New Study says New Media Use by Catholics Not Promising?

There’s a great new study by CARA on how Catholics are using New Media. On first look, it’s a little grim.

Here’s a clip from it:

Many in the Church assume that the way to connect with this emergent generation of Catholics is not through traditional print media, television, or radio but online—through blogs, Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter accessed on smart phones, tablets, and e-readers. The hope is often stated that we may be able to use new media to get this generation “back into the real world pews” that are more often populated by their parents and grandparents. [...]

The findings from these studies suggest that the emerging picture for new media use by Catholic adults overall—and especially among the Millennials is not as promising as many hope or assume. The problem is that putting something online is not the same as getting something on someone’s coffee table, front porch, or even in their mailbox. The Internet is a much more vast space and is navigated by search and social network. You can’t force people to consume your content. You likely won’t even get it on their computer screen or iPhone unless they are interested in it and looking for it.

Here are a few other points from the study and my comments:

“While 22% of adult Millennial Catholics have read a print copy of their diocesan newspaper in the last three months (compared to 26% of all adult Catholics) only 4% of those in this generation have sought this out and read it online.”

There are two main reasons for this: 1) Most diocesan paper websites are not very good and are only just now getting their content properly represented online. And most importantly, 2) the online versions are not engaging people. It just sits there at some address on the web waiting for people to show up. At least with the print versions of the papers it is being mailed to doorsteps and dropped on kitchen tables - one form of old school engagement. There’s nothing wrong with that, it gets your stuff in front of your audience. But it’s not very efficient. And it is probably unsustainable for a lot of organizations to continue paying the high printing and mailing costs to an audience that would increasingly prefer to read online.

Newspapers have to transfer that kind of basic engagement to the online world. Hardly anyone would read their paper if they just printed it up and then left a stack of newspapers sitting at the diocesan office doorway. You wouldn’t even come close to the 4% readership their websites are getting. So you wouldn’t expect their websites to do any better necessarily. Diocesan papers just have to do a better job of getting their content in front of people online, too. The trouble is that it’s increasingly more difficult to force people to look at you. If you don’t have compelling and/or entertaining content, then people will disengage - even if it is showing up for free in their mailbox every month. People are disengaging more and more from the snail mail, too. Most of mine goes straight into the garbage. So I hope newspapers (and other print pubs) will read this study as a, “Yes, the old channels of distribution are still legitimate…for awhile. But you had better be already making strong efforts to make your content desirable, engaging and competitive online.” And I think that they are. It will just take time. And it would be to their own detriment to interpret this study as a sign they don’t need to be changing the way they are doing things for the future.

“Few Catholics report doing anything with new media that is related to religion and spirituality at all. It’s not that Catholics aren’t online or using new media. They just aren’t using these to do things related to their faith in any great number.”

This is primarily, I would suggest, not because Catholic new media can’t translate online, but because we haven’t translated it well enough yet. We can’t just take our same old broadcast or print media, digitize it and post it on a website for download. That’s a good start. But people use the web for much more than that and it gets to the heart of the social web. The content has to become engaging. We have to be present - not just our stuff (content). It’s relationships, not just profiles. It’s social engagement, not just broadcasting information. Our Catholic content must take on a new life and format online. In many ways, this presents huge (untapped) opportunities to personalize and minister to people through our Catholic content, which, I think, is the ultimate use of it.

It’s also worth mentioning, to be fair, that there will still be a tendency for some people (and perhaps all people to some extent) to pair their faith experience with “unplugging,” therefore preferring non-digital media when it comes to content related to their faith and spirituality. That’s fine. And it assures at least some place (at least for a good while) for traditional forms of media. But even that will be transformed by digital and new media in many ways that not only retain the experience of unplugging, but actually enhance it.

And we shouldn’t forget, either, that the average Catholic is not all that interested in their faith, period. So while they are very likely to have watched a Justin Bieber video, they just don’t find the Vatican youtube channel that interesting. That’s partially because they aren’t on fire for their faith and partially because we need more Catholic content that is also entertaining and engaging. But the former problem is one that will never be solved by any amount of technology.

“The current discourse surrounding Catholic new media is often very rosy and optimistic. The data just do not match this conversation—yet. Traditional media sources continue to be more often used and preferred by Catholics for religious and spiritual content.”

I think my comments above apply to this point as well. However, I wanted to make another distinction that’s really important. Just because the average Catholic may not be consuming Catholic “content” or news online, it doesn’t mean the Church shouldn’t be using it for other important reasons. The Church doesn’t just create content for its members to consume. It builds relationships with them. So forget about content for a second. How are we using new media technologies to communicate with our parishioners? Because most parishioners want to do just that. But most parishes do not do this well - at all.

There may not be as many Catholics in the pew who want to know how to defend the biblical canon or how to pray the divine office on an iPad, but there are lots who need to know when Mass is this Sunday, or that a parish meeting has been cancelled, or that more food is needed at the food pantry, or that their skills are needed fixing up the new youth house this weekend. Parishes also need to give easy, convenient ways for parishioners to connect with all of the ministries they offer - making it easier for people to get involved. New Media helps the Church do all of this - and many other things - better.

”[W]hat can be concluded is that creating content for new media does not mean people will use it. The era of broadcasting is over. In a narrowcasted world, people have to be aware of and want to visit and use your content. Right now not enough Catholics seem interested or aware. Is it the content? Is it the crowded media environment? Is it a culture consumed by pop media and entertainment? Is it secularization?”

I’d say it’s ALL of those things. We need better content that is medium appropriate. We need media that is engaging and social and is, at least sometimes, entertaining. In many other ways we also need to get to the point where we are not just “Catholic media creators” but “Media Creators who are Catholic.” And in the midst of all of it we must be calling people back to the faith that will set their life on fire with meaning and purpose amidst an over-saturated, secular, media obsessed pop-culture.

You can check out the rest of the study here. It’s a good read with some other interesting points.