How I founded the first daily online Catholic news service in the UK
I got my first mobile phone in around 1998. My nephew, who is 20, has never known life without one. He called me last night – a big grin on his face as he showed me his new guitar and sang a song. Later we called some cousins in Canada and had a three-way chat online. Developments in communications technology are moving so fast, it is hard to imagine where things will be in a few years’ time.
Watching the explosion of news, ‘fake’ and otherwise, around the world really demonstrates the power of this technology and, as Christians with Good News to tell, we need to be in there!
It was with that in mind that I set up Independent Catholic News (ICN) back in 2000. As a print and broadcast journalist working mainly in the secular world, (I was writing for the BBC World Service and doing some consultancy work for the Catholic Bishops Conference Media Office at the time) I felt there was a gap there to be filled. In the run-up to the Millennium, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (an Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II) had called on lay people to play a greater role in the work of the Church. I thought setting up a news service was a way I could make a contribution. I also hoped it might reach a wider readership than just churchgoing Catholics.
At first the idea seemed very daunting. Web design agencies I approached were very expensive. But there were classes available, and I had friends with IT experience willing to help. I took a short course in web design and in Spring 2000, we built the first ICN site in a weekend.
ICN became the first daily online Catholic news service in the UK in May 2000. On the evening of 9th May I posted up our first news reports. Ellen Teague from the Columbans soon became a regular contributor. For the next year I was just able to update the site twice a week after my day job. I couldn’t afford to advertise, but gradually, more and more people began logging on. In between writing news I sent out e-mails asking people whether they would like reciprocal links. The response was encouraging. Within a short space of time, messages started arriving from around the world. The Poor Clares of Narvik in Norway were the very first.
There have been hundreds more reciprocal links and many more people have joined ICN’s virtual team of volunteers since then, helping get out the news from the UK and Ireland. Dozens more send in reports from around the world each day. Regular writers include Leela Ramden in Trinidad and Tobago, a Catholic in Wuhan, China, Catholic Worker House, Ben Bano and Phil Kerton assisting refugees in Dover and Calais, Fr Shay Cullen in the Philippines, Rebecca Tinsley a specialist on Cameroon, Leila Sansour from Bethlehem, Ann Farr in Hebron, the St Paul’s Missionary Community in Turkana, Kenya, Vinnies in Australia, Fr Bob Mosher working with migrants on the US-Mexico border and Eco-theologian Sean McDonagh in Ireland. Ellen Teague, Bess Twiston-Davies and Mary Carson have taken over editing when I have been on holiday.
We receive press releases from many dioceses, religious orders, schools, chaplaincies, aid agencies and other faith organisations.
And we try to keep spiritually grounded – with the Daily Gospel in Art by Westminster seminarian Patrick van der Vorst, Spiritual Reflections including the regular, Sunday Reflection with Fr Robin Gibbons – and Saint of the Day.
The Patron Saints of ICN
We chose the patron saints of journalists as our patrons: Ss Francis de Sales and Maximilian Kolbe. They were both prolific writers. St Maximilian was a Polish Franciscan priest who set up a Catholic publishing house and newspapers in Poland and Japan. He died in Auschwitz when he swapped places with a young married man with children. St Francis de Sales was a prolific writer. He once said: “You can catch more flies with a spoonful of honey that you can with a bucket of vinegar” – which I try to remember. For the most part I like to leave comment to others, and my job is just to edit other people’s writing and report the facts.
I recently discovered a third patron for ICN: Blessed Sara Salkahazi, a Hungarian religious sister and journalist. She set up a publication for Catholic women, established the first college for working women in Hungary, ran training courses, wrote plays and was executed during WWII after she saved the lives of over 100 Jewish people.
Adapting to new technological developments
The site is a constant work in progress. The system has been upgraded twice now – in 2009 and in 2018 and we are always looking at ways to develop it. We have pages on other social media sites: Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube, as well as putting out a daily email newsletter. ICN is RNIB (Royal National Institute of the Blind) compliant. (So, a blind person can ‘hear’ our news.)
Both Ellen Teague and I received scholarships to take a summer course at the University Santa Croce in Rome on reporting on the Vatican in 2018. The course was marvellous, and it was also great to meet Catholic journalists from around the world – several of whom have written for ICN since. I hope we can get more places for people on this course in future.
Our readership has always been growing, but since the Covid-19 lockdown began in March 2020 – it has increased considerably. As churches were forced to close and more and more parishes started streaming Masses and prayers online – one simple new page on ICN: ‘Masses and prayer resources online’ attracted over half a million visitors in a few weeks.
We are hoping that many of the new readers who have joined us will stay after the pandemic has ended.
We have a few plans for 2021. Currently we are looking at the possibility of setting up an ICN App. We have had a few enquiries about starting an intern programme – I have already given some courses in journalism to schools and youth groups, and the idea of running an intern program would be a logical next step. I would also like to offer a service through ICN advising people how to write their own press and publicity materials. Possibly we could run online courses too. It would be good to see every parish and organisation with its own press officer.
Currently ICN is run simply as a small business with me as ‘sole trader’. The funding comes from the grant we receive as a Passionist Partner (for which I am very grateful), advertising and donations. We are looking into making ICN a more official entity in 2021, which would enable us to apply for more funding and to expand.
Thank you very much to the Passionists for your support and encouragement. Thanks also to the many people who write for us, to the supporters and advertisers – and thanks especially for your prayers. ICN could not manage without you.
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