| By Marybeth Hicks

Can you justify print in a digital world? (Hint: Yes!)

It’s budget season across America’s Catholic dioceses, a time when communications directors and editors are asked to justify the funds earmarked for their departments. For many a finance director, the diocesan publication represents a large potential windfall if it can be eliminated from an otherwise unbalanced budget. But communicators know that ceasing to publish would sever a crucial link between a bishop and his people and would eliminate the only source of Catholic content most people have in their homes.

The truth is, in one way, some finance directors aren’t wrong. A print publication is typically the largest expenditure in a diocesan budget. Eliminate it, and you could bridge a budget gap, at least in the short term.

But what’s lost when a publication ceases to exist is the potential to connect with the very people the Church is losing — those who still identify as Catholics but are completely disengaged with a parish. Without a publication that reaches them in their homes, these people will receive no messages of hope and faith from the Church. These are not the people who are looking through social media for posts from their parishes; they are not the people who follow the bishop on Twitter. A publication reaches them in a way digital communication cannot — by arriving directly in their mailboxes and being brought into their homes. 

The mission of the Church — Jesus’ Great Commission — depends on connection. After all, we can’t build disciples without communicating with people. The trick is to communicate strategically, by using the most appropriate media to convey the most compelling messages. Applying principles of strategic communication not only justifies the expense of a diocesan publication, but puts it at the very heart of a diocese’s mission and ministry.

Is your diocesan print publication serving its purpose?

According to a 2021 study from Pew Research Center, eight in10 Americans get their news from digital devices. In today’s digital age, diocesan finance directors are asking why we should spend precious resources on a print publication when so many people use social media via smartphones to get their news? 

The answer lies in the purpose of a diocesan publication.

The Catholic press in America was founded in 1822 in Charleston, South Carolina — two hundred years ago! — with the launch of The Catholic Miscellany. Over time, Catholic newspapers grew and evolved, setting high standards for presenting news from a Catholic perspective. In their heyday, Catholic newspapers served the needs of an adherent Catholic population — 80 percent of Catholics attended Mass every week, parishes were hubs of social and community life, and family celebrations centered around the reception of sacraments.

Today, that statistic on Mass attendance is flipped on its head. Only a little more than 20 percent of Catholics attend Mass every weekend. Baptisms, first Communions, confirmations, and marriages all are at historically low levels as people have become disengaged with the Church. Consequently, the relevance of Church news also has diminished.

Should you cease your print publication and go all-digital instead?

Since most people get their news online, there’s a strong case to be made for ceasing a print newspaper and presenting Catholic news in a digital format. But that doesn’t mean a diocese should cease to publish. There are two reasons for this.

First, while statistics prove that people have disconnected from the Church, most people still identify themselves as Christian and say religion is “very” or “somewhat important” in their lives — 65 percent according to a 2021 Pew report. As Catholics, this doesn’t surprise us, since we believe God created us with a desire for connection with him.  

In short, even in an increasingly secular culture, most people yearn for spiritual connection.

Secondly, while we know a lot of people get their breaking news digitally, they still read print magazines. Really! The Association of Magazine Media’s annual Factbook once again affirmed in 2021 that Americans of all ages read magazine media — especially younger adults. Eighty-eight percent of all adults read magazines, including 90 percent under age 30, and 90 percent under age 25.

FAITH Catholic advocates strongly for a diocesan communications strategy that puts evangelization first in a print publication, and presents news, events, and timely information in a consumer facing, digital format where it’s easily updated and accessible to those who are interested and engaged.

Is your current publication measurably effective?

How do you know your publication is doing what you intend it to do? Anecdotal evidence isn’t enough to justify the high cost of a print publication, and sending the publication into registered Catholic homes is no guarantee that it’s being read or shared, or that it’s having any impact at all.

At FAITH, we rely on research to demonstrate that our publications work. Our annual readership surveys confirm year after year that magazines using the proven FAITH framework achieve their goal to evangelize readers:

  • 88% say their diocesan magazine “makes me feel more connected to my Catholic faith”
  • 71% say the magazine “helps me explain my faith to family and friends”
  • 89% of adults ages 30 to 49 find the magazine interesting
  • 80% say the magazine “moves me to be more interested in spiritual growth”
  • 64% spend more than 15 minutes reading (remember, this includes people who rarely attend Mass)

Are your diocesan communications strategies adapting to the moment?

To be sure, there was a time when Catholic newspapers like The Catholic Miscellany were the best vehicle to bring vital news and information to eager, engaged audiences of Catholic parishioners. But in the Diocese of Charleston, communicators recognized that a magazine, coupled with a consumer-focused content website, would better serve the purpose of communicating strategically for evangelization. Keeping their 200-year-old legacy title, the Catholic Miscellany magazine provides evangelizing content and will soon be sent to every registered Catholic household in the state of South Carolina. And themiscellany.org helps faith seekers to learn more about the faith, and lets disciples share inspiring and educational Catholic content with their loved ones and neighbors.

Strategic communications that adapt to the moment and render measurable results enable dioceses to fulfill their mission to bring the life-giving message of Jesus Christ to a waiting and eager audience.