Editorial independence and a religion news agency

By Peter Kenny
February 3, 2011

Maintaining editorial integrity at ENInews, a Geneva-based world-wide news agency run by Ecumenical News International that covers global Christianity and other religions, is hard work. Although church groupings and their partner organisations founded ENInews, editorial independence is often linked to that which is the root of all evil - money.

That was certainly one of the root causes of ENInews (www.eni.ch) being forced to suspend production for a time at the beginning of the year. It has resumed services and now has an interim editor and is looking for an editor/manager for a one-year term, who will have no office. In 2011 it will also likely face another big cut from its biggest sponsor.

When in May 2010 the biggest founding member of ENInews, the World Council of Churches, suddenly said it would drastically cut funding due to a budget deficit of millions of dollars it was trying to fend off, the news agency was already running with little room to manoeuvre. The new management and editorial team is operating with vastly reduced resources.

In every part of the planet, news subscribers have in recent years bought into a new media trading philosophy — news should be provided free. This may be good for consumers, in the very short term, but makes forging business models for news providers challenging. Dwindling paid-for subscriptions can’t pay all the bills, so the modern smaller agency that covers specialised news needs benefactors or sponsors. Yet, if a sponsor is hit with its own financial big hole, as happened to ENInews, it can destabilise the news flow.

Over the Christmas and New Year period, ENInews took the unprecedented step of suspending its news service for longer than the normal holiday break. After a struggle in its governing body, a new management and a temporary editor began operating a reduced service that relies less on news and more on straight press releases. Insiders say the WCC’s financial predicament and a new policy on programmes will force it to deliver another big cut next year, or even to cease support totally.

Getting in the way was a messy restructuring that led to divisions in the governance structure. It culminated when an ENInews advisory body insisted that an individual publisher be appointed from within, something unusual for independent news agencies. The powers of the chief editor have been diminished and that person now doing that job has not only a president but a publisher to report to.

The WCC announcement about its cut was made in May 2010, only two days before ENInews clinched the 2010 North American Associated Church Press award for best news agency covering religion. It also won the top award for courageous reporting for its coverage of the WCC. Some readers saw an irony in that.

Four global church groupings — the WCC, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Communion of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches — all bodies with the ecumenical aim of seeking Christian unity, — put their money behind the agency at its founding in 1994, and have continued to do so. These groupings are mainly Protestant, while the WCC and the CEC include Orthodox churches as members, but not the Roman Catholic Church. All four work with Catholics on different levels.

ENInews was able to provide reliable and independent coverage of events that might get skimmed over by the more mainstream media. It had covered matters that the church bodies’ own releases often ignore, seeing them as too thorny. It covered the good news and the bad news in churches, sometimes exposing cover-ups.

That said, readers might ask, can a news agency backed by church organisations be independent in the way of a news agency such as Reuters? It can, although this can be stressful for chief editors, and it needs editorial charters to be put to the fore. Editors must be chosen for professional expertise and then left to run the news agency.

In four years as president of ENInews, the Rev Anders Gadegaard, the Lutheran dean of Copenhagen cathedral, who is also on governing bodies of the WCC, never tried to sway editorial input and neither did other executive committee members. This was despite publishing stories which their leaders might not have liked. The highest ranking officers of the WCC did try to step in once, but the editorial staff held firm.

Specialised news agencies such as ENInews need financial empowerment to sustain editorial independence. They need more support from churches and religious-backed organisations. More importantly, they need backing from the mainstream secular community as well.

Some comments from ENInews stakeholders as they see the end of ENInews as it has been, link to sentiment that sizzled on the agency’s wires after its Geneva headquarters was forced to shut down.

Munya Makoni, a Zimbabwean writer for ENInews wrote, “A publication that carried voices from all the corners of the world, giving space to some places get a chance to be heard, is likely not to be not there in future.”

In another comment, Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, said, “the sudden drastic cut in funding and the failure to realise a more consensual and effective transition process towards a viable future for ENInews is extremely disappointing. It also occurs at a time when the need for independent, quality reporting of religion has never been greater.”

Kerry Swift, a contributor to ENInews from South Africa, and a reader wrote, “While we admire your attempts to spin the closure in a positive light, it is clear that the WCC has turned its back on a great news service. All the brand equity and past investment is lost ….It is quite clear that the sponsors are more concerned with the bottom line than with the bigger picture. How short-sighted and reactionary in a world increasingly hungry for authoritative news.”

The Rev Eduard Wildbolz, a Swiss reader, noted that the Catholic Church seems to be in much better shape when it comes to supporting news agencies. “Is there nobody who can make it clear to the leadership of WCC that without a voice into the outside world, it is doomed to get simply forgotten?”


© Peter Kenny is the former editor-in-chief of ENInews (www.eni.ch), also previously known as Ecumenical News International. This article is slightly adapted, with permission from and acknowledgments to the author, from a Reuters FaithWorld (http://blogs.reuters.com/faithworld/) piece.

More from Peter Kenny on Ekklesia here: http://tinyurl.com/6bw8n6z

Ekklesia has regularly run syndicated ENI news stories since 2005, and took part in a stakeholders' meeting about its future in October 2010.

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.