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On the sad—but inevitable?—demise of the Catholic News Service

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 06, 2022

The demise of Catholic News Service (CNS) is sad news—even to me, a would-be competitor. But the surprise decision by the US bishops conference to end the domestic operation of CNS speaks volumes about the current state of the Catholic media.

The bishops’ primary motivation for the move is undoubtedly financial. With all the pressures steadily mounting on their diocesan budgets, bishops evidently decided that they could not afford to continue subsidizing the CNS operation. And it is easy to understand their reluctance to keep shelling out for the service—in three different ways.

  • Each diocese contributed heavily to support the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and CNS is a USCCB operation.
  • Then the diocesan newspaper pays a hefty fee for the use of the CNS news feed.
  • And that diocesan newspaper itself operates at a loss, so the bishop, as publisher, is digging himself into a deeper deficit when he sends subscription fees to CNS.

The diocesan newspaper loses money, in part because it pays top dollar for the services of CNS, which also runs a deficit, but has been underwritten by the USCCB. But the USCCB could not survive without funds from the dioceses—many of which are now facing budget deficits. With that much red ink being spilled, a change was inevitable.

To complicate matters still further, many diocesan newspapers have been scaling back their operations in recent years: either published less frequently (monthly rather than weekly), or shifting to an online format, or closing down altogether. So CNS had fewer subscribers paying top-dollar fees for the use of their material.

The quality of CNS domestic coverage has improved in the past few years. (And again, I say this as a competitor, not likely to be biased in their favor.) But the market has been shrinking. At the same time, ironically, competition has been heating up. When I inaugurated the Catholic World News service in 1996, CWN was the only English-language service offering news online for a Catholic audience. Today there are several such services, to say nothing of the blogs and podcasts that supply a daily flood of news and views for interested Catholics.

Yet beyond the financial pressures and the market competition, there is another factor—a more important factor, I would suggest—that has caused the demise of CNS. For the past twenty years or more, the most compelling news stories of the Catholic world have been controversial, often involving scandals, exposing corruption in the hierarchy. This unhappy trend has created two challenges for “official” Catholic media outlets.

  • First, diocesan newspapers have been loath to cover stories that reflect unfavorably on their publishers, the bishops. (CNS, as an arm of the US bishops’ conference, has been hampered by the same reticence.) So readers who wanted unflinching coverage of the stories looked elsewhere.
  • At the same time, many Catholics, shocked by the scandals, have lost confidence that their bishops are willing to tell the unvarnished truth. And of course when diocesan outlets tiptoe around tough stories, that skepticism grows stronger.

The world of Catholic news coverage has changed enormously in the past generation, and CNS is a victim of the changes. But the need for a distinctive Catholic perspective on current events is greater than ever. I shall be sorry to see CNS leave the field. With the Church facing stronger opposition every year in public debates, with the faith challenged by both hostility and ignorance, we need all the help we can get.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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