Claretians Pull Plug on Social Justice Magazine

ASITS STAFF put the last issue of Salt of the Earth magazine to bed, there were plenty of long faces at Claretian Publications’ offices in Chicago. The decision to close the award-winning magazine is being mourned not only by its writers, editors, and other contributors, but by social justice activists and supporters of the Catholic press across the country.

“It's a big loss not just for us but for the Church as a whole,” said Meinrad Scherer-Emunds, who had worked on the magazine for five-and-a-half years and was serving as its managing editor when it published its final edition, the July-August issue.

It's a story familiar to many in the Catholic press: too few subscribers, rising printing and postage costs, and limited resources from its subsidizing organization—in this case the Claretian order. In the end, financial considerations won out in the perennial pull between “profit” and “prophet.” Cutting Salt of the Earth was seen as a way to strengthen the Claretians’ other publications, such as U.S. Catholicmagazine and an expanding cadre of bilingual newsletters.

“Like all subsidized ministries, we have to assess if we're putting our ‘capital’ (human as well as financial) to its wisest use. That's a tough call, with no sure answers,” wrote editorial director Tom McGrath in an editorial in the May-June 1997 issue announcing the magazine's demise.

The decision was not made quickly or lightly, say those who work for Claretian Publications. In fact, three years ago the magazine underwent an extensive redesign, complete with name change from Salt to Salt of the Earth, in an attempt to boost circulation.

The already practical publication was made even more “hands-on” and was marketed as a valuable resource for parish-based social justice groups. Stories like “Six ways your parish can help save the earth;” “How to turn a lukewarm parish into a hotbed of social justice;” and a regular column that allowed readers to share tips and strategies on topics such as avoiding “do-gooder” burnout were laid out in attractive, reader-friendly designs.

“We were targeting parish audiences for bulk subscriptions, but that just didn't quite materialize,” SchererEmunds said. Except for an artificially high circulation in the early 1980s of 16,000—of which nearly half were unpaid subscribers—Salt of the Earth's circulation has hovered around 8,000 to 10,000. The 1997 Catholic Press Association directory lists the magazine's circulation at 9,000.

But the numbers tell only part of the story, according to those who worked for and religiously read Salt of the Earth. “It's hard to measure the impact of a magazine solely in financial terms,” said SchererEmunds. “I believe we've had an important impact by motivating people's consciousness and helping people live out their faith in everyday life.”

That “social justice doesn't sell” is an oft-repeated phrase at meetings of marketing- and manager-types. Common marketing wisdom says that consumers are more likely to buy things that make them feel good. “That's part of the problem with any publication that deals with issues that make you feel bad,” said Mary Lynn Hendrickson, who served as Salt's managing editor for five years and now does research and development for Claretian Publications.

To its credit, Salt of the Earth tried to maintain a positive, upbeat focus. Many stories focused on people who were doing something about society's problems, rather than lamenting those who weren't. Aregular column called “Winners” detailed “strategies that spell success"; another regular feature profiled parishes that were doing it right.

Unfortunately, it's hard enough to preach the Church's social justice message, never mind trying to get people to pay to hear it, Henrickson said. “Social justice can be a hard sell to people who aren't already converted to it,” she said.

That core 9,000 regular Salt of the Earthsubscribers represented the committed converted. Claretian Father Mark Brummel, editor of both Salt of the Earth and U.S. Catholic, hopes the decision to increase social justice coverage in the more general interest magazine, U.S. Catholic, will educate the larger Catholic community.

“The people who read Salt were already convinced. You're converting the converted,” he said. “We haven't been able to reach the person in the pew.” A new series of social justice pamphlets put out by Claretian Publications that detail “Catholic wisdom” on abortion, welfare reform, immigration, assisted suicide, environment, and the death penalty have proven popular, with bulk orders of up to 100,000. In addition, the Salt of the Earth will be continued in electronic form. The now defunct magazine's website will be maintained and updated with social justice resources and materials ( INSERT TILDE-salt.)

“We're not giving up on social justice,” said Father Brummel. “We're just trying to find the best way to do it.”

Catholic magazine circulation has been steadily declining, according to Owen McGovern, executive director of the Catholic Press Association. Catholic newspaper circulation numbers are up, but only because more and more bishops are seeing the value in mandating their diocesan papers.

“It's always sad,” McGovern said of the closing of Salt of the Earth. “It's a tremendous loss to the Church and the community as a whole.” But he called Claretian Publications, which is a consistent CPA award winner, a “class act.” “They're one of the most professional operations in the Catholic press,” McGovern said.

In the end, the Claretians and other Catholic publishers are facing the challenges that all print media are facing in today's fast-paced communications world. “People are reading less and less, and all publishers are having trouble keeping read-ership,” said former managing editor Hendrickson. “We're no different.”

Getting Catholics to think about the bigger problems of society is an increasingly difficult challenge, editorial director McGrath said. “The biggest problem religious publishing is facing is engaging people's attention in a time of great diversion.”

Still, he noted that Salt of the Earth did that and did it well. “It was as good a magazine at the end as it ever was,” he said.

Heidi Schlumpf is based in Chicago.