Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Humanity's seen this upheaval before

Just like the printing press did, the digital revolution affects everyone, including religious publications

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In 1979, when Elizabeth Eisenstein researched the history of the printing press, she found numerous descriptions of life in the early 1400s -- before Gutenberg's revolutionary invention -- and endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after the full effect of printing press was being felt.

To her surprise, she could not find much information about the 100 or so years in between. And so Eisenstein wondered: What was life like in that period?

Chaotic, as it turned out. And uncertain, anxious and challenging -- a lot like today, in other words.

In her resulting book, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, Eisenstein writes about how the introduction of the printing press turned the world upside-down. It was especially hard on scribes -- people who manually copied books. In a matter of decades, their industry became obsolete.

Today, we are living in a similar time in between. For us, it's a time between the world of Gutenberg and the world of Google.

For many industries and businesses today, this time in between is profoundly unsettling. This is especially true for newspapers and magazines, which are facing some of the most severe challenges. They know they need to let go of print and move to digital. But how can they do that and retain subscribers? How do they report the news?

And how do they pay for it?

Religious newspapers and magazines are not immune to these challenges. A recent survey of publications belonging to the Canadian Church Press (CCP), the umbrella group for 54 church newspapers and magazines, found that circulation is declining, ad revenue is dropping and the average age of readers is increasing.

Or, as one editor said, "the No. 1 reason people leave our newspaper is death."

Editors of church publications know change to a digital format is inevitable, even if some hope to put it off as a long as possible.

In the most recent membership survey, 42 per cent of Canadian Church Press member publications indicated they do not expect to exist in their present print form in 10 years.

Here in Manitoba, the Rupert's Land News -- the official publication of the Anglican Diocese of Rupert's Land -- isn't waiting that long. It's going digital in September.

Under the direction of new editor Allison Chubb, 28, the 59-year-old monthly newspaper will cease being physically delivered to readers. Instead, it will appear in their email inboxes.

Why the change? Chubb notes circulation for the newspaper, which serves the diocese's 76 congregations, is declining, and readers are getting older. "It was time to do something different," she says.

By making the publication available online, Chubb -- who is also chaplain at St. John's College -- hopes to attract younger readers. "We need to pull younger people in," she says.

In addition to going online, the News will also change its format. Come September, it will be more like a magazine, containing less news and more opinion and reflection pieces. The News will also have a presence on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram; together with a weekly email update to subscribers, people will be able to keep up-to-date with goings-on in the diocese.

"The time for that change is clear," Chubb says. "People were frustrated that they had to wait a month for news."

But even though the format is changing to digital from print, Chubb says the message of the News will be the same.

"The central message is not changing -- we still share the gospel," she says. "The church has been entrusted with a message of hope and a mission to create community."

Will this strategy work? That's the big question. Since the News is supported by the diocese and donations, not by advertising, it is in a better position than some other publications to give it a try.

It's a risky move, but Chubb doesn't think there's much choice. The News, she says, needs to "take the church to where people are." And since many people are getting their information online today, the best way to do that is to go digital.

More information about the changes to the Rupert's Land News can be found at http://www.progress.rupertslandnews.ca.

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 5, 2014 D15

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