Alt-Weeklies Cooperate on Married Priest Project

Localized stories posted on AlterNet

Working together on an unprecedented collaborative project, alternative weeklies have focused a collective lens on the flight of married priests from the Catholic church, illustrating how that institution’s outmoded moral strictures may have undermined its spiritual authority.

“The Changing Church,” a package of 36 stories collected from alt-weeklies in dozens of states, appears on AlterNet, a syndication service for weekly newspapers. According to an AlterNet news release, the papers represent a combined circulation of more than 2 million readers, and the need for that type of broad reach first prompted the project.

Jeff von Kaenel, a past president of AAN and owner of the three-paper News & Review company based in Sacramento, Calif., spearheaded the effort. The former AAN board member also sits on the Independent Media Institute/AlterNet board.

“One of the goals that I have for the alternative papers is figuring out ways that we can get some national attention, but in context of doing things that make sense for us locally,” Von Kaenel says. “And so we came upon the idea of this Catholic priest story … — these ex-priests who could not remain priests because they got married — in each of our towns with these remarkable stories to tell.”

This story moved away from the recent spate of pedophile priests stories to another problem for the Church — a lack of working priests combined with somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 married former priests, von Kaenel says.

“It’s like this phenomenal experiment where we sent out essentially 35 different reporters, or somewhere in that neighborhood, and talked to somewhere near that neighborhood of married priests and then wrote about them,” he says. “And their stories are all so similar. It’s so painful, reading how these guys have gotten messed over by the Catholic Church.”

AlterNet provided a national story and artwork free to its subscribers, which many AAN member papers ran, amplified by interviews with local priests who married and left the priesthood. The stories were then posted collectively on the AlterNet Web site the week of July 10.

The project came together in just four weeks. Von Kaenel started by sending an e-mail to AAN-member papers and other weeklies that subscribe to AlterNet, inviting all of them to get on board with localized stories on the topic.

“If you had asked people before we did this project whether you could get 35 or so papers to participate — to get 35 AAN papers to do anything together — they would have said it was never going to happen,” von Kaenel says. “That we were able to do it, and on such short notice, indicates that maybe these things can happen again.

“Just getting AAN publishers and editors to work together is like herding cats,” von Kaenel says. “But people just really stepped up and did a great job. AlterNet was great to work with on this, and I think the natural thing for us to try to figure out is other things we can do that make sense individually for our papers and that collectively have a bigger impact.”

AlterNet Executive Editor Don Hazen, also executive director of the Independent Media Institute and former publisher of Mother Jones magazine, says in the future similar projects might even be partially funded by AlterNet. “That may help papers, especially some of the smaller ones without big editorial budgets, particularly in this downturn economy.”

Hazen calls von Kaenel “a visionary in the sense that he never quits in terms of wanting there to be editorial collaboration in the cause of the reputation, reach, and impact of the alternative press.”

Hazen says such projects help “the public understand that there is an industry out there that is independent of the traditional, corporate media, and ? that when you go from city to city, you have a newspaper that represents that.”

“We intend very much — with Jeff’s prodding and leadership — to do a lot more of this,” he says.

John Ferri is a freelance writer based in Tacoma, Wash.