03 January 2007
Discerning our way forward II...
As well as providing a much-needed break, the past month has also provided an opportunity for quiet reflection on possible changes we might make to Catholica this coming year. I would now like to open up that conversation and seek input and feedback from contributors and readers.
The cold hard reality is that to date we have not been able to attract the philanthropic financial support that can realise this endeavour in the ways I had hoped and outlined during the first six months of our operation. I have not personally given up on the endeavour and am willing to make both the continued financial contributions as well as contributions of my time and skill to see if we can realise the full dream. It is worth, at this point, restating what that dream is — and also underlining what it is not.
What Catholica seeks to achieve...
Catholica is not simply another journal of opinion in the ways that, say, the Jesuits have started Australian Catholics or Eureka Street and seek to present style and content that appeals to a particular demographic or interest group within the wider population. Neither was it set up seeking to be competitive with the particular readership that the former journal OnLine Catholics was seeking to cater to. In its full implementation, Catholica is seeking to utilise innovative technologies — largely developed by Google — which, when we have the money to pay for them, will enable us to respond to those who today are largely distanced from the institutional Church but continue to seek spiritual answers largely through search engine enquiries. We are principally then seeking to establish here a small community having a vigorous discussion of the sort of spiritual issues that are presently unable to be addressed within the institutional context. In other words we are endeavouring to establish a discussion community which is addressing the issues which at least the intelligent, thinking, and "opinion leading" sectors of the 85% who have left the Church would like addressed but which they feel are presently not being adequately addressed by the institutional Church at large.
Let me try and provide at least one example of how I envisage Catholica working in its full implementation. Here at Catholica we have brought together a group of individuals broadly committed to discussion and exploration of the perplexing spiritual issues in our lives within the broad Catholic thinking paradigm. Many issues will be discussed, and as publishers we do not seek to place any caveats on how those discussions develop other than that we do place a particular encouragement on ordinary people "speaking from the heart" about the challenges they have faced in their lives and how they have handled them within the spiritual domain. Over time we hope to build up a large database of these conversations on all manner of subjects from the challenges people have faced with the death of a loved one, to how they have coped in situations involving breakdown in relationships in the home or workplace, to very positive experiences where people have found inspiration through particular writers, particular courses of study, and through lived life experiences.
Meanwhile out in the wider community and cyberspace you are probably aware that everyday around the world tens of millions of queries are typed into search engines by people seeking answers to all sorts of problems. The major seach engine provider companies today have now developed highly sophisticated technologies based on mathematical algorithms that take us very efficiently to other companies and individuals who can answer our queries. Self-evidently, these technologies have largely been developed for commercial purposes to match buyers with sellers of commercial solutions. It is my belief that these technologies might also be able to be used to match seekers and providers of non-commercial products — such as spiritual answers. Why the search engine companies are so wealthy today is that they charge a premium to access these technologies they have put enormous effort into developing. We are not going to get access to them for free. On the other hand, and the good news, is that it is not prohibitively expensive to get started using them and I have devoted part of my break to studying how we might start even with our present limited financial resources. In the long run though I expect that a large proportion of our income, perhaps as much as 25% annually, will be devoted to paying for these technologies.
The key to the success of Catholica Australia will come from our own sufficiently large database of discussions and conversations where ordinary, moderately intelligent people are discussing these life and faith issues in an intelligent way where they are endeavouring to converse rather than prove they have all the answers and everybody else are sinners or misguided because they do not think within the sort of mental straightjacket that has been turning so many away from Catholicism and institutionalised spirituality.
A lot of the development of this idea has come about through work and experimenting I did during that long period when I was coadministrator and a leading contributor to the CathNews discussion board. I would have preferred to continue working in an environment like that but the sad truth is that even in a moderately progressive and encouraging environment like CathNews and Church Resources there are enormous political obstacles these days to do anything effective as a communicator. The institutional culture of the Church today simply mitigates against all creative thinking and endeavouring to do anything about the crisis in participation. The institutional communication culture today is directed almost exclusively "inward and upward" trying to prove that no one is making any mistakes rather than "downward and outward" seeking to provide answers to the only audience that in the end does matter when our mission is supposed to be "bringing the Good News to ALL people"!
How we can become financially self-supporting...
From the foregoing you will understand why an important part of our strategy has been seeking to maintain participation in Catholica as "free". We do not seek subscriptions to maintain the endeavour because down the end we want to have the very fewest impediments to searchers making use of the resource we are able to develop. Even in the long term though I do not envisage the size of the Catholica discussion community is going to be large. From research I've done over the last six years or so, it seems the ideal size of a community to undertake this sort of work is somewhere between about one and two hundred members with perhaps 50 fairly regular participants and the rest occasional contributors. The reality is that there are simply not enough minutes in each day to maintain both sensible conversation and a sense of cohesive community in a community of say 1,000 inidivuals or even 500. There are simply not enough minutes in each day for each person to have a say and for the time for participants to develop a personal rapport with one another.
In the long run though what I expect to happen is that this community might become something of a gateway where these "cyber searchers" might see a spiritual community at work and they can, in time, sporn similar communities, or find "the beginning tools" as we had done in the numerous challenges and crisis we had to overcome in our lives and which have been discussed in our forums. In short our hope is that Catholica might come to be seen as a connected community of individuals who have successfully integrated Jesus Christ into the everyday challenges of their lives.
Also in the long run I believe Catholica can become financially self-supporting. To understand this you need to have an appreciation that the number of search enquiries made on the internet each day is massive. Search enquiries are a tradeable commodity today to advertisers and one can develop advertising programs that are unobtrusive and provide real services to the particular audience that uses a service. A very good example of this is the CathNews service. Today it is largely self-supporting financially via advertising and in fact many people today use the CathNews service as much for finding out what salaried and voluntary positions are being offering in various Catholic agencies and the ministries of other churches as much as they do to catch up on the news. CathNews has simply become the single best place in the whole of Australia today to advertise ministry positions within the Christian churches. I believe we can develop targeted advertising programs that are not competitive to the audiences served by CathNews and other communication agencies involved in spiritual ministry. To achieve that though we need to continue building our own database and also linking into the search engine technologies that will end up delivering this audience that has now largely been "lost" to the institutional church to what we have to offer.
It took about four years for CathNews to reach the position where it was financially self-supporting and I expect it will take a similar time for Catholica to become financially self-supporting.
How you can contribute to our work...
I propose to continue to develop Catholica in the broad direction that marked the first six months of our endeavour with one minor exception. Originally I had envisaged we would obtain funding much more quickly and one of my earlier priorities would have been to employ a relief editor to handle the publishing responsibilities a couple of days each week. In the long term I would like to continue publishing seven days a week in order to build up our own database as quickly as possible as well as to provide a continual presence. (People do not have crises in their lives between 9 and 5 Monday to Friday but around the clock, 365 days a year.) In the short term though I appreciate that I am likely to burn out if I keep up at the intensity of publishing seven days a week. Unfortunately the publishing effort does require particular skills and I think it only fair that a person who takes on this work is adequately remunerated for those skills as well as the time involved. When we have the funds to resume publishing seven days a week I intend to resume that service. In the meantime, research indicates that the lowest usage days over extended periods are Thursdays and Fridays so they will become our "days of rest" from lead commentaries. For the foreseeable future we will be publishing lead commentaries from Saturday through to Wednesday.
From my work in the CathNews discussion community I long ago learned to appreciate the important role played by particular contributors to the discussion forum. Even though all of us participate in these discussion forums in a voluntary capacity the stark reality is that some people have skills in building "a sense of community", others have skills in stimulating discussions (and others again seem to have great skill in stifling conversation and send visitors packing). In establishing Catholica I sought to establish some mechanism whereby those who do have skills that further the objectives of our mission might be encouraged to continue and in fact to develop their skills as communicators. As a writer myself I do appreciate the time and skill that needs to be expended if communication is to be successful. In the long term my hope is that we can reward our lead commentators at the benchmark rate of $200 per article which seems to be the generally accepted rate for contributions used by such publications such as Eureka Street and the former OnLine Catholics. I do appreciate that for some they view their contributions as an "offering" but, at the same time, I also appreciate there are a significant number of writers, artists and creative people out there literally "starving in garrets" who do depend on income such as that offered by various Church and independent spiritual publishers who need the income to put a roof over their heads.
At present, and for the foreseeable future, we will continue to be dependent on those who can afford to make voluntary contributions as lead commentators. At this point I would invite any new writers who would like to contribute lead commentaries, satire, entertainment and other creative contributions that can help Catholica reach out to the audience it seeks to serve and achieve its long term objectives. I will welcome both commentators who are attracted to having a regular weekly slot and those who would like to make occasional contributions. Because of the importance of these "lead commentators" in attracting an audience and building the sense of community we're trying to establish at Catholica it remains a priority that these contributions will be eventually rewarded at the standard rates that generally apply for religious publications within and independent of the institution.
Integration of lead commentaries to the forum itself and the importance of voluntary contributions to the forums...
While on the subject of the lead commentaries I am not completely happy yet with the integration of the lead commentaries to the discussion forum itself. The process seems to work best when lead commentaries are actually part of the forum but this raises difficulties of singling particular indivuals out for reward and not others whose voluntary contributions to the board are nevertheless also valuable but in a different sense. As I am sure you would also appreciate, the long term success of this endeavour will always be critically dependent on the voluntary contributions to the discussion forums themselves. We can never hope to reward those contributions but, in another sense, they are the most crucial ingredient for our long term effectiveness. I telegraph here then our deep appreciation of all those voluntary contributions to the discussions and in the efforts to build a sense of community. I would welcome input and discussion on ways in which we might better integrate the lead commentaries and use them as a stimulus for the discussions in our forum while at the same time retaining the freedom to reward the particular skills those people are able to bring to the overall endeavour.
Financial and philanthropic support...
Finally, I would like to acknowledge and thank those who have assisted us financially and by way of other unpaid contributions of services that have enabled us to get to this point. These contributions have been too numerous to mention here but have all been acknowledged at various points privately. I would like to extend a further appeal to individuals and religious or philanthropic foundations that have the capacity to support our endeavour financially. As you would appreciate these works are not built on voluntary enthusiasm and donations of time alone. The Church itself is a huge enterprise that requires a massive input of financial support each year to further its mission. Here at Catholica we are committed to the furtherance of that same mission but in ways which, for systemic reasons, the institution is presently constrained from attending to. If you have the financial capacity to help contribute to our work, or if you have contacts to religious foundations or philanthropic organisations or individuals who might be supportive of our endeavours I would welcome your making contact with me.
PS: To help sustain the Catholica initiative further I am now also personally open to again taking on limited commercial web-development work and freelance writing through Vias Tuas Communications.
We welcome comments in the forum from members, or as Letters to the Editor from Catholica subscribers, expressing your views on this commentary.