Cross-platform America Media aims to expand its Catholic ministry

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Readers of the popular Jesuit magazine America may have noticed that its publisher, America Press, is undergoing a rebranding.

"People are reading print publications less and less, particularly young millennials," said Jesuit Fr. Jeremy Zipple, executive editor of America Films, a significant part of the newly established cross-platform entity America Media.

"Everybody is doing video content now," Zipple told NCR. "The New York Times, The Washington Post -- any number of secular media outlets that were once exclusively publishing print materials are now publishing video."

For that matter, of course, a number of television outlets, such as CNN, are moving into the printed word on blogs and websites. America's editors, then, are not replacing their magazine with other forms of media; they are simply expanding across new media platforms.

Jesuit Fr. Matt Malone, president and editor-in-chief of America Media, said in a video that from the beginning, the company's mission was never reducible to its print publication. "We are not a magazine," he said. "We are a Catholic ministry. We print a magazine, and we also have a website, but we're not a website, either."

The output of America Films will range from behind-the-scenes featurettes, such as a recent spotlight on the witty repartee between editor-at-large Jesuit Fr. James Martin and Stephen Colbert, and more in-depth, resource-intensive documentary films that could hypothetically be co-produced or distributed by other media organizations, too.

One representative work is "La Voz del Pueblo," a harrowing and consummately made look at a Jesuit-run radio station in Honduras.

Radio Progreso is located in El Progreso*, not far from San Pedro Sula, the city with the highest homicide rate in the world. Journalists who investigate Honduran police corruption, drug cartels, mining corporations, and other social ills put their lives at risk: Thirty-six journalists have been killed in the last five years in Honduras. In one of the film's most sobering sequences, a reporter for Radio Progreso explains that he maintains a list of these deaths. Tears fill his eyes as he imagines that someday, he may end up on his own list.

"Radio Progreso is more than a radio station," Jennifer Avila, another of its journalists, says in the video. "It is a medium of communication that is very close to the people."

Avila says she wept when she became pregnant, asking herself into what sort of country she was bringing her innocent little girl. Yet she did not walk away from her work. "Even during my pregnancy, I did several reports on gangs and gang violence," she says. "I won't quit because I think I give an example to my daughter that there are things one should do and fight for: for justice."

The station's social apostolate extends beyond journalism. When children in the neighborhood go missing, their parents go not to the police, who are known to be corrupt and inefficient, but to the trusted staff of Radio Progreso.

"It is everything a Jesuit media organization should be," Zipple said. "You talk about being on the peripheries, being on the margins, where things are ambiguous, where people are really hurting or struggling? Look no further than Radio Progreso."

In telling Radio Progreso's story, America Films shares in its social mission. Zipple said he believes the film is particularly relevant at the beginning of the presidential election season in the United States.

"There's an anti-immigrant sentiment in sectors of American society," he said, "and it says of all these Central Americans showing up on our southern borders, 'Yeah, we feel bad for these people, but the bottom line is that we have our own people to worry about and they're not our problem.' "

Zipple disputes that narrative, pointing out a history of American interventions into Honduran politics, of ownership of vast tracts of Honduran land by American corporations, and of American drug consumption that fuels crime and violence south of our border on a daily basis.

"I hope this film shows, in subtle ways, how Honduran refugees very much are our problem," Zipple said.

If Radio Progreso and America Films are indicative of a faith that does justice, they also demonstrate a creative use of new technologies that is another hallmark of the Society of Jesus.

"Jesuits in the 16th and 17th century played a large role in the spread of the printing press," Zipple said. "They were at the vanguard of scientific discoveries. I think America Media is part of that heritage of taking the best of what's going on in the world."

Zipple, whose background is in mainstream television, also draws on the Ignatian dictum of finding God in all things.

"It's an exciting time to be in Catholic media," he said. "We've got Pope Francis, who is an extraordinary pope and a real media sensation, too. But I'm not always interested in topics that are specifically religious, because the divine is active in so many places. As a filmmaker and a priest, you're in a privileged position to watch, to listen, to explore -- yet not only from a religious starting point.

"It's my dream to be able to do things that appeal to mainstream audiences," he concluded, "not just to our own tribe."

*An earlier version of this blog post named the incorrect location.

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