‘Lengthy transition period’ from print to digital, scrapping Anglican Journal editorial independence among scenarios presented to CoGS

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Most Canadian Anglicans value their church publications very highly, Canon (lay) Ian Alexander, member of a working group reviewing the print distribution and role of the Anglican Journal, told the Council of General Synod (CoGS) Friday, June 1. Photo: Tali Folkins

The Anglican Journal’s print edition may be discontinued after a “lengthy transition period” and its mandate as an editorially independent news source may be changed under possible scenarios now being considered by a working group, Council of General Synod (CoGS) heard Friday, June 1.

The group was formed after a decision in fall 2016 by the diocese of Rupert’s Land that it no longer wanted the print version of the Anglican Journal distributed among its parishioners and was tasked with coming up with a response to this request and others like it in the future.

(The diocese no longer wanted to distribute the paper after deciding to make its own newspaper online-only, citing environmental concerns. Traditionally, parishioners in dioceses that produce print versions of their diocesan newspaper have received a copy of the Anglican Journal together with a copy of their diocesan paper.)

The working group has also been examining other questions, including how the Anglican Journal should fit in the church’s future communications strategy.

The group has been seeking the views of Canadian Anglicans on the Anglican Journal and its partner diocesan publications and has now completed five surveys: one of bishops; one of diocesan newspaper editors; one of members of General Synod; one of members of CoGS and national office staff; and one of Canadian Anglicans selected at random using the current Anglican Journal distribution list, working group member Canon (lay) Ian Alexander said in a presentation to CoGS.

The group has pondered these findings and now has some possible responses, which at this stage remain “very preliminary,” Alexander said. It will present “more fleshed out recommendations” to CoGS when it next meets this fall, he added.

Canadian Anglicans “value their church publications very highly,” Alexander noted.

On the question of the continuing print distribution of the paper, he said, the group concluded that most Anglicans felt their church publications were in a “long, slow transition period” from print to digital.

An “overwhelming” number read the Journal and their diocesan newspapers in print, Alexander said. Ninety-eight per cent of those who took part in the survey of randomly selected Anglicans say they read the Anglican Journal in print; 95 per cent read their diocesan newspapers in print.

However, he said, “it’s also interesting to note that a significant number are willing to consider other alternatives.”

Of the 400 responses received from 1,000 Anglicans randomly surveyed, 55 per cent said they expected the Anglican Journal would still be printed in three to five years, but only 18 per cent believed it would still be printed in 10 years, he said.

Canadian Anglicans also seemed to believe it was important that the Anglican Journal continue to be made available as a print newspaper to those who continue to want it in that form, as long as this is feasible, he said. Alexander noted, however, that some dioceses have already made the transition from print to online, and some are considering the move.

What this means, he said, is that the church can expect a “patchwork quilt” over the next several years.

The working group is proposing, as one possible response, that the Anglican Journal continue to be delivered in print to all those dioceses that still produce a print edition of their paper. Dioceses that no longer publish print newspapers are to be encouraged to support delivery of the printed Anglican Journal in their dioceses, but may opt out if they wish. The policy, Alexander said, could remain in place for three years, so long as it remains economically viable.

In the meantime, according to this plan, more resources would be spent boosting the online presence of the Anglican Journal and the Anglican Church of Canada, and dioceses would be supported in transitioning their newspapers from print to online-only.

On the Anglican Journal’s mandate, Alexander said, the survey results suggested that Anglicans valued having a newspaper at the national level—but not necessarily an editorially independent one.

Canadian-Anglicans prefer an official church publication over an independent one by a ratio of two to one, he said. “There are people who are unaware of the mandate of the Journal, or who when made aware of it, don’t support it.”

Sixty-five per cent of the 400 randomly surveyed Anglicans said they thought the Anglican Journal should be “the official voice of the Anglican Church of Canada,” with only 35 per cent preferring that it retain its current status as “An independent, ‘arm’s length’ observer of the Church.”

Bishops “were asked a different question, but it was a parallel question and less than fifty per cent of bishops think that the current mandate of independence is important, and they estimate that about a third of their folks find it important. And, lo and behold, it was a third of the folks who answered the survey,” said Alexander. “I have the sense that bishops have their finger on the flock fairly closely.”

On the other hand, over half of General Synod members and about 75 per cent of diocesan editors feel the Journal’s editorial independence is important, he said.

“Having an independent editorial policy makes the paper more credible as a news source,” Alexander quoted a respondent of the General Synod survey as having commented. “As an unofficial, and, as it were, non-partisan paper, the Journal acts as a fair dealer, offering news from a variety of perspectives,” wrote another.

Many comments submitted by survey-takers, Alexander said, suggested that what was most important to them was that the paper contain a range of views—not necessarily that it be editorially independent.

“We’re beginning to realize it’s not a binary discussion…‘either you’re an official voice, and therefore you’re some kind of Pravda, or you’re independent,’ ” he said. “Editorial independence and diversity of views are not necessarily yoked together.”

A possible response proposed by the working group, according to the document presented by Alexander, involves amending the terms of reference that currently govern the Anglican Journal. This could include making changes to the structure or responsibility of the committee that oversees the Anglican Journal; it could also involve revising its mandate, removing the existing description of it having “an independent editorial policy and not being an official voice of or for the church.”

The new mandate, Alexander said, could instead describe the paper’s purpose as being “to connect and reflect the church to internal and external audiences and provide for a full range of voices and views across the church,” or something similar.

Although some in the church feel very strongly about the Anglican Journal’s editorial independence, Alexander said, the working group has not seen evidence that the paper would suffer if its mandate were revised; and Michael Valpy, an Anglican and journalist who analyzed the content of the paper, estimated that 90 per cent of its content would not change if its editorial independence were taken away.

After Alexander’s presentation, CoGS members were split into table groups, half to discuss the question of print distribution and the other half to discuss the paper’s editorial independence and submit a single conclusion.

Of the first group, most expressed concern about improving the accuracy of the subscriber list. One group said giving dioceses the ability to opt out of distributing the Anglican Journal made sense; another was concerned whether three years would allow enough time for the transition to digital.

Of the second group, none said they thought the Anglican Journal’s mandate shouldn’t be changed, but all expressed concern of some kind about the future content of the paper or its oversight. One table representative asked who in the church would determine the content of the Anglican Journal if it became the church’s official voice. Another group said that regardless of the paper’s future mandate, it should have “some capacity for independent commentary.”

 

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

4 COMMENTS

  1. That is too bad as there are a lot of very elderly people that do NOT have a computer etc. I do understand the reasoning but there is a bit of sadness that a number of people will not have the access to the paper.

  2. Although I read through the digital reports, I would not miss them if they stopped coming. I enjoy the printed paper, and can share it with others who are not necessarily Anglican. I have heard others say how much they enjoy it, how it is better than other church papers they have seen.

  3. As a former president of the Anglican Editors Association, member of the General Synod Communications Committee and long-term editor of the Saskatchewan Anglican, I strongly oppose any move to remove the editorial independence of the Anglican Journal. This independence has always been understood to assume diversity of views and to allow opposing views. To make the Journal a mere “house organ” would inevitably mean following “the party line” and would lead to a paper which is both boring and prone to be propaganda tool.

  4. Frankly I am upset that my tax dollars are being used to subsidize a newspaper of what can be described as a “special interest group”. That there is content within the Anglican Journal that can be considered “political”, and virtually always left wing, just makes the situation that much worse.
    What is the justification for government funding? (That question is rhetorical by the way.) If it is to provide a meaningful source of information to the people than I have to ask just exactly how many people are actually benefiting from this. If it is a lot of people than surely the Anglican Journal would be able to source sufficient revenues through the sale of advertising space, and thereby not be in any need of taxpayer funded government subsidies. If the Anglican Journal is unable to raise sufficient advertising revenues than it is most likely because of its dismally small readership, and that would be a readership so small in numbers that the taxpayer funded government subsidies cannot be justified.

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