For 51 years, the WCR has striven to be close to readers

The WCR's board of directors - the 1976 instalment is shown here - was one way in which the newspaper maintained close ties with readers in the Edmonton Archdiocese.

The WCR's board of directors - the 1976 instalment is shown here - was one way in which the newspaper maintained close ties with readers in the Edmonton Archdiocese.

The WCR conducted several readership surveys over its history. In this 1972 survey, CWL members delivered surveys to readers in their homes and picked up the completed ones.

The WCR conducted several readership surveys over its history. In this 1972 survey, CWL members delivered surveys to readers in their homes and picked up the completed ones.

September 26, 2016
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

The Church is more, much more, than a doctrine or a document. The Church has the life of a community coursing through its veins.

For 51 years, the Western Catholic Reporter chronicled the life of the local Church, the Canadian Church and the global Church. Its vocation was to have the smell of the sheep of which Pope Francis speaks so often.

We covered Catholic Women’s League conventions aplenty, tapped the vocations story of nearly every priest or sister in the archdiocese, and wrote numerous stories about the faith of youth. Some of those “youth” now have hair as grey as mine, but are as active in the Church as ever.

Unlike many newspapers, the WCR was born from a vision. It was not created to make a profit and, in fact, its operations exacted a heavy toll on the pocketbook of the Edmonton Archdiocese.

However, as my immediate predecessor as editor, the late John Rasmussen, wrote at the end of his term: “I have gained much from my time as editor – better things than money.”

The Church has a responsibility to be a good financial steward, but at the same time bean counters should not make ultimate decisions. It’s a fine line.

When I served as editor in the 1980s, alongside general manager, the late Elmar Abele, I urged him to spend more.

Later, I was both editor and general manager and had to balance editorial and financial concerns. I make no apology for raising our reporters’ pathetic salaries. Conversely, other editors might have spent more on sending those reporters to do stories in far-off locations, but I could never justify that to myself, let alone the board of directors.

Ah, the board. From its founding in 1965 until three years ago, the WCR had, first, a board of advisors and then a board of directors. Over that time, hundreds of people from all corners of the archdiocese served on the board.

ROOTED IN COMMUNITY

Few newspapers have such a thing as a board of directors. The board rooted the WCR in its community. Its members brought various forms of expertise, news from their parishes and other fields of endeavour, and occasionally some quirky ideas.

I was always grateful for members, such as the great Tim Spelliscy, who gently steered the board away from ideas that were too quirky. Yet, we also had to hear those off-the-wall ideas in order to realize that most members of the reading public do not look at the world through the same set of lenses as journalists do.

READERSHIP SURVEYS

The board, bless its soul, was big on readership surveys. Each time we did a survey – and there were several – readers showered us with bouquets, along with the occasional suggestion that the editor be excommunicated or, at the very least, fired immediately.

One consultant reminded board members not to share the libellous comments which sometimes popped up.

Those surveys, again, helped the WCR smell its “sheep.” They kept us close to the wants and feelings of readers.

Our greatest survey was the one conducted in 2010 by consultant Bryan Froehle. It drew about 1,800 responses from a lengthy online survey, one published in the newspaper and a phone survey of priests. Given the possibility that some people did the survey twice, we conservatively reported that “well over 1,500 people” responded.

The central survey finding was that the WCR, by a large margin, was the most important source of Catholic news for its readers. There was also strong support, even among pastors, for the costly parish assessment plan which made the paper available to any parishioner who wanted to receive it.

Froehle wrote that the survey drew “a remarkable response” which “seems to be best explained by the degree to which the paper connects with (readers) personally.”

Readers rejected the notion of replacing the WCR with an online alternative; 55 per cent said they did not even have Internet access at home.

Perhaps that number has fallen in the intervening years, but there is little doubt that the Internet has not swept the nation’s consciousness to the extent television did in the 1950s and ’60s.

As Froehle noted, reader/viewer engagement is necessary for any means of communication to be successful.

READER ENGAGEMENT

However, when the parish assessment plan was cancelled at the start of 2014, reader engagement with the paper fell. Circulation dropped immediately from more than 32,000 to about 7,000 and has since fallen to less than 6,500.

Our subscribers are a dedicated lot who, it seems, believe strongly in the value of the WCR. However, the newspaper lost its critical mass of readers – including thousands who read the paper faithfully but who were infrequent Church attenders – and today is no longer as vital to the flow of life in the local Church.

We experience that in the sharp decline in the number of people dropping into our office, the falling number of phone calls and the plunge in the number of story ideas coming from readers.

COMMITTED TO MISSION

Our staff do not want to abandon the mission which Archbishop Anthony Jordan gave the WCR when he launched it in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. However, the closure of the newspaper did not come as a total surprise to us.

Those looking to subscribe to a weekly Catholic newspaper may want to contact the Prairie Messenger in Saskatchewan (306-682-1772), The B.C. Catholic in Vancouver (604-683-0281) or The Catholic Register in Toronto (416-934-3409).