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Publisher embraces new tech for age-old message

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Posted at 7:00 PM, Jan 16, 2016
and last updated 2016-01-16 19:00:44-05

CINCINNATI -- If you grew up Roman Catholic in the Tri-State, chances are good that there was a copy of the St. Anthony Messenger on the family coffee table.

You might also have answered the doorbell once a year to find a man in a friar’s habit, who would ask you to renew your subscription and so help fund the work of the Franciscans, Catholic men who follow the example of St. Francis of Assisi into a life of poverty, celibacy and service.

Subscribing to the Messenger was a family tradition for local Catholics, said the Rev. Dan Kroger, publisher and chief executive of Franciscan Media LLC, which publishes the Messenger.

In its heyday, the Messenger had an impressive circulation of about 400,000. As recently as 10 years ago, it had an in-house staff of 68 dedicated solely to making cold calls to solicit subscriptions, Kroger said.

Times have changed. Like most print publications, the Messenger no longer reaches the audience it once did. Circulation is now about 100,000, editor-in-chief John Feister said. No one makes cold calls to sell the magazine, although calls are made to get subscriptions renewed.

No longer does anyone go in person to ask for those renewals. “Actually, if you tried to go door-to-door today, you’d probably wind up dead,” Kroger said.

The print version still makes money, however, and, at $39 per subscription, would bring in about $3.9 million in revenue annually (if everyone paid full price). Subscription revenue, plus a small amount of advertising, makes the magazine a money-maker, and it helps subsidize the other things Franciscan Media's staff of 30 does.

It does a lot.

For starters, there’s www.americancatholic.org, Franciscan Media’s website, which had 13 million page views in 2015. Franciscan Media, which created the site in 1995, has been an early adopter of new media.

The website contains digital versions of selected Messenger articles, as well as access to a digital, mobile-friendly edition for $29 a year. There, one also can sign up for a couple of popular features, Minute Meditations and the Saint of the Day, a feature about a different Catholic saint for every day of the year.

More than 160,000 Saint of the Day emails are sent daily to people all over the world, and from 26 percent to 28 percent of them are opened. They are also available in podcasts, with former local news anchor Brian Patrick talking about male saints and WVXU-FM radio News Director Maryanne Zeleznik talking about female saints.

American Catholic also has links to www.catholicgreetings.org, from which Catholic-themed e-greeting cards can be sent. The greeting card site has 105,000 free subscribers and more than 6,000 paid — “Over 3 million e-cards sent since 1998!”

At American Catholic, one can also order any of the dozens of printed books and audiobooks that Franciscan Media publishes every year. Those include “Love is Our Mission: Pope Francis in America,” the official, Vatican-approved book commemorating Pope Francis’ trip to America last year. The book has sold more than 28,000 copies (retail price $19.95).

That was Franciscan Media’s most exciting project last year, Feister said, because it involved all the staff and tight deadlines. The magazine staff and its freelancers took the photos, wrote the stories and turned them in to the book team two days after the pope left, he said.

Last year, Franciscan Media began printing a new genre of audiobook, Catholic historical romance novels. One of the first is “The Pilgrim” by Davis Bunn, a fictional account of the life of Empress Helena, mother of the Roman emperor Constantine. The company should have 10 such titles in its catalog by the end of this year, said Judy Zarick, director of emerging media.

In addition to its website, Franciscan Media also maintains a vigorous social media presence. At the end of last year, American Catholic surpassed 200,000 friends for its Facebook page, and it also has 30,000 Twitter followers. This year, the company plans to revamp its website under the www.franciscanmedia.org address, so that Franciscan Media becomes the brand, not American Catholic.

So, although like newspapers in general, the print version of the Messenger seems destined to wither away, the message is getting out by more modern means. That message, Kroger said, is the good news of Jesus Christ as exemplified in the life of Saint Francis.

Spreading that message was the intent of the friars of St. John the Baptist Province, who created the Messenger in 1893. They had settled in Over-the-Rhine to serve the growing population of German Catholic immigrants. They bought property at Liberty and Vine streets, where their priory remains today, next door to Franciscan Media’s offices.

According to chief operating officer Thomas Shumate, Franciscan Media is a nonprofit arm of St. John the Baptist Province, which oversees Franciscan friars and parishes in several states, including Ohio and Kentucky. Any donations Franciscan Media takes in over and above expenses goes to the province to support its work.

Locally, that includes Friars Club, 4300 Vine St., a social service organization that serves children at risk, and St. Francis Seraph Ministries in Over-the-Rhine, which provides food and health services for the poor.

Most people locally don’t know about Franciscan Media, Feister said, “but we are known all over the country.”

Embracing social media

Franciscan Media has a presence on all major social media outlets, including Facebook and Twitter. For a complete list, go to www.americancatholic.org/SocialMedia.