Setting the record straight…without an editor

Among the hats I wear is a gubernatorial cap. I serve on the Board of Governors of Episcopal Life. Usually, we toil in obscurity, but the last 48 hours have put us on the map, sort of. It seems that there are changes afoot with Episcopal Life, the newspaper of the Episcopal Church. The Board was informed, in an email sent by an administrative assistant on Thursday, that there is to be no full-time editor of the paper. Specifically, we were told that the search for an editor has been called off, due to budgetary constraints.

I have some ambivalence about this, which I’ll address below the fold. What I have no ambivalence about, however, is one part of this announcement. In the press release, issued on Friday, this line appears: “Consultation with the ELM board of governors and other industry experts to discuss long-range strategy and planning began in December, [Robert] Williams said, noting that further conversations are scheduled to continue.” This implies, I think, an endorsement by the Board of this move. This is not true. The Board has not endorsed this move. We have not, in fact, had a chance to discuss it.

When we last met, the past December in Los Angeles, we had extensive conversation about the role of the Board and the future of Episcopal Life Media as a multi-platform entity, creating content for video, web, print, and more. We were assured that the search for an editor was about to begin. We were assured that the future of the print publication is secure. I am in a minority on the Board (or possibly alone; I won’t speak for others) who believe that we should explore possibilities other than a monthly print newspaper. But our consensus, and our understanding from ELM staff, was that an editor would be hired to continue to produce a print newspaper monthly.

We also talked about the role of the Board. Frankly, our mandate does not match our exalted name. “Board of Governors” sounds as if we govern something. In fact, we serve in an advisory capacity. You can find the Executive Council resolution that created us here. This is the relevant bit: “The Board of Governors will…Recommend potential policy changes to Executive Council, the Presiding Bishop and/or the Editor in Chief.”

There is no requirement to consult us with regard to policy changes. We have no actual governance. Our role is make recommendations and suggestions. In this particular case, I suspect the Board will be issuing a recommendation soon. So while no requirement exists for prior consultation, I think there was some reasonable expectation that the Board would be involved in such a major shift in communications policy.

Some of my Board colleagues are quite steamed about this, for any number of reasons. It is perceived as discourteous to notify us 12 hours before a major policy change is announced, and then by a forwarded email. It is understood as unconscionable during a time of public acrimony and confusion in the Church to cut back on our communications efforts. There is a sense that the Board should have had a role in this decision. For my part, I am surprised more than anything else, but I do not have enough information to have a fully formed opinion. We are to have a conference call with the Director of Communications (who is listed as Editor online) on Monday. I’ll know more then.

In the news release, and in an email forwarded to the Board from Linda Watt, this assertion appears:

The work of Episcopal Life Media is currently influenced by three factors:

  • Optimal balancing of reporting online and in print, a challenge now engaged by all major newspapers, and also an essential consideration for effective stewardship of contributed church funds;
  • Mid-February discussions by Executive Council’s Administration and Finance Committee, and Council’s approval of a 2008 budget requiring streamlining of ELM operations;
  • The need to provide The Episcopal Church comprehensive and cost-effective coverage of the Lambeth Conference this summer.

I would like to see other factors listed: “The need to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world” or “The desire to share the latest news and mission work of the Episcopal Church with the wider community.” The three listed factors are all about scarcity. Frankly, the cost of an editor is a drop in the 815 budget. It may be the right decision to suspend the search for an editor, perhaps permanently. But this decision cannot be justified or driven as a cost-saving measure. If cost were the priority, for example, the Executive Council would have had its last meeting in Cleveland rather than Quito. In that case, mission was seen as a priority, and I believe a good case can be made that communications is a priority at present.

It is worth noting that Executive Council created us by resolution, and we could be dissolved in the same way. I would not be surprised to see the Board of Governors evaporate at the next Executive Council meeting. Certainly it is not clear to me (and to other Board members, I think) what our function is at present. My hope is that we will continue as an entity to do those things that were imagined when we were created by Executive Council.

I’ll close with this: I think every option needs to be available as we move forward in communications. Reducing print publications in order to increase online efforts should be on the table as an option. What should not be open for consideration is any reduction in the quality of resources and the effectiveness of news reporting. I hope that broad-based consultation will take place as communications resources are deployed. Good communications is more important now than ever. I welcome the opportunity to discuss these matters as a Board, and I am eager to learn more about the thinking behind this decision. As I said above, I expect that the Board will have something to say in the near future.

UPDATE: See a later post on this subject, which includes the text of a statement issued February 26 by the Board of Governors.

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