Written by J. Bennett Guess
September - October 2009
Even as breaking news goes online, new twice-annual magazine to debut next year
If it's true that misery loves company, then the newspaper world has lots of anxious comrades. Almost every news cycle, it seems, is filled with another I-never-thought-that-would-happen surprise in the publishing realm. On Aug. 19, the parent company of Reader's Digest filed for bankruptcy, citing declining subscriptions and falling ad revenues.
Earlier in the summer, the once biggest-selling publication in the world announced plans to print 3 million fewer copies of each edition and reduce its publishing frequency from 12 to 10 issues. Two weeks earlier, Ann Arbor, Mich., a big university town where nearly 50 percent of its residents have graduate degrees, became the first city of significant size not to have a daily newspaper. The highly respected Christian Science Monitor opted out of print in April.
In March, Time Magazine listed 10 papers that appear to be good (or unfortunate) candidates to go either digital or belly up by the end of the year. Among them are some of this nation's newspaper icons: Philadelphia Daily News, Minneapolis Star Tribune, Miami Herald, Detroit News, Boston Globe, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times, New York Daily News, Fort-Worth Star-Telegram and Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Even as most of those papers have rebuked their print obituaries, most still acknowledge that big and difficult changes are coming. At least a few big-name dailies appear likely to join the ranks of the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, both of which ceased print publication earlier this year.
Obviously, increasing costs and decreasing readership and revenues are the most significant factors, but ever-changing readership behaviors point to the looming question, which is how to deal with the underlying cultural shift. Perhaps it's a case study in irony, but more people are reading newspapers than ever before and the conundrum is how we are reading them — online, not from newsprint.
The Ann Arbor News attempted to squarely face this reality. As Time reported, the paper didn't so much "die" as much as it was "killed" by its owners in a gamble to try to get ahead of the communications curve — to create something radically new, given the monumental changes we are witnessing. The owners decided that it made little sense to continually whittle away at the newspaper's operation. Instead, they tried something bold.
The result, AnnArborNews.com, is a hybrid that strangely mixes news and social networking. News is generated by paid content creators but also unpaid citizen contributors. While subscribers can purchase a print summary of the online content that is delivered twice-weekly to their homes, it is a totally different approach. Will it work? Only time will tell.
At United Church News, we've already tried the whittling away approach. Now the time has come to attempt a bold new thing.
In December 2004, the UCC's then-monthly newspaper announced that it would publish just six times annually, making it impossible for the paper to remain a true newspaper.
Headlines were often weeks old before they reached your doorstep, even when the same stories had been available online the whole time.
On the flip side, our news presence at www.ucc.org/news was invigorated with an increasing number of readers who quickly expected and began finding news stories posted there daily, not monthly as had once been the norm. UCC members wanted the story as it happened: online. Today, the addition of at least one or two new daily headlines is commonplace.
Still, the decision to shutter the print publication of United Church News after 24 years of operation has been sad and painful, especially for those of us who have been personally invested in formulating, writing, designing and copy editing the news.
For those of us who still love the feel and layout of a newspaper, it's a go-kicking-and-screaming sort of moment. As a college journalism student, I once thought I had a bonafide addiction to newspapers, since I subscribed to or purchased no less than four or five daily. The newsprint-cluttered backseat of my car was proof to my neat-and-orderly parents that I had a problem. Still, despite my personal fondness for newsprint, even I can't ignore the fast and furious changes in front of us.
In 2003, when I became editor of United Church News, it cost about $65,000 to print and mail United Church News to about 200,000 households. In 2009, now working as the newspaper's publisher, I know that those expenses have nearly doubled to about $120,000 an issue. The culprits are postage increases and paper costs, which continue to increase.
Even though our stellar advertising manager Connie Larkman actually helped us steadily increase our ad revenues in recent years, and even as many readers were quick to respond to the 2005 cutbacks with more-consistent contributions, these new dollars still were not suffi cient to overcome the exponential cost increases.
As with the secular world, United Church News finds itself among other religious entities making similar decisions. At its 2009 General Synod, the Reformed Church in America called for the "orderly cessation" of its publication, the Church Herald. The Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the 172-year-old newspaper of the North and South Georgia United Methodist Conferences, ceased publication. In May, Christianity Today announced it was ending four of its sibling periodicals. Other denominations are having similar conversations.
Perhaps most frustrating about the necessity to end the print edition of United Church News was the way it abruptly ended the seamless partnership we had developed with most of the print publications of our UCC Conferences. Although a few are working to make a go of it on their own, most Conferences have decided to follow suit with the national setting.
We are exploring ways to recreate our partnership using different technology, but this will take conversation and time for development.
When we convened UCC leaders and members to discuss the future of United Church News, most understood the need for change and agreed that an increasing number of people, regardless of age, would be looking online for instantaneous news, even from the church. But what most said they would lament was the absence of connection, the lost feeling of graceful intrusion that a church publication offers when it arrives in the mailbox.
Ironically, the "potential loss" they were speaking about was something that United Church News, as a newspaper, was never meant to be.
That led us to envision a different type of print publication, one that had the form, feel and function of a colorful member magazine — even if published only twice annually — to take the place of a smudgy, inky newsprint newspaper that was being asked to pretend it was something else.
If people were freed to get quality UCC news online, that left open the possibility that we could create a wholly different publication, one that could serve other purposes:
What if we developed an elegant/eloquent coffee table magazine, much like LIFE, National Geographic or a college alumni magazine, that offered powerful photographs, in-depth theological essays and thoughtful personal reflections in a format that readers would find too impressive to throw away?
What if each issue warmly captured the essence of who we are as a church, making it a fitting and timely give-away for visitors, new members and devoted old-timers alike?
What if it promoted a sense of belonging, inspired us to generosity and cultivated our oneness in Christ?
What if individuals could subscribe, but we also made it affordable in quantity so that churches could use it in creative evangelistic ways?
In Spring 2010, we are planning to launch such a to-be-named publication. By year's end, we will reach out to our current subscribers with an invitation to invest in and receive this print piece. Yes, it won't come as often, but it may just meet the needs that a newspaper could never fill.
And, in the days between, you'll still be able to find United Church News online 24/7.