By Russell Shaw, OSV contributing editor
Back in January, with fanfare, the Vatican announced that it was launching a site on YouTube. I confess to wondering just how many YouTube people will frequent a site featuring papal events — but give the Vatican communicators credit for trying. Here's wishing them luck.
In the meantime, though, a vast media revolution is going on in the United States and many other parts of the world with hardly a word from any responsible religious voice. I don't mean just the emergence of the Internet and electronic media — the last two popes and other religious sources have said quite a bit about that. I mean the ongoing eclipse of print media, especially daily newspapers, as places where people find out what's happening in the world.
Here is a change with huge implications for society — and by no means all of it for the best. Yet up to this time the silence from the Church and other religious bodies has been deafening.
As I sat down to draft this column, the Rocky Mountain News published its last issue. I was never a reader of that Colorado daily, so its demise had no direct impact on me. But the story caught my attention anyway. This was just the latest in a growing number of American newspapers calling it quits. There will be more.
Circulation and advertising have plummeted. Some papers are in bankruptcy. Others are contemplating desperate measures like publishing print editions only on weekends, and existing as Internet sites the rest of the week. Huge cutbacks in staff and coverage have taken place. Even giants like The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post have been hard hit.
One disturbingly common response to these developments is: So what? Lots of people don't like daily newspapers. The press is considered to be biased, elitist, and — in the view of conservative Catholics — hostile to the Church. Moreover, there's plenty of evidence to support those judgments.
But shoulder-shrug reactions to what's happening miss the point. The ongoing flight of audiences from newspapers has to a large extent been a flight away from serious news. Many Americans have turned to replacements like talk radio, cable TV, and blogs, while for others the new media world mainly means larger than ever doses of entertainment, sports and pornography.
This is a far cry from the golden future envisioned only a few years ago. The proliferation of sources of news and information in electronic media was hailed then as enriching people's understanding of the world. Alas, it hasn't worked out quite like that. For some people — yes. They're the ones Paul Starr in The New Republic calls "those with the skills and interest to take advantage of this new world of news." For the large majority — no. Many people appear now to be less in touch with the world around them than before.
The Church can't reverse or even significantly influence the media revolution, driven as it is by a seemingly irresistible combination of technology and economics. But what the Church can and should do in response is to provide its members with media education — formation, if you will — concerning the contours of the emerging news and information environment and the opportunities and challenges that it presents to them as media consumers.
Some daily newspapers will survive, but far fewer of them, reaching far fewer people, than in the recent past. Probably it's too late to save the rest. There is still time to save the audience. But not an awful lot.