interesting happening,” Ms Sinclair said.

“That’s also a challenge for those of us who are still working as journalists within the religious press. Where’s the light? Where’s the enlightening to go? Are we doing it? Or is it these rising discerning bloggers that are doing the important work of holding people in power to account?”

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