Earnest in the hope that it “may prove agreeable and profitable to its readers,” The Presbyterian Record printed its first edition in January 1876. This month, it will print its last; The Record’s board of directors concluded in September that continuing to publish the magazine “was simply not sustainable.”
The demise of The Record marks the end of a national institution, a fixture in Canadian homes for 140 years. It removes a vital link between The Presbyterian Church in Canada and its 91,000 members. And it leaves a team of dedicated editors and reporters without jobs, while signalling a further erosion of faith-based journalism in this country.
The Record did not go down without a fight. Management issued a last-ditch appeal to readers and begged the denomination for life-support funding. But facing a $250,000 loss this year, and unable to secure any meaningful aid from the denomination, the magazine’s board of directors decided to “allow this ebb in fortunes of The Presbyterian Record to run its course.”
In a nutshell, The Record was overwhelmed by forces beyond its control. Declining church membership and galloping secularization translated into plummeting circulation. In the late 1980s, the denomination had about 170,000 members, and the magazine had 88,000 subscribers. By 2015, membership dipped below 100,000, and circulation hovered around 10,000. Without any financial support from the denomination, and with its reserves all but depleted, the magazine simply could not generate enough revenue to keep going.
The dynamics that doomed The Record have claimed dozens of other church publications in Canada and the United States. Another recent Canadian casualty was the well-respected Western Catholic Reporter, which ceased publishing in September after a run of 51 years; it will be folded into an online daily news portal run by the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
The Observer is subject to the same forces that afflicted The Record. Our readers are primarily older people, and there are fewer and fewer of them, a fact reflected in our circulation totals. Like The Record, we take a hit when churches tighten their belts and cancel their every-family subscriptions. We too are impacted by the ups and downs of the economy.
However, there are crucial differences in our situation that enable us to weather the storms that sunk The Record. For one thing, we receive funding from The United Church of Canada. It’s a fraction of what it used to be, but it is still an important part of our financial mix. We have roughly 5,000 readers who donate to the Friends of The Observer Fund over and above their subscription fees, which not only generates income but also pays for initiatives to help secure the long-term viability of the magazine.
While we lament the passing of The Record, we are indebted to our departed cousin for the taking-of-stock it has occasioned here — and grateful to report that 187 years on, we are still in reasonably good health.
• This month, we’re pleased to introduce a new column by broadcaster, author and journalist Michael Coren (To the point). Once a scathing critic of liberal Protestantism, Coren has undergone a highly public transformation in the past few years. What hasn’t changed is his sharp intellect and ability to turn a memorable phrase. I hope you enjoy his monthly musings on religion and current affairs.
This story originally appeared in the December 2016 issue of The Observer as part of the regular column “Observations.”