A sad little notice recently appeared on the Universe’s website (“The News Site You’ll Have Faith In”) that “with very much regret” its publishing company had gone into liquidation. Cardinal Vincent Nichols was on hand to read the last rites. It was, he said, an historic moment but a sign of the times. Despite valiant efforts and every avenue explored, they had not been able to find a saviour.
So ends after 161 years the oldest Catholic newspaper in Britain. Founded in 1860 when prejudice was still rife, its original mission was to provide a cheap source for the faithful and to “stay the circulation of anti-Catholic weekly newspapers among Catholic families resident in London”. It cost a penny then.
But its readership and that of its sister paper the Catholic Times have dwindled away and the coup de grace was the closure of the churches last year where most sales were made. The administrator’s report makes sad reading: monthly losses £50,000, unsecured creditors listed at £1,383,144. Only 20 years ago it claimed profits of £100,000.
In 1998, the Catholic bishops divested themselves of an 82 per cent stake in the newspaper’s publishing company to a management buy-out. This included a loan of £750,000 from the Catholic Media Trust – “an agency of the bishops’ conference”, as the Guardian described it – to Gabriel Communications, led by Joseph Kelly and Yorkshire businessman Clive Leach. Subsequent cost-cutting, including reducing the number of journalists (some non-Catholic) left the Catholic Times with just its editor to do all the work. Hence the paper’s newsgathering capacity did not save its spiralling decline. Its centenary issue of 1960 sold 300,000 copies and operated from Universe House, Fleet Street. On folding, its “fixed assets” were worth £5,717.
It is a common failing in newspaper managements across the world, not confined to religious publications, to see journalists as expendable because their impact is hard to quantify economically. But readers soon notice if the content is declining. No wonder the company’s desperate plea for a buyer earlier in the summer fell on deaf ears.
For a journalist, the death of any publication is particularly sad. Those of us brought up as Catholics can remember the piles at the back of the church each week, assiduously being bought by the elderly ladies and gentlemen of the congregation knowing that they would find nothing in it to challenge their faith and much to underline it.
In those days, in the late 1960s, it maintained a circulation of 300,000. Gradually though, as congregations have dwindled, the piles have remained, yellowing in the pews week after week. Younger members of the congregation have had alternative sources of news and views – which they don’t have to pay for – and all newspapers have had to struggle to catch up.
There may remain a glimmer of hope for an on-going Universe presence on the web perhaps. According to the administration papers, the group’s entire IP – intellectual property and “good will” – was sold for a knockdown £23,000 by the management (back to themselves) via a new company called Universe Catholic Media Ltd (the failed company was called Universe Media Group), led by Kelly and Leach. Such a deal is called a “pre-pack” and the pitiable price was because nobody else bid to save the Universe.
When I became a journalist and latterly a religious affairs correspondent for a national newspaper, I came to realise that there was little in the Universe making for essential reading or offering wider interest. Journalists tend to judge their competitors – especially specialist newspapers – by whether they represent “a good read”: compelling stories and articles worth following up. The Universe contained few of those. Despite its title, it was parochial in the extreme. It moved its offices to Manchester in 1990 and I do not recall, in all my years covering religion, coming across a reporter from the Universe, even on major stories such as the Papal visit in 2010.
All newspapers need the occasional thrill of the scoop and the excitement of the chase – if only to prove that someone out there is reading what you have written and been stirred by it. Corpus Christi day processions and first communions just don’t cut it, however pretty the pictures.
What journalism also needs is independence of mind. Being tied to an authoritarian and naturally insular institution like the Catholic Church is a recipe for blandness. A newspaper acting as a mouthpiece for the hierarchy, or doing nothing to challenge it, no doubt partly because of a six-figure loan from the Church, is a disservice to the readership. It can warp editorial judgement. The Universe is not the first religious newspaper to go to the wall and won’t be the last. Its readership had just gone elsewhere.
Stephen Bates is a former religious affairs correspondent of the Guardian
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