The future of United Church News' print edition will be the subject of broad discussions in coming months in hopes of discovering how the newspaper's rapidly rising costs can be curtailed, shared or more adequately funded.
In the past five years, the cost of printing and mailing United Church News has risen more than 100 percent. In 2003, it cost $60,000 per issue. This year, due to dramatic increases in newspaper postal rates and newsprint, it costs $125,000 to print and mail a single issue — or $750,000 annually for the newspaper's six editions.
The board of the Office of General Ministries voted Nov. 1 to ask General Minister and President John H. Thomas, Associate General Minister Edith Guffey and Communications Director J. Bennett Guess to convene a consultation that will include members of the OGM board, Executive Council, Conference representatives, Collegium of Officers, Editor Gregg Brekke, and others, "to examine the model and costs of United Church News."
As part of its action, the board asked that "any recommendations should include how United Church News or some other resource is coordinated with an overall communication strategy," according to its voted action.
"People should not assume that this conversation will automatically lead to the elimination of United Church News," Guess cautioned. "We know it's a lifeline to many and it's a living, constant reminder of our shared ministries. But, at the same time, we need to explore ways to save money, increase revenue and explore the funding structure that now exists to pay for the National and Conference editions."
In 1999, before United Church News implemented a first-of-its-kind National-Conference partnership, the UCC's national newspaper went to fewer than 55,000 addresses, which included 12,000 copies to active and retired clergy and another 12,000 to local churches (two per congregation).
"The number of actual paying subscribers, at the time, was less than 30,000," Guess said. "Something had to be done to reach a larger segment of the UCC's membership."
At the same time, Guess said, each of the UCC's Conferences was producing and mailing their own newspapers, at a significant cost to them, without any coordination with United Church News.
In an effort to boost overall readership and create a seamless vehicle for the delivery of UCC news, the National setting agreed to gradually take over costs for printing and mailing the Conference editions as companion sections to the National section — in exchange for mailing addresses.
In 2008, of the $750,000 spent on United Church News, the National setting will spend more than $280,000 to print and mail the Conference sections.
Thirty-two Conferences now participate in the cooperative program, Guess said, and it's become the Conferences' primary vehicle for communications.
"The partnership has resulted in great savings for Conferences, a better product for our readers and a substantial subscriber base of more than 200,000 households," Guess said. "We're now the largest denominational newspaper in the country."
Donations and advertising
Even though there is no set fee for a subscription, Guess said that freewill donations do significantly outpace the income once received from paid subscriptions, as was anticipated when the National-Conference partnership was devised. Reader contributions are projected to be $122,000 in 2008, up from $25,000 in 2004.
Ad revenue increases have been even more pronounced. In 2008, ad sales are expected to surpass $265,000, up from $27,000 in 2004.
"Advertisers are now paying attention to United Church News because our subscriber and reader base is so large," Guess said.
"Our income, both from advertisers and donors, has increased exponentially as was projected," he said. "The problem is that we're now competing with postal rates and newsprint costs that make large-scale print publishing a very costly enterprise."
How can I help?