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India

Print Media Will Never Lose Relevance, Says Catholic Magazine Editor

Updated: July 25, 2007 05:00 PM GMT
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The role of Catholic media is to enlighten and inspire readers, spread the Good News and help people discuss issues from a Christian point of view, says the editor of a national Catholic fortnightly magazine.

For 17 years, Jesuit Father Joe Antony has edited The New Leader, based in Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu state, 2,095 kilometers south of New Delhi. It is one of India´s leading national English-language Catholic publications.

The 55-year-old priest told UCA News in a recent interview that having a single national Catholic publication is "a good idea," but there are insurmountable problems in achieving this. He also stressed the need for Catholic publications in India to develop professionally.

The interview with Father Antony follows:

UCA News: How did you get into journalism?

FATHER JOE ANTONY: I used to be a writer from my schooldays. I was always interested in writing in English. During my theology studies, my provincial wanted me to study journalism, as the province had no trained journalist, so I went to Marquette University in the United States.

While I was in Marquette, there was talk of Jesuits taking over The New Leader, a magazine run by Madras-Mylapore archdiocese. The magazine was declining very fast. Six months after my return, the archdiocese offered it to the Jesuits. The Jesuits did not take it. Instead, they said they would lend me for two years as editor. The two years have become 17-and-a-half years now.

How did you make the weekly financially viable?

I first changed the layout. It was tabloid size; I made it classic magazine style. It was a weekly; I made it a fortnightly because we needed some time to put together a new issue. Even as a fortnightly, you hardly have time to work on each issue. Some criticized me for making it fortnightly, saying the news was old.

It became financially viable in one-and-a-half years. The diocese used to spend 35,000-40,000 rupees (US$870-990) a month to keep it going. We made enough not only to meet all expenses, salaries and postage, but also to give small bonuses. The diocese is very happy as we don´t go to them for money.

More than financial viability, we have respectability. At least 50 percent of our readers now are laypeople. Earlier, mostly priests and nuns read the magazine.

Do your readers complain that news in your magazine is stale?

No. The complaint would come if readers have access to another publication that gives out news faster. I don´t think many Catholics in India subscribe to two Catholic magazines. They go for the best magazine.

Are all your readers Catholics?

We have subscribers from other Christian denominations, too. I don´t know if Hindus and Muslims read it. But we get lots of advertisements and responses from Protestants. We have tried to maintain an ecumenical outlook in coverage. We have 300-400 overseas subscribers, either foreigners who worked in India or Indians who now work abroad. When I took over, the magazine printed some 1,000 copies, but now we print around 8,000 copies.

Is a print magazine like your newsmagazine relevant in this new-age media era?

I think it is relevant, very much so considering that it is a magazine of news and views. Books and magazines will never lose their readers. First of all, Internet and computers are available to only a miniscule percentage of Indians. Even among them, how many go to the Internet to get Catholic news? Many people still like to hold the printed magazine in their hands, enjoy the warmth of the paper and look at it. The Internet cannot provide that. Suppose you read something in the Internet, when you go back, you read something else. The magazine is on your table. Print media will never lose their relevance.

How much editorial freedom do you enjoy?

I am practically free. So far, nobody has told me not to voice a view or write about certain things. I had no interference from the three archbishops under whom I have worked. The first gave me complete freedom, trusting my judgment. The next used to call me when he got complaints from some orthodox or ultraconservative people. Even then, he gave me freedom to do what I wanted. The same continues under the present archbishop. I am lucky that way. But this does not mean we are above complaints. Some people say we are not bold enough or revolutionary enough. Some say we are too liberal and so on.

What is the purpose of your publication?

For all Catholic media, the purpose is formation of faith. It is to enlighten and inspire readers, and spread the Good News. In today´s new socio-political situation, we intend to look at happenings from a Catholic or Christian point of view. Sometimes our editorial opposes the ruling party and other times the opposition party. They all read our magazine.

The Church in India has more than 250 publications of varied frequencies. Do they have any impact on society and the Church? Why not get together and start a national Catholic paper?

The answer to the first question would be negative. A national Catholic paper is a good idea, but who is ready to become a martyr? We have at least five national publications. If one becomes a national paper, others have to die. That would be hard. We tried for a common Catholic magazine for Tamil Nadu. All dioceses in the state were asked to fold up their magazines for the sake of this periodical. All agreed, but each restarted within a few years. They felt the need to carry news from their diocese and to air their views.

So a national paper would face the same problems?

At the level of ideas, a national paper is good, but I see a lot of practical problems. Suppose a congregation wants to start a new Catholic magazine. How will you stop it? Can we tell them: No, you can´t start since we already have a national magazine?

We have a few publications more than a century old. A few years ago, Sathyadeepam began its English edition for nationwide circulation. There was no way to tell them they not to start it as we already have other publications. [Sathyadeepam, "light of truth," is a Malayalam-language publication of the Syro-Malabar archdiocese of Ernakulam Angamaly.]

Would you close your magazine for a national paper?

We are a national paper. Besides, I cannot decide the issue. I´m just a member of the trust that runs the publication. The trust has to decide. Some publications die, some commit suicide. There is always a chance a new magazine will pop up. Not even national bodies such as the conferences of bishops and major superiors of Religious can help the situation. What if a group of laypeople starts a magazine? There is no way to tell them not to do so.

Why don´t the existing papers develop as regional editions of a national paper? Could one become a national paper and the others its regional editions?

It is critical to forge a consensus. Money is not a problem. Infrastructure is not a problem. But a consensus is needed. Do you want The Examiner [a publication of Bombay archdiocese] to become a regional edition of The New Leader? That would be equal to it losing its identity. The problem is the same if you start a new newspaper with the idea of making existing ones regional editions. The ones that merge will lose their existence.

People often complain that these publications lack professionalism.

I can claim that we have tried to be as professional as possible. But I can cite any number of papers that are not run along professional lines. The most important aspect is choice of editor. There were cases of retired parish priests chosen as editors because they had nothing else to do. First, you need a person trained in journalism to take up that work. Only a trained person would be able to run it in a professional way. Professionalism also means you pay your employees for their work, and manage the work and staff efficiently.

How can Catholic newspapers improve?

First, they should have a professional approach. Professionalism is needed in staffing and managing the publication. Such an approach would also help them express varied views on particular issues.

The second would be to have a united approach to Church media in India. Now, if a bishop wants to start a magazine, he starts it. If a congregation wants to start a magazine, it does. One diocese even initiated a television channel. If the Church in India started a channel some 15 years ago when the television revolution started in India, it could have become very powerful by now. What we need is a national approach to media.

In many ways, Church journalism is not considered "real journalism." Are you recognized as a journalist outside Church circles?

Why should they see you as a journalist? Isn´t it enough that your readers consider you a good, professional journalist? If I´m not, they won´t read my magazine. I wouldn´t be successful financially. I won´t be respected even in Church circles.

Several journalists have worked under me as sub-editors. They have taken it as training to get into secular media. Obviously, secular media pay much better. We have hiked salaries to retain good talent but surely we cannot match secular media. But there are some rare individuals who want to work only in religious media. We have only very few of them.

Has anyone stopped reading your magazine because of articles you published?

No, I don´t think so. We have faced criticism from some ultra-right and some ultra-left ideologies. But we publish such criticisms and compliments. If you neglect their voice, they may stop reading.

What gives you satisfaction in this work?

When people write to say they found an article inspiring, that is a moment of satisfaction. Some people say they changed their opinion about a political party or an issue after reading an editorial. When they write to renew their subscription, some add words of appreciation. Some tell us the magazine disappears from their house as someone takes it away. Such letters satisfy me.

END

(Accompanying photos available at here)

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