When it meets next July, General Synod can be expected to vote on a proposed “gradual exit strategy from print” for the Anglican Journal and other church print publications, as well as a revised mandate for the Journal that might not include editorial independence, after a series of votes by Council of General Synod (CoGS) Friday, November 23.
After a decision two years ago by the diocese of Rupert’s Land to make its newspaper online-only, a working group of the national church was formed to consider a number of questions about the Journal, including whether it should continue to exist in print and whether its staff should be free to determine the newspaper’s content independently. On Friday, the working group presented its report, which includes recommendations on these and other issues, as well as five proposed motions to bring to CoGS. CoGS approved all five, after a minor change to one of them.
The first three motions pertain to the future of the Journal and diocesan newspapers as print publications. They call on CoGS to recommend that General Synod:
- Adopt a paper-to-digital “transition strategy” for the Journal and diocesan papers for 2019-2022, as proposed in the report;
- Adopt the report’s recommendation to continue to distribute the Anglican Journal in print for the time being; and
- Endorse the idea of boosting the online distribution of news at both the national and diocesan levels.
The Anglican Journal is the oldest and largest religious publication in Canada.
One of the concerns the report expresses about printing the newspapers is the cost, including postage. Postage, the report states, has been rising in recent years, and in 2017 total postage expenses reached $920,000. (When this figure is adjusted for a number of factors, including a contribution of $441,000 from Heritage Canada meant to defray postage costs, plus another $219,000 from the dioceses, the net cost to the national church for the ten issues mailed in 2017 totalled $174,000.) The church could save a considerable amount of postage money if it could “tighten up” its subscriber list by verifying that the people it mails the paper to actually want to receive it, said the group’s other co-chair, William Cliff, bishop of the diocese of Brandon. (According to the report, the subscriber list has become outdated.)
The net cost per subscriber of producing ten issues per year of the Anglican Journal was $5.28 in 2017, the report adds.
The fourth motion deals with the Anglican Journal’s mandate and governance. It calls on CoGS to instruct the working group to complete, before the next meeting of CoGS in March, an editorial mandate and set of journalistic guidelines for the newspaper, taking into account views expressed at the current meeting of CoGS.
Citing a survey of readers, the report states that although many within the church “fiercely defend” the editorial independence of the Journal, many others appear unaware of it, and others complain that it has an ideological bias and would like to see a wider diversity of views represented within it. The report also says it could be argued that “the much-vaunted ‘editorial independence’ of the Journal is more of an inspiring slogan than a living reality,” and that it does not seem to have had “a measurable positive impact on the content and quality of the paper.” The report also states that an emphasis on its editorial independence “has crowded out other important mandate considerations, and has likely made it harder to manage and implement an effective and efficient communications strategy for the Anglican Church of Canada.”
The Anglican Journal‘s current mandate, as spelled out in the church canons, describes it as “a national newspaper of interest to the members of the Anglican Church of Canada, with an independent editorial policy and not being an official voice of or for the church.” A draft mandate proposed for consideration in the report tasks the paper with being “a national publication of interest to the members of the Anglican Church of Canada, designed to connect and reflect the Church to internal and external audiences, providing a forum for the full range of voices and views across the Church.”
The fifth motion calls on CoGS to ask the group to prepare an amendment, to be brought before General Synod in July, to the section of the national church canons dealing with the Anglican Journal Committee—currently the newspaper’s publisher—putting in place a number of recommendations outlined in the report. These include merging the Anglican Journal Committee into a larger committee tasked with all the communications work of the Anglican Church of Canada, replacing the committee with General Synod as the Journal’s publisher and forming an editorial review board “to assess the Journal, and all journalistic publications of the church, against their editorial mandate and journalistic guidelines.”
Before voting, CoGS members were asked to discuss the report in table groups. A number of tables reported views in agreement with the report’s recommendations—that the transition of the newspapers from print to digital needs to be gradual, for example. Two groups raised questions about how the church could ensure that a variety of views would be presented in a Journal with revised governance, mandate and editorial guidelines.
One table group reported being satisfied that the proposed draft mandate reflected what readers actually want from the paper, while at the same time expressing a desire that the new guidelines “ensure and perhaps make more explicit” that Anglican Journal reporting “that may uncover something negative about the church—its members, leaders or structures—stories that nevertheless need to be told…won’t be quashed by the publisher in this new system simply because they might damage the church’s reputation or embarrass somebody.”
In response, working group member Ian Alexander said he agreed that this concern was shared by the working group.
“It’s certainly not the intent that the editorial board would be some kind of gatekeeper that would have the ability…to spike a story, or change a story,” he said. “On the contrary, the idea is that the editorial board is a way of actually creating healthy insulation between the editor and the journalistic staff, and the power structure of the church and interested stakeholders.”
Also on Friday, Meghan Kilty, the Anglican Church of Canada’s communication director, presented a report to CoGS outlining a new communications strategy for the church. There’s currently a lack of communications strategy across the church, Kilty said. Her report includes a number of objectives to achieve from 2019 until 2022, including encouraging Canadian Anglicans to speak to others about their Anglicanism and making more of an effort to know the church’s audiences. It also envisages eliminating what it refers to as silos in the communications department by integrating staff—including staff of the Anglican Journal—into the rest of the communications team, and moving “to a single digital channel for stories and news about the church.”
CoGS was asked to discuss the report in table groups, which returned with a wide range of responses.
One group said it was “encouraged” by the report’s goal of helping parishes and dioceses develop their own communications tools. Other groups expressed concern about the plan’s ability to reach those who are not Internet-savvy, or who speak languages other than English. One group expressed concern about what it saw as the possibility of “losing the holiness of the church” by adopting a strategy for communications, but said it liked the idea that enhanced publicity might help the church reach more people.
One group expressed approval for the report’s expressed desire to develop a strategy for digital communication, which, it said, would help the church to speak to the young. The same group, however, expressed some concern that the “centralizing” of communications might have the result of quelling dissenting voices in the church.
In response, Kilty said a number of changes proposed by the working group on the Anglican Journal would address this concern. She said she shared a concern that the future communications of the church truthfully capture the variety of voices in it.
“We need to ensure that we safeguard that ability to speak truth to power, and that our diversity is not a whitewashed diversity…but there is actually an honest reflection of who we are,” she said.