Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
September 28, 2009
Canada's Catholic news co-op grew out of papal visit
John Paul II and new technologies led Catholic press into a new era
VICTOR POST PHOTOGRAPHY
Pope John Paul II's 1984 visit to Canada was the spark that got Canada's Catholic newspapers cooperating and led to the formation of Canadian Catholic News four years later.
CANADIAN CATHOLIC NEWS
The Canadian Catholic News (CCN) news cooperative began as the gleam in the eye of Father Andrew Britz and was conceived 25 years ago to prepare for the 1984 visit of Pope John Paul II.
The Benedictine priest who edited the Muenster, Sask.-based Prairie Messenger wanted to see Catholic papers across the country working together to fill a vacuum in national Canadian coverage.
"We were news-deprived when it came to information about the Church in Canada," said Montreal's Catholic Times editor Eric Durocher, who with Britz is credited as co-founder. "The only consistent source of national information was the weekly mailings we received from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB)."
Cooperation was essential to address the "information gap," Durocher said. But it was "easier said than done" in a country that values regional distinctiveness and a Church with diverse pastoral approaches.
One big problem was getting the two Toronto papers involved. Initially The Catholic Register and Catholic New Times were cool to the idea of CCN. "I think they thought they were the centre of the Canadian Church and they didn't need all this fancy stuff - us people in the hinterlands needed it - but they quickly changed their minds," Britz said.
The differences went deeper. The Catholic Register under former CBC national news broadcaster Larry Henderson had become a strongly conservative voice, while the now defunct Catholic New Times founded by Sister Mary Jo Leddy and Father Gregory Baum represented a more social justice focus.
SNAIL MAIL DELIVERY
The other big problem was technical. Back then there were no fax machines, no accessible Internet and email, no easy electronic means of easily sharing news copy, let alone photographs. The editors then relied on Canada Post's "snail mail" or couriers.
But Pope John Paul II's anticipated visit to Canada led to CCN's conception.
"The papal visit really made it possible to set up Canadian Catholic News," Britz said. "People knew they wanted to cover the story of the pope's visit, but they couldn't have someone in Halifax, someone in Vancouver."
The first formal meeting of Catholic editors or their representatives took place in Toronto in May 1984, a few months before the pope's visit. They agreed to share copy and photographs of the papal visit.
"I can't say (the papal visit coverage) was a great success, but it did get us talking to each other and got us cooperating," said Western Catholic Reporter Editor Glen Argan.
The next four years represented a period of gestation. Catholic editors started holding ad hoc meetings in conjunction with the Canadian Church Press convention, looking for ways to move the process forward.
CCN's official birth took place at a Toronto meeting in May 1988, when six regional newspapers - B.C. Catholic, WCR, Prairie Messenger, Catholic New Times, Catholic Register and Catholic Times Montreal - formed the cooperative and made Britz and Durocher co-chairs. New Brunswick's New Freeman joined soon afterwards.
"Andrew had the ear of prominent Church leaders and pushed the project forward," Durocher said. "I waded through the various concerns that had been expressed and developed an affordable, pragmatic co-operative structure."
CCN developed a three-phase plan: create the news sharing network, establish an Ottawa bureau and offer a paid news service to subscribers.
By 1988, information technology had evolved, making electronic messaging more affordable. But that meant a switch from manual typewriters to computers. "For those operating on shoestring budgets, it required a leap of faith," Durocher said.
On Nov. 1, 1988, CCN took her first steps in electronic storysharing, using Telecom Canada's Envoy messaging system, available through iNET 2000.
The system had its bugs. Someone had to retype the stories on both the sending and receiving ends.
AN INSTANT HIT
But the benefits of receiving timely news from across Canada was "an instant hit" with the editors, Durocher said. "Canadian Catholics started meeting each other through the pages of their regional publications."
Britz said Canada's bishops were behind Canadian Catholic News from the beginning and have provided annual funding.
CCN set its sights on phase two: an Ottawa correspondent.
It took about four years to get the Ottawa bureau in place, however. Britz and Durocher asked Art Babych if he wanted to go to Ottawa to set one up on a trial basis. Babych, who edited the Prairie Messenger from 1989-1992, had recently quit the job out of restlessness. He leapt at the offer.
"It sounded pretty exciting to me," Babych said. So he set out in an old car with his TV and got an apartment near Parliament Hill. He became the first religious journalist to get a Parliamentary Press Gallery membership.
The Ottawa bureau was another leap of faith, since the cooperative had only raised $25,000, and The Catholic Register, under a new editor, dropped out rather than contribute.
Argan, who had returned to the WCR in 1991, said committing to support the Ottawa bureau with a $3,000 annual contribution was "a real stretch."
"We didn't have any money for anything," he said. But the commitment has "paid off in spades."
"It's been an enormous boon to what we can provide our readers in terms of Canadian coverage."
The Ottawa bureau's success contributed to the negotiation of a news service contract with the U.S.-based Catholic News Service, which provided additional funding.
After the creation of the Ottawa bureau, The Catholic Register rejoined CCN when Bernard Daly, a long-time CCCB employee, became editor and publisher in 1993. Daly was succeeded by Joe Sinasac at The Register in 1996.
Sinasac "became a major contributor (to CCN) in terms of news coverage as well as the nuts and bolts of things," said Argan.
Sinasac, who was CCN co-chair from 1996 to 2008, also worked to expand the service, to include a number of diocesan papers, Salt+Light Television and its first Protestant subscriber, B.C. Christian News.
Babych served 12 years in Ottawa, leaving in 2004, when CCN hired former CBC television producer Deborah Gyapong.
Sinasac, who left The Register in 2008, said CCN has become increasingly aware of the timeliness of its articles and the need for Catholic readers to be part of the public debate. "We are now much more responsive to issues than we were a decade ago."
"I think the quality of our newspapers is light years away from where it was in the early '80s and '90s," said Argan. "We've just improved in so many ways and CCN has been a big part of that."
What does the future hold for CCN?
"Catholic newspapers, if they're smart about how they do their jobs, have a good strong niche that could serve them well even in a period when the traditional general daily newspaper seems to be dying," said Sinasac.
CCN has helped the papers develop their independence, Britz said. "Vatican II stressed very much that the newspapers were not to be Sunday bulletins, that they were to be bona fide newspapers that were ready to throw stones at glass houses."
Britz admits that Canadian Catholic journalists are better off than those in other countries. He said he has friends in the United States who say, "It's getting really tough."