Written by Daniel Hazard
"All change is loss," I remember the Interim Ministry Network trainer admonishing us would-be interim pastors long before I became executive director of the UCC's Office of Communication. It has proven to be good advice in many settings, including this moment when United Church News ceases its print edition.
Yet, when I reflect on my tenure as publisher of United Church News (1999-2007), I am aware that several transitions occurred, times when the paper reinvented itself to better inform her readers and better serve as the connective tissue for the denomination.
Though such transitions are not always smooth, they often offer opportunities for transformation.
The past decade has seen nothing short of a communications revolution. Through such a time, a static, inflexible, unchanging news service would have poorly served the church, rendering news distribution in the UCC inadequate for the rapidly changing world in which we live. Three themes seemed operative over the past decade: increased participation, intentional branding and emerging technologies. All are relevant in the current circumstances.
In 1999, while few questioned the quality of United Church News as a source of information (though some quibbled with its "constant harping on hot button topics"), distribution of the paper left much to be desired. Our circulation stood at around 45,000, with fully one-third of those papers (two copies each) sent to churches, Conference offices and UCC institutions. It was uncertain who — if anyone — actually read them.
Minimal subscription revenue, little ad income, and no coordinated way to increase circulation did not make for a smart business plan. We knew we had to get the news into more hands in order to provide a vital connecting link for our members.
We also knew that we had to increase Conference participation if the paper was going to refl ect the ministry of the church in all its settings.
So we embarked on an aggressive campaign to build news gathering and publication capacity within Conferences. We trained editors, paid for printing and distribution costs and, within a few short years, realized an increase from a dozen disconnected Conference wrap editions to a national paper with about 30 distinctive Conference sections.
We hired professionals to manage a database of mailing addresses and watched as our distribution numbers grew to more than 200,000.
You are holding that product in your hands which, at the time, was produced 10 times a year by an enormously talented and dedicated United Church News team at both the National and Conference levels.
Get it all branded
One result of this new strategy was that we created, perhaps for the first time, a national UCC "brand." We standardized design and typography. Most conference sections appeared inside our papers instead of "wrapping" around the national edition, thereby giving greater visibility to a national identity.
This challenged notions of Conference versus national loyalty but in the end, the case for a unified brand prevailed and, I believe, paved the way for a wider buy-in for the UCC's soon-to-emerge identity campaign.
One interesting bit of trivia: the first time that our soon-to-be ubiquitous denominational branding — God is Still Speaking, "Never place a period ...," big comma, black and red color scheme, new UCC "stacked" logo — appeared was in a November 2001 United Church News ad designed to attract readership, not as a national identity campaign to welcome people into our churches.
Embrace new technologies
About the same time that our circulation was increasing, conversation was beginning about developing a news portal on the UCC website.
As a society, we had begun the radical shift from mass media to participatory media.
When our "Bouncer" television commercial was rejected by the networks and the blogosphere grabbed hold of the story, spreading the word so fast that our website crashed from too much traffic, we realized the potential in viral communication. Within weeks we developed a strategy to enlist the bloggers in our identity efforts.
It wasn't long before we were quizzing ourselves about the role digital communication should play in our evolving newsroom and in the life of the church.
We discovered that we had more than 40 databases at the national level, none of them talking to each other. UCC Associate General Minister Edith Guffey — no early convert to technology, though she has since become a disciple — called the way we shared information "a mess." In service to an ever-more informed audience, things needed to change — and our news department led the way.
As once-monthly deadlines yielded to weekly, then daily, then hourly deadlines, analogue information, often shared via "snail-mail," came to be replaced by digital bits and bytes. Citizen journalists, social networking, blogging and push/pull technologies emerged, each offering new opportunities to inform, connect and inspire.
Which brings us back to today — the end of an era for United Church News. A sense of loss? No doubt. But also there is recognition that the mission of United Church News is and always has been news distribution, not print publication.
By changing with the times, we can increase participation, expand the profile of the United Church of Christ and engage new technologies in ways that better connect us one to another. The news is dead. Long live the news!
The Rev. Robert Chase currently is founding director of Intersections. Based in New York City, Intersections is a global, multicultural, multifaith initiative dedicated to building respectful relationships among diverse individuals and communities and developing strategies that promote justice, reconciliation and peace.