The Bible in one hand and… nothing in the other?

Dear colleagues,

A few weeks ago, the Montreal radio station CJAD laid off its reporters and effectively shuttered its news department. This was a significant blow to Quebec’s media landscape: one of the leading English-language radio stations was essentially saying it saw no purpose (and certainly no profit) in reporting on local news.

I am a former local radio reporter myself—”KNOM: 96.1 on your FM dial, 780 on the AM; we’re yours for Western Alaska”—and, in my spare time, an armchair media critic. But you don’t need to have this background to know that across Canada, the United States, and many other parts of the world, the local news business is in deep trouble. The Internet has changed the business model in ways newspapers have not been able to adapt to. Major cities that once had a couple of major papers none have none. The corporate concentration of media ownership (including in the case of CJAD) doesn’t help: media properties are purchased, stripped of assets, and turned into shadows of their former selves.

There are no shortage of terrific (and financially successful) international news sources—the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post. But the pandemic has made me realize the value of local news. While the pandemic is, by its nature, a global news story, I have realized the pandemic news I value the most is intensely local: What are the restrictions where I live? What is the hospitalization rate like here? What variants are circulating in my city? I can find some of this on social media, it’s true, but there’s something irreplaceable about having a news department that does this work for me and reports it to me authoritatively. Even without a pandemic, the loss of local news is devastating communities. Research links so-called “news deserts” with declining social trust, increasing corruption, and a host of other maladies that harm our democracies and broader societies.

To Karl Barth is attributed the saying that goes something like this: “A preacher should preach with a Bible in one hand and the newspaper in another.” (When I was searching to confirm this quotation, I found it may more accurately be rendered as: “Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.”) At a time when local news is being eviscerated, I wonder what we are to make of Barth’s direction. What if we minister in a community that no longer has a local paper or radio news department? Gossip will still circulate, of course, whether on social media or elsewhere but this provides a doubtful homiletical foundation. There are various apps that try to connect users to their local place and they may be one option, but an imperfect one.

Part of the answer may lie in the church itself. I think of English villages where the parish church’s newsletter is, effectively, the village’s newspaper. That may work in a community of 1000, but perhaps not a community of 100,000. The answer may also lie with church-goers and church leaders. Part of ministering in a particular place must mean subscribing to and consuming what local news there is. If Barth is right, it’s essential to our ministerial role.

Faithfully yours,

This message was written by Principal Jesse Zink for this week’s Wingèd Ox, a weekly news digest distributed to the college community.

An image used to illustrate this post is by Florian Plag from Bretten – Daily News., CC BY 2.0.