Vatican Communications Reboot Continues, With Launch of New Website

Since 2013, the Holy See has made reforms at Pope Francis’ request.

(photo: Vatican News website screenshot)

VATICAN CITY — Reforming Vatican communications has not been without its internal frustrations, resistance and disappointments, but significant progress was made last year when many of the Vatican’s disparate media outlets were combined into one structure — a key objective of a five-year reform program.

On Dec. 16, the Vatican launched its new Vatican News website, effectively turning Vatican Radio’s six major languages and Vatican Television broadcasts into a single website connected to social-media networks.

The launch followed a general process of centralization in which the Holy See Press Office, the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, and Vatican Information Service were all subsumed into the Secretariat for Communication, set up in 2015 under the leadership of Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò.

Later in 2018, the Holy See’s four remaining communications entities are expected to be amalgamated: L’Osservatore Romano (retaining its name), the Vatican’s photographic services, its printing press and publishing house.

“With the reforms, we have made great progress in keeping everyone on message,” Greg Burke, director of the Holy See Press Office, told the Register Jan. 13. “Of course, the Pope himself has a great way of doing that, by driving the conversation, but certainly the structural reforms have helped immensely, as well.”

The new Vatican News site, he added, is now a focal point of reference and “the one site you have to go to.”

The reforms are the fruit of two commissions Pope Francis set up soon after his election: one headed by Lord Christopher Patten, a former head of the BBC Trust, and another by McKinsey and Co., the U.S.-based consultancy firm. Both proposed cutting costs, increasing efficiency and getting the message under control.

To help achieve this, the secretariat sought to build what Msgr. Viganò called a “central content hub” using a business model created by The Walt Disney Co. This entailed having different communications outlets share content, which is delivered across multiple platforms.

The Vatican News website is the first visible example of this approach, and, as the reforms take shape, the secretariat’s editorial board will consolidate its influence on how various events and issues are presented and covered.

For Burke, appointed director of the Holy See Press Office in 2016, the centralization of the message, and especially maximizing the scope of his office, has been a significant improvement for his work. “Many of the Vatican offices have come to see that the Sala Stampa [Press Office] can be a huge resource for them to get their stories out,” he said.

“Very often people, even inside the Vatican, have looked on the Sala Stampa as the place that answers the difficult questions or prepares the presentation of papal documents,” Burke added. “That’s true, but the great majority of the work consists in helping the various Vatican offices explain what they’re doing, whether that is making saints, or working for disarmament, or explaining the Church’s teaching on immigration.”

He also said the Holy See Press Office has become “a little more dynamic” in working with them to do that, offering a “meeting point” between journalists and the heads of various dicasteries.


Calls for Reform

The changes come after many years of calls for reform from both within and outside the Holy See communications apparatus, which has long been criticized for inefficiency, duplication and lack of a coordinated message.

The secretariat’s leadership “could not have found a staff better disposed in principle to a reform effort,” said Christopher Altieri, a news editor at Vatican Radio for 12 years until he left of his own accord at the end of last year. But he, like others in various parts of Vatican media, believe this receptivity for reform was not as well appreciated as it could have been.

“I didn’t ever have the impression that the reformers were serious about understanding [Vatican] Radio’s core mission, let alone considering what might have been done to strengthen it,” Altieri said. “They seemed to me from day one to have an agenda that involved sweeping away the old and replacing it with the new and set on creating conditions for which that would be inevitable.”

Others in Vatican media contacted by the Register echoed Altieri’s concerns about a preset agenda and lack of consultation. A particular and unexpected disappointment was dispensing with the name “Vatican Radio” in the major language editions (except Italian), despite it being the “grandmother of all radio stations,” set up by radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi for Pope Pius XI in 1931. All the remaining 41 language editions will be merged into the Vatican News website later this year.


Other Concerns

Also significant have been concerns that the emphasis on digital communications effectively relegates Vatican programs broadcast to a large audience in the global south on the peripheries, without computers and the internet.

Over the past few years, short-wave transmissions have been steadily cut back, although programs can still be heard on the frequency in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, southern Asia and Central America. “We were able to speak to different audiences before the reforms, and losing that has been a disappointment,” said a Vatican Radio employee. “There have been a lot of complaints about that.”

Another employee said that when concerns were raised to the secretariat about this and other issues, and advice was given on how things could be improved, “The response wasn’t even, ‘Thanks, we’ll take that under advisement,’ but usually it was: ‘You’re against reform, obstructionist, disloyal.’”

In a Feb. 3 interview with Prima Comunicazione, an Italian periodical, Msgr. Viganò acknowledged the difficulties, saying that some decisions have been “strenuous and it’s needless to even hide the resistance,” which has also included concern over job cuts and working conditions. He appealed for “patience,” especially among those who have worked for Vatican media for decades, often on life contracts, and “struggle to understand how work in the communication industry has changed.”

“Today we’ve been able to radically change the situation, according to the Pope’s direction,” Msgr. Viganò said, and he insisted that a priority for him is that employees “are calm, and live their professional commitments positively,” but that does not mean he must hold back from “taking decisions and making appeals.”

Another criticism from employees has been that staff cuts and reorganization have meant they are responsible for many other duties, some of which they have not been trained for. “Today you have to be multiskilled, and sometimes it is hard to see these innovations as new opportunities,” Msgr. Viganò conceded in his Feb. 3 interview.

But other employees welcome these operational changes, as they have forced those who did minimal work, and had perhaps grown complacent because they are on life contracts, to be more industrious and learn new skills.


Papal and Church Focus

The Vatican believes the new media platform, set up by Accenture, a Spanish-based consultancy (a collaboration that caused controversy, given the company’s close ties to the homosexual lobby), has been successful, attracting 4 million users on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. Others within Vatican media told the Register it has helped to make significant progress in the reform, and, in particular, they welcome greater attention being paid to the Church and the Pope, rather than world news and other subjects, which was a criticism in the past.

“It’s focusing more on the Church’s message, how the Church is responding, having a renewed focus on the Pope and the Vatican and the Church,” said the Vatican Radio employee. “It goes back to original goals when Vatican Radio was the voice of the Pope — by focusing on getting the Church’s message out to the world, and that’s very positive.”

But for others such as Altieri, “getting on message” comes at a cost, as he believes it threatens “journalistic integrity.” In the past, he said journalists at Vatican Radio worked in collaboration with the Secretariat of State and were “largely left to our own devices.” But that has changed in recent years: Official transcripts of extemporaneous papal addresses, for example, would be withheld, and then a modified “official” version would be released, creating a “serious problem for our credibility.”

Altieri, who is the founder director of Vocaris Media, a Catholic podcasting site, also pointed out that, until relatively recently, journalists could simply contact a Vatican official for comment on a new document or initiative with little oversight. “It was a ‘system’ based on trust,” he said, but it has now been replaced by a “more lengthy, cumbersome process” that “really changes the nature of the work.”

Some current employees welcome a more unified and controlled message, however, especially as Pope Francis’ own comments can at times be confusing.

Opus Dei Father Jose Maria La Porte, a consulter to the Secretariat for Communication, told the Register it was “not easy to create a strategy for communications in areas which used to work with a greater autonomy in the past,” but he thinks “there is a continuity with the journalistic work that was done in past years.”


Possible Future Changes

Various other possible future reforms are being proposed, including having full-time dedicated communications staff for each dicastery who closely coordinate with one another, especially with the Holy See Press Office.

But for Burke, what is needed most is “a change in mentality” to become “more user-friendly and more accessible to a wide range of people” by using language “people relate to, especially young people and those who might be far from the Church.” 

“We don’t always do that,” he said, adding that the Pope does this well in his tweets, as they “are simple and straight to the heart, but this has to be the model for all of us.” 

He also believes communication reform should also entail more work with local Churches.

“The Catholic Church is truly universal, and there are a lot of fascinating stories to tell about faith in action around the globe,” he said. “Everyone looks to Rome as the center, and they should,” he added, ”but the fact is that people put the Gospel into practice all over the world — in the peripheries — and those stories need to be told.”

“If we can do that effectively,” he said, “it’s a game changer.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.