Economy forces Catholic newspaper cuts

Dennis Sadowski

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Catholic newspaper managers are saying now is not the time to write off their publications.

In fact, several managers told Catholic News Service, while they've had to adjust to a sour economy during the latter part of 2008, steps they have taken prior to the financial meltdown to reduce costs and seek alternative revenue sources have left them better prepared to face future financial instability than their secular counterparts.

Still, major questions are being asked about the year ahead. Even though almost every major forecast expects the economy to continue its downward spiral in 2009, the feeling among the managers overall is that their publications probably will be able to weather some revenue losses including declines in advertising, their major source of revenue.

In his position as president of the Catholic Press Association, Bob Zyskowski regularly hears about the difficulties diocesan newspapers are facing. He has heard about budget cuts as high as 10 percent at some newspapers.

At The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, where Zyskowski is associate publisher and general manager, the work week in 2008 has been reduced by 90 minutes to 36 hours. In effect, he said, the move meant a 4 percent wage cut, a move which the newspaper's unionized staff ratified.

He lamented the need to make cutbacks such as reducing the number of pages in any particular issue, giving the reader less news about the church.

"Cutting back is counterproductive to the mission we have and it's counterproductive to the operation of the archdiocese," he said.

In several dioceses -- the Los Angeles Archdiocese and the Diocese of Arlington, Va., in particular -- advertising has declined significantly, forcing managers to trim pages in each edition and reduce expenses in a variety of areas.

Michael Flach, editor and general manager of the weekly Arlington Catholic Herald, said the newspaper experienced a 10 percent drop -- about $100,000 -- in advertising revenues in the last year. He said the drop can be traced primarily to the exodus of real estate ads thanks to the nationwide slump in home sales.

To head off financial difficulties, Flach has tightened the advertising-to-news ratio. When times were good, he kept the advertising hole at 32 percent to 35 percent for each weekly issue. Now, he is inclined to push the advertising margin to 40 percent.

"We made the decision that we weren't going to raise the ad rates too much. We didn't want to pass a lot of the costs to others. Most are diocesan entities and they're feeling the pinch themselves," he said.

In Los Angeles, Mary Trudeau-Mottola, general manager of The Tidings, the newspaper for the archdiocese, advertising revenue has declined by more than 10 percent in 2008. Such losses are the latest obstacle the newspaper has faced.

Trudeau-Mottola said the publication has been reducing costs since 2005 under a directive by the archdiocese affecting all offices and operations. She started by renegotiating printing and delivery contracts to save 30 percent in those areas. Filling staff vacancies is done on a case-by-case basis.

In some dioceses, the financial situation is tight but revenues from advertising and other sources have stayed constant despite the recession, much to the relief of managers.

Margaret Russell, executive editor of The Catholic Free Press in the Diocese of Worcester, Mass., said advertising actually increased 0.5 percent in 2008.

"I attribute that to being a niche publication where our advertisers are not really as tied to the economy as some of the secular advertisers are," she said. "I think sometimes they do it to support the church."

Even so, Russell said the paper has trimmed two pages from its regular 12-page weekly edition as a means to cut costs.

The newspaper also operates a print shop for nonprofit organizations. The shop lost two major jobs recently, but Russell hopes to pick up other jobs to replace them in 2009.

Russell is far more concerned about parishes not making payments for the newspaper under the diocesan circulation plan. She fears that if more parishes are unable to make the payments for the publication, she may be faced with significant budget shortfalls.

At The Georgia Bulletin, executive editor Mary Anne Castranio, has seen a decline in advertising, but takes solace in knowing that the Catholic population in the Atlanta Archdiocese is rapidly growing and now stands at 750,000.

Her plan for increasing revenues revolves around improving the publication's Web site and soliciting advertising for the online edition.

"We're trying not to spend as much money, make our paper better, more enjoyable to read and as inspiring as ever," she said.

One national newspaper, Our Sunday Visitor, has not yet felt a significant impact from the recession, according to publisher Greg Erlandson. The company is waiting for its end-of-the-year reports to determine what adjustments it must make in its 2009 budget, he said.

"We have a very competent advertising staff that is trying to work individually with customers," Erlandson explained. "It's a bad time because you want to pull (your marketing) and the most discretionary use of funding is promotions. But you don't want to cut off your nose to spite your face. You have to keep a presence."

Erlandson, like the others, is waiting to see how 2009 plays out. He expects that the first few months will tell whether the OSV brand will have to make major adjustments or just tweak its business plan.

"If we don't see recovery until 2010, what I worry about is those organizations that have been kind of hanging on. One good thing about OSV is we can respond quickly to things. We don't need a lot of time to turn things around," he said.

What remains in the back of managers' minds is whether dioceses will stick with their newspapers if the bottom falls out of the economy.

However, Zyskowski posed a key question particularly about the future of the Catholic press and specifically about diocesan newspapers.

"It comes down to this whole idea of what is the value of a religious publication to the folks who are the stakeholders: the diocese, the religious community, the religious orders," he said. "Do they find it a financial burden or do they see that this is a way to fulfill their mission? Do we want to continue to have adults formed in their faith or do we want to just let them watch television?"

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