Keep the NCR mission alive, 50 years later

As I write this, workers outside my window are preparing to hang a banner on the fading brick wall of our building here in midtown Kansas City, Mo. The sign will herald for all who drive down Armour Boulevard the fact that NCR has been in publication for 50 years.

You know, of course, that National Catholic Reporter was founded in October 1964, and I can promise you will hear about that date many times in the next year. We at NCR are now reading the recently published National Catholic Reporter at Fifty: The Story of the Pioneering Paper and Its Editors, researched and written by one of those editors, Arthur Jones.

In his introduction, Jones describes the changes taking place in the early 1960s in the world and in the U.S. Catholic church: "The American Catholic church was something neither the universal church nor the Vatican ... had ever witnessed: a highly educated laity, enthusiastic about its faith and church, determined to take its place in its church and civil society. In all of this, a low-circulation paper ... has played an outsized role."

I often wonder whether the paper's founder, Robert Hoyt, really could imagine his enterprise lasting a decade, much less five. The concept of starting a newspaper rarely comes with a guarantee of success, and to create a publication that not only was devoted to the Catholic church but also was intended to expose the underbelly of that institution in a way unseen before was a risky mission.

But a mission it truly was. In touting the paper's independence, Hoyt wrote in the first issue, "Freedom, of course, is a condition, not a virtue. ... Among other things it will require -- it already has required -- the putting of awkward questions and the printing of awkward facts.

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"The core function of religious journalism," he added, "is to find out what is going on and report it."

Occasionally, I hear suggestions that NCR consider softening its stance on some issues or changing its focus to something a little more uplifting. Why can't we report the good news about the church, some wonder. Of course, we do tell of the good being done by Catholics around the world, by lay workers in Guatemala, sisters in the Philippines, priests along the U.S.-Mexico border. But I keep coming back to this: If we did not cover those other stories, if we did not follow through on Hoyt's mission to constantly assess the overall situation of the church, then who would?

Someone asked me this year to describe my broadest goal as CEO of NCR. "To keep alive the mission established by the company's founding fathers," I replied. Easy answer, tough challenge.

I've watched the industry of journalism evolve for most of my life, and the changes grow swifter and more transformational every year. The niche aspect of NCR makes it a little easier than it is for other publications to deal with these changes because we are blessed with an unusually strong core group of loyal readers, subscribers and donors.

But -- yes, folks, here it comes -- keeping alive Hoyt's dream means keeping up with the times, in the industry and in the church we cover. It means hiring qualified journalists and support staff. As our readership, especially on NCRonline.org, expands beyond the shores of the United States, it means traveling around the world to report the stories you won't find anywhere else. And it means investing in new -- with a constant redefinition of "new" -- technology so that we can continue to connect Catholics to the church and the issues they follow.

It means funding. And while we do get that from subscribers and advertisers, we are relying more and more on the generosity of donors. We have begun our annual "Friends" campaign, and many of you already have replied. We thank you for your support!

If you have not had the chance to respond, I ask you to please consider what it takes to continue to publish the work that we do. I ask you to please help all of us here keep alive Bob Hoyt's mission, as urgently necessary today as it was in 1964.

50 & Forward!

This story appeared in the Sept 26-Oct 9, 2014 print issue under the headline: Keep the mission alive .

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