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Catholic News History: Purpose In Challenging Times

What were some of the challenges faced by the early editors?

To gain some insight, the Catholic News visited the Dominican Archive at St Finbar’s to gather information on the seven Dominican priests who served as editor between 1897 and 1972.

The first was Fr George Vincent Sutherland OP December 3, 1897 to December 22, 1906. The last Dominican to hold the post was Fr Pascal J Tiernan OP, the 14th editor of the Catholic News, from August 3, 1968 to June 11, 1972.

He seemed to have been a meticulous note-keeper – both typed and handwritten, and had kept clippings of his articles written for the Trinidad Guardian and Trinidad Express newspapers, Lenten Reflections for radio, a lecture delivered at The University of the West Indies on ‘Advertising and Public Responsibility’ and documents for example, ‘Principles of Television Advertising’.

In one typed document dated November 1970 he identified “points concerning the Catholic News” which were to be discussed at a meeting. They are still relevant today.

First was the issue of “Cost”. He stated, “An increase in price is essential”.  The first price increase in the paper was February 1956. (The weekly paper started with four pages at two cents per copy. The February 4 issue increased the size of the paper from eight to twelve pages.) Fr Tiernan stated “anything less than ten cents per copy would not be practical”. He recommended a 15 per cent discount during the month of the increase.

“Advertising” was also a challenge. According to the document, the Catholic News had difficulty getting firms to advertise. There were two contributors to this, as he saw it: “Being denominational the scope is limited” and advertising agencies advising their clients not to advertise with the paper because they (clients) would be pressured by priests and parishioners to give advertising space to announcements of bingos and harvests. “One firm went fifteen weeks with its space donated to functions.”

Commenting on “Subsidy”, it was anticipated that with the proposed price increase and discount the Catholic News would not be making a profit and if sales did not return to 16,800 per week, there would be a loss. Fr Tiernan said this would be offset if “each parish were to ‘subsidise’ the paper”.

He stated that when parishes placed orders when copies were short it took about four to five weeks’ demand to have the order increased. “With a discount of 15 per cent a parish can ‘afford’ to have 15 copies in every hundred left over and not suffer any financial loss! The paper should not be regarded as a money making enterprise at either parish or archdiocesan level.”

He suggested another way of subsidising the paper was for all printing jobs from priests and church groups to be given to the Catholic News. Fr Tiernan noted the comment that the printing costs were too high but he stated this was because good wages were paid and the paper can be counted among the top eight printers “wage wise” in the country.

The Catholic News was asked to be responsible for “distribution” but Fr Tiernan did not see this as “financially possible” given the added costs for a driver, assistant, and purchasing a van.

The “financial resources” at the time also did not permit having a circulation department.

“We must depend on the goodwill of priests to help us sell the paper. However, in those parishes where the priest has handed over sale of the paper there is the possibility that if the discount is passed on to the sellers that the circulation might increase,” Fr Tiernan wrote.

He identified a “triple” ‘Purpose and Aim’ of the Catholic News as follows: “It services the vertical purposes of passing information and views between the Ecclesia diocens (“the teaching church”) and the Ecclesia disens (“the learning church”); It serves as a forum of information on the horizontal plane, passing knowledge of what is taking place in other parts of the Church, either locally or internationally; It has a missionary purpose, being in many cases the only contact between the Church and lapsed Catholics or non-Catholics. Feature stories and news items are chosen because they fulfil one or other of these purposes. If it is accepted that these are valid purposes then we must consider getting more copies sold or distributed particularly among the lapsed and non-Catholic people.”

The Dominican editors:

  • Fr George Vincent Sutherland OP
  • Fr Henry Vincent Casey OP
  • Fr Sebastian Patrick Casey OP
  • Fr BM Fitzgerald OP (twice)
  • Fr CL O’Hagan OP
  • Fr Aidan Kennedy OP
  • Fr Pascal Tiernan OP