Sunday, January 06, 2008

The New Technology Is for Amateurs

By Tom Bethell

The mail brought with it the latest issue of The Latin Mass magazine (Fall 2007) -- accompanied by a fundraising letter ("a critical juncture -- an urgent request"). The papal motu proprio freeing up the Tridentine Latin Mass (Summorum Pontificum, released July 7) meant that the magazine had now become "more important than ever," the fundraiser said, but, "at the same time, forces of opposition -- both within and without the Church -- are already lining up to prevent, in any way they can, a Latin Mass restoration."

The letter added that Keep the Faith, the parent organization that publishes the magazine, has a $32,000 printing bill for each issue. With five issues a year, that means The Latin Mass costs $160,000 a year just to print. It is sent free to over 1,000 priests, in addition to regular subscribers. Readers were therefore invited to make contributions (as much as $25,000 was suggested) to keep the worthy enterprise afloat.

The new papal document about the Tridentine Latin Mass meant that the magazine really did have some news to report, and the issue that accompanied the fundraising letter duly published the motu proprio itself, and some interesting reflections and analyses by Fr. Kenneth Baker, S.J., the Editor-in-Chief of the excellent Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and by others, including Baylor University's Michael P. Foley, the author of Why Do Catholics Eat Fish on Friday?

It occurred to me that the magazine might very well consider publishing a continuing feature in every issue, listing those dioceses and parishes where the Tridentine Mass may be heard in the U.S. It would also be interesting to read more about those "forces of opposition," particularly episcopal, who see fit to resist a "Latin Mass restoration" within their own jurisdiction.

In fact, a look back at earlier issues shows that a decade ago the magazine did exactly that. It published a list of churches where readers could attend "traditional Latin Masses under papal indult in the U.S. and Canada." The slow expansion of this list has been, in America, the most newsworthy development connected with the Latin Mass; it is difficult to understand why it was dropped.

In one of his final columns in The Wanderer, after a 23-year run, Joseph Sobran remarked that journalists are always searching for the new, and now, in restoring the Latin Mass based on the 1962 missal, Pope Benedict had come along and reminded us of what was old, or permanent. Sobran called this "the healing of a terrible wound in Catholic life," and he entitled that part of his column Habemus Papam!

All the same, Catholic journals do need to deal with new things, otherwise they might as well be books, or church pamphlets. For once, then, a periodical publication devoted to something as unchanging as the Latin Mass seemed appropriate.

Nonetheless, in recent years The Latin Mass magazine has increasingly filled its editorial space with installments of Church history -- the 17th century, for example. It has been inclined to overlook the new just at the time when the news is relevant to the magazine's mission. (It does include a column of unfamiliar news items, "Roman Landscape," by an Italian journalist.) The Latin Mass has also opted for a professional, shiny-paper look, and strips of self-consciously arty purple ink are pasted into every page. I much preferred the amateurish but engaged look and feel of the magazine of years past. (I am glad to see that the NOR has not switched over to glossy paper and is content with black ink.)

This brings me to the more fundamental point that I want to make. When it comes to Catholic publications, the distinction between professional and amateur is a revealing one. And unless I am much mistaken, modern-day journalism, which is being herded willy-nilly by the technological revolution onto the Internet, is moving in a direction where it will eventually be recaptured by amateurs and liberated from the professionals.

Why is an updated list of Latin Masses not now published in The Latin Mass? I think the answer is provided by The Wanderer, a conservative Catholic weekly that has been in business for over 140 years. On the front page of its October 4 issue, Paul Likoudis reported that "Internet Drives Interest in 'Extraordinary Rite.'" He mentioned various websites, among them www.sum­, which "runs a daily update on news and information pertaining to the implementation of the motu proprio." The Coalition in Support of Ecclesia Dei also runs such a site (www.ecclesia­, and in telling readers where they can find an indult Tridentine Mass, Keep the Faith's website links to Ecclesia Dei, not to its own Latin Mass, which has dropped this feature.

Online publication liberates journals from $32,000 printing bills, of course, not to mention huge additional payments to the U.S. Postal Service. And, whether we like it or not, this is a revolution that cannot be stopped. We have only begun to see its consequences -- Crisis magazine has ceased its print edition, and has moved online, and it wouldn't entirely surprise me if one day The Wanderer were to follow suit.

The liberal National Catholic Reporter recently sent a letter to its subscribers explaining that the recent 23 percent postal increase would translate into an additional $95,000 cost for the magazine. In consequence, it is reducing its publication schedule to 24 issues a year -- 18 fewer than at present. The letter added that "breaking news on issues important to the Catholic community will still be posted at as soon as it becomes available." It's the same story everywhere.

Examine Catholic periodicals and you begin to realize something else. The professional/amateur divide roughly corresponds to the liberal/conservative divide. For reasons that are hard to fathom, conservatives are temperamentally uncomfortable with the idea of reporting. Journals without journalism sometimes seem to be a conservative specialty. Reporting, which involves telephoning strangers who may well not want to talk to you, has been a liberal enterprise from the beginning. The present Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, Nick Lemann, who started out in journalism at about the same time as I did and on the same paper, once asked me this simple question: Why don't conservatives do reporting? Good question -- and not an easy one to answer. (I'm not going to struggle with an answer here -- it would take too long.)

For a number of years I have subscribed to the National Catholic Reporter and The Wanderer; and quite apart from the very different worldviews underlying each, it's clear also that the Reporter is the more professional, while The Wanderer to a large extent relies on the free or almost free contributions from a handful of volunteers around the country. They know what is going on in their own neighborhood and send in occasional reports to The Wanderer's office in St. Paul, Minn. I am thinking about people like Chris Manion in Front Royal, Va., Thomas S. Roeser in Chicago, and Dexter Duggan in Arizona. Paul Likoudis seems to be the only staff reporter.

Please note that when I say "amateur" I don't necessarily imply "bad"; nor is "professional" necessarily good. The New York Times is the soul of professionalism, yet I would not rely on it to understand what is going on in the country.

Wanderer contributors surely do have other sources of income. They are not working for the money, and in that sense they are amateurs. We should also bear in mind the Latin root of the word amateur: they love their subject -- which is the Catholic Church. That is not always the case with paid professionals. I once knew a man who played violin for the London Symphony Orchestra. He told me in a weary moment that he had no real interest in music. But he had learned to play the violin as a child, and, hey, it was a job. Thus spoke a true professional.

Reading the National Catholic Reporter is a strange experience because one sometimes gets the impression (as one does also with Britain's Tablet) that its editors and contributors don't really love their subject. In fact, the goal of these journals seems at times to be to subvert the Church. They want to put her at the service of a worldly mission focused on the living conditions of the poor -- something that is quite distinct from the Church's mission, which is the salvation of souls (be they rich or poor). The Jesuit magazine America suffered from much the same defect when I read it, but I found it so dull that I let my subscription lapse years ago. Ditto Commonweal.

I still get the Reporter, but I am already wondering whether to renew. With its interest in "liberation ecology" and the impoverished material environment of Indian tribes in Latin America, and so on, I find it mostly tiresome, and of course, I can read it online. Nonetheless, it does have one excellent reporter, John L. Allen Jr., who seems to be genuinely interested in the Catholic Church and her direction, and he does real journalism on the topic. (I also get the impression from his work over the past couple of years that he is becoming more and more conservative. True?)

Now let me try to pull all this together. Readers of both the secular and the Catholic press are migrating to the Internet. Professional journalists are being laid off all over the country. I recently asked a woman who works for the San Francisco Chronicle how things were going at her paper. Well, she said, we laid off 70 people last week.

Who is replacing them? Bloggers. Individuals who are running their own websites. Amateurs, in a word. You may well think that they will never be able to replace the pros. Take the case of the Washington Post's recent investigation of conditions at Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Md. The Post had two reporters working on it for weeks before anything came out and it must have cost them $100,000 in upfront cost. No upstart website could afford that.

True, but a hundred bloggers could. And that is what is happening. As the high-maintenance professionals retire, often without being replaced, and as the newsrooms begin to resemble ghost towns, flotillas of amateurs are taking up the slack. Slowly, they are taking over from the pros. Journalism, formerly practiced by pros at a few focal points, is being redistributed across tens of thousands of unpaid locations.

It's funny to think that The Wanderer, which in appearance is a half century out of date, with its truncated, 1940s-style headlines ("Reflects on 50 Years in the Priesthood," "Thanks Nicaragua for Commitment to Life,"), may now be so far behind the times that the publishing model of the future is about to catch up with it. That is a model in which unpaid volunteers who love their subject will find themselves better placed to tell us what is going on than once well-paid professionals who are rapidly becoming unaffordable.

In short, we are living in a revolution. In the world of Catholic publishing, the nature of that revolution probably won't become conspicuous until a few more publications abandon the Postal Service and their printing presses. Meanwhile, let's hope that fundraising for The Latin Mass keeps on track.

[Tom Bethell is a Contributing Editor of the New Oxford Revew and the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (Regnery, 2005). The present article, "The New Technology Is for Amateurs," was originally published as a Last Things column in the New Oxford Review (December 2007), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.]

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