Yesterday brought devastating news for the Church and Catholic journalism, when Catholic News Service (CNS) announced that they will be shutting down their Washington, DC and New York bureaus at the end of the year, and that all of its US-based staff would be losing their jobs. They also announced that their Rome bureau would remain in operation for now. As one of the few Catholic news outlets in the English-speaking world that covers the Catholic Church accurately, faithfully, and according to high professional standards, this news stunned the Catholic media community.
The decision was made as part of a “reorganization” of the Communications Department at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which will result in 21 employees (mostly CNS staff) losing their jobs. In addition to CNS’s domestic operations shutting down, the USCCB Publishing Office—which produces many titles including the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, and the Roman Missal—will also cease operations. According to the official statement from the USCCB, these changes “will allow the remaining functions—including the Catholic News Service Rome Bureau and the Office of Public Affairs—a more sustainable foundation upon which to do their work.”
For over 100 years, CNS has served the Church as a wire service, producing articles and photos (and more recently, videos and other digital content) about the Catholic Church at the local, national, and international level. Just as local newspapers rely on subscriptions to wire services like the Associated Press and Reuters to cover stories that they don’t have the money and resources to cover, Catholic News Service provides content for diocesan newspapers and other Catholic publications like America and Our Sunday Visitor.
In recent decades, as Catholic newspapers—as with the journalism industry as a whole—have struggled to remain financially afloat, CNS has provided them with valuable content that has helped them to survive. It is important to note that although CNS is owned and funded by the USCCB, they do have a great deal of journalistic independence built into their contract and they are unionized. CNS journalism is recognized in the industry as being competent and executed with high professional standards.
More important, however—and I know this personally—is the professional integrity of the CNS staff. This is a veteran team of journalists that’s losing their jobs. Most of them have worked in the field for decades, and have earned the respect of their peers in the industry. If you speak with journalists from other outlets, they recognize and respect the professionalism and high standards of the CNS organization.
As a Catholic media outlet, Where Peter Is does not primarily do journalism—although we have been known to commit journalism from time to time. But as a site that regularly provides analysis and commentary on news and events in the Church, we rely on good, professional, and ethical journalism every day. And the quality and standards of the work done by CNS are top-notch.
You might be asking why they are being shut down if they do such good work. Clearly a major factor is money. Journalism, especially Catholic journalism, is no longer a profitable industry. In fact, it’s difficult to turn a profit in most areas of Catholic media. Certainly, I don’t ever expect the message of WPI to be profitable.
It seems the best way to make money in Catholic media in the current environment is to be sensational, ideologically-driven, and self-promoting. The rest of us, including CNS, have to rely on donations or funding from people or organizations that believe in the mission of our outlets. And for whatever reason, the US bishops decided that the service CNS provides in informing the public about the Church isn’t worth the cost. But in terms of effectiveness and public visibility, CNS is arguably one of the best things the USCCB has going for it.
I fear that this decision was made in part because some US bishops were not thrilled with the idea of funding a media organization that they don’t have complete ideological control over.
Yet the decision to abandon CNS after a century of work seems to oppose the message of the Vatican II decree Inter Mirifica, which says that the Church “considers it one of its duties to announce the Good News of salvation also with the help of the media of social communication and to instruct men in their proper use.”
Additionally, ending this service to diocesan newspapers and other Catholic publications seems to be a signal that the end is near when it comes to the US Church following the decree’s call that “a good press should be fostered. To instill a fully Christian spirit into readers, a truly Catholic press should be set up and encouraged…It should disseminate and properly explain news concerning the life of the Church. Moreover, the faithful ought to be advised of the necessity both to spread and read the Catholic press to formulate Christian judgments for themselves on all events.”
If good Catholic journalism is going to exist, someone has to believe it’s worth paying for. And if no one does, then the entire field will be left to people and organizations with ideological agendas and low standards. I imagine that many US dioceses, assuming their newspapers don’t also shut down, will turn to the EWTN-owned Catholic News Agency. In other words, the shepherds of the US Church will have turned their flocks over to an organization whose constant attacks were described as “the work of the devil” by the pope last year.
On the treatment of Church employees
This story hits particularly close to home for me because I was laid off from my job in the USCCB Communications department during the last reorganization in May 2017. In late 2016 and early 2017—the months leading up to the layoff—we were told by upper management that our department was going to be reorganized, and how the new structure was going to benefit the staff. Layoffs were never mentioned. I was so foolish that I was looking forward to our department’s fresh start. Which meant that I was completely blindsided by the news that my position had been eliminated.
At the time, I was already struggling emotionally—my dad had recently died, we had an infant at home—so the trauma of losing my job totally shattered me. Adding insult to injury was the callous statement of the Conference’s chief communications officer about the layoff, “It was based on positions and not people.” In other words: even though we’ve completely upended your life, your well-being is meaningless to us.
Recovering from the shock and devastation took me a very long time. Seven years earlier, I turned down a much higher-paying job offer with another company to accept a position at the USCCB because I felt a strong call to work for the Church in the areas of media and communications. Unfortunately, my experience there was doing mostly administrative tasks and working on dry and repetitive projects. There was little collaboration and very little opportunity to propose ideas or solve problems. Morale was low. Staff members would watch as managers made poor decisions with money, spending huge sums on overpriced failures and cutting corners on things that produced clear results. (One wonders how many jobs could have been saved by repurposing the $28 million the bishops plan to spend to rent out a stadium for a few days in Indianapolis in 2024.)
In the end, it was only after the layoff that I was able to truly respond to that call and help the Church communicate the message of Jesus Christ with a group of my fellow Catholics through this website. It’s hard to ignore the irony that it was only after the institutional Church cast me aside that I was finally able to use my communication skills to serve the Church, share the faith, and to help amplify the message of Pope Francis to others. But it was a difficult road and all of it came at a high cost.
In May 2017, CNS was untouched by the layoff. At the time, USCCB leadership explained that CNS was not affected by the reorganization “because of the tremendous content creation capacity that is there…It’s a well-respected, well-known brand.”
What a difference five years makes.
This week, many of my former colleagues, people I admire—many of whom I consider dear friends—were told they will be losing their jobs. And remarkably much of the leadership team whose vision dictated the last “reorganization” still remains in place.
Please keep these fine journalists and communications professionals in your prayers as they discern what’s next in their lives. And please pray for our Church leaders, that they may realize the importance of a healthy Catholic media environment.
Image: Adobe Stock. By Christian Schwier.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.