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Prairie Messenger’s stellar reputation, prophetic voice will be missed

 

By Eric Durocher

04/25/2018

The final press run for the Prairie Messenger and for St. Peter’s Press would be incomplete without paying tribute to the PM’s unique role in establishing Canadian Catholic News (CCN), a co-operative news service that brings the story of the Catholic Church in Canada to readers across the nation and beyond.

Today, major Catholic newspapers and some digital news sites in English Canada carry the CCN dateline; reports originate in St. John, Ottawa, Toronto, Regina, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Vancouver and, occasionally, Montreal and Quebec City.

While the coverage of the church in Canada is far from complete, it is indisputably better than it was three decades ago. At that time, most English-language Catholic newspapers covered their region well and, if they subscribed to the American Catholic news service (NC), they also carried a few articles on the Vatican and the American church. But Canadian news beyond their provincial borders — except for the weekly bulletin from the Canadian bishops’ conference — was virtually absent. The church in Canada — its concerns, diversity, challenges and successes — was essentially invisible to the faithful from east to west.

There was a dearth of Catholic news “from across the land in our regional publications,” lamented the new Benedictine editor from Muenster, Sask., and that needed to change. It was 1984 and the beginning of my relationship with the Prairie Messenger as a prime mover and shaker in the establishment of a made-in-Canada Catholic news service and with one of its prophetic and prolific editors, Andrew Britz, OSB.

Before CCN

Andrew Britz’s passion for sharing stories “from across the land” — a passion grounded surely in his experience of the prairies itself — fuelled the dream of a national news service.

However, Britz soon learned that the dream had been around for a while.

Replying to Britz’s request for support from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), Rev. William Ryan, SJ, said: your “proposed news service is a return to a previous plan, as we see it.”

The CCCB General Secretary was referring to a 1950s initiative of the Canadian bishops’ conference (then known as CCC) to operate an information service, which continued until 1967.

“It was dedicated to a general news service for the Catholic press,” he explained, with about 10 per cent to public relations work for the CCC.

Around 1967, the conference decided it needed a full-time public relations service, he noted, “and perhaps even more importantly, insights into subsidiarity and co-responsibility in the church prompted the view here that the Catholic newspapers themselves, and not the bishops through one of their offices, should have the role of gathering and reporting the news about the life of the church that was essential for a healthy public opinion in the church.”

The inability of the Catholic press to set up such a service, Ryan observed, “meant, in our view, that something important has been and is lacking in the life of the church in this country. . . . We sincerely hope that your project will go forward.”

However, it was not as though Canada’s English Catholic press had ignored the challenge.

Several attempts had been made, including a February 1979 meeting in Toronto, convened by CCCB information officer Bonnie Brennan.

Eight Catholic regional newspapers were present, plus Richard Daw of the Washington, D.C.-based NC news service, now CNS.

“Editors, it was agreed, could make special arrangements with other editors for the use of special articles,” reported Leo MacGillivray, editor of the Catholic Times Montreal, to his colleagues. At the same meeting, representatives of the B.C. Catholic (Gerry Bartram), Prairie Messenger (Brother Bede Hubbard, OSB) and Presence (Sister Anne McLaughlin) agreed to study the establishment of a permanent organization for news sharing. Aside from good intentions, the meeting produced few tangible results.

It took a papal visit, five years later, to galvanize the editors into co-operative action. As a result, Catholics were able to follow Pope John Paul’s 1984 nationwide visit in their regional publications because Catholic editors had agreed to share news reports and photos with their sister papers.

That initiative turned out to be a one-shot deal, recalled Glen Argan, then Western Catholic Reporter editor, but it did capture the imaginations of the newly appointed PM editor from Saskatchewan and of the youthful Catholic Times news editor from Montreal.

Up to the challenge

After much correspondence, discussion and lobbying, the PM/Catholic Times team concluded that for CCN to succeed, three things were needed: a common and mutually acceptable editorial approach, an affordable service, and the technical means to ensure timely news sharing.

The PM had the ear of prominent church leaders and pushed the project forward; the Catholic Times waded through the various concerns expressed, and developed an affordable, pragmatic co-operative structure. But it was an uphill battle on many fronts.

In a January 1988 letter of exasperation to Bishop Power, chair of the CCCB Social Communications Committee, English Sector, Britz said: “Maybe my propensity to optimism (I am always dreaming about something) has gotten the better of me, but I still believe that we can put a proposal before you that will reap rich rewards for the church in Canada.”

In May 1988, a meeting of six Canadian Catholic newspapers agreed to establish Canadian Catholic News and to begin, that fall, sharing news through electronic mail. The editors of the PM and Catholic Times agreed to serve as co-chairs.

At that meeting, the Catholic Register was a founding CCN member; however, when Rev. Carl Matthews, SJ, succeeded Rev. Sean O’Sullivan as publisher in 1990, the Register pulled out of the news co-operative. It rejoined in 1993 with the appointment of Bernard Daly as editor.

Nevertheless, CCN grew and thrived. Ten years later, CCN had completed the three-phase plan it had set for itself in 1988. After four years of developing its electronic news-sharing service, it opened an Ottawa news bureau in 1992, with former PM news editor Art Babych as its correspondent. With an Ottawa bureau, CCN was ready to build its bank of subscribers. It began negotiations with CNS in 1994 and signed a news-provider contract in 1997.

As CCN marks its 30th year, the Catholic newspaper landscape in English Canada has significantly changed. Three of the original members — Catholic New Times, Catholic Times Montreal and Western Catholic Reporter — have ceased publication; soon the Prairie Messenger will join the list.

Nevertheless, CCN will survive, assures co-chair Jim O’Leary of the Catholic Register. Together with the B.C. Catholic, the New Freeman and now Grandin Media, the communications arm of the Archdiocese of Edmonton which succeeded the WCR as a member, CCN will forge ahead.

“Obviously, dues have had to increase for the remaining members,” O’Leary noted, “but there is a commitment to keep CCN going, due in part to the sense that its mission is more important than ever in these times of euthanasia, summer jobs attestations, First Nations reconciliation, etc.”

Deborah Gyapong, who succeeded Babych as Ottawa correspondent, continues in her post, and CNS remains a valued client of CCN material, O’Leary reported.

Catholic journalism at risk

The loss of a prairie voice is not only the absence of prairie news, storytelling and perspective, but also of a reporting standard that, when at its best, cuts across theological preferences and ideological positions to help nurture an informed readership.

At the heart of the western-world style of journalism that has evolved over the last century is the moral obligation to inform citizens through a balanced, fair presentation of news and events. Our news institutions live up to that standard to varying degrees — the popularization of “fake news” challenges that standard — nevertheless, offering a balanced, fair presentation remains the primary goal.

Catholic journalism embraces this objective but, just as important, it incorporates a pastoral dimension as well, which may be broadly or narrowly defined, in practice. To achieve this standard, Catholic news agencies need a degree of autonomy and must function and be perceived as functioning as independent of the public relations arm of the church.

The church needs both aspects in its communication apostolate (news reporting and public relations), as Father Ryan explained in his 1987 letter to Britz. Each contributes in a unique way to the church’s mission of evangelization, but they are essentially different in focus and approach.

This standard of Catholic journalism formed a key element in establishing CCN and remains at the heart of its mission, even if the application of that standard has been questioned from time to time.

It’s a standard that the Prairie Messenger exemplified throughout its 114-year history and to which it has remained faithful under the current editorial leadership of Abbot Peter Novecosky, OSB, assisted by long-serving associate editor Maureen Weber, Don Ward and the whole PM team. With the PM’s departure, the void created by the absence of this standard grows.

The creation of diocesan digital news sites might be heralded as addressing this void, but unless these news outlets are invested with the autonomy to function as a news vehicle and not as a public relations tool, they will miss a crucial aspect of the communications apostolate.

The Prairie Messenger’s stellar reputation as a reasonable, credible, prophetic Catholic voice in a secular world, as chronicled by Rev. Paul Paproski, OSB, will be sorely missed in the Catholic news landscape, but its living legacy, Canadian Catholic News, will continue to keep the faithful informed from east to west.

Eric Durocher is editor emeritus, Catholic Times Montreal.