National Catholic Reporter
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Inside NCR
Issue Date:  April 25, 2003

From the Editor’s Desk

Not long ago, I had the first two pages of the first issue of NCR (Oct. 28, 1964) copied and mounted. They’re still waiting to be framed and hung on my office walls.

The significance of those two pages came home last week when I heard of the death of NCR founder Robert G. Hoyt (see appreciation, click here).

Back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Hoyt had a daring if straightforward dream: to bring good, independent reporting to coverage of the Catholic church. He gave us our intellectual DNA and our marching orders.

Hoyt and several of his colleagues, with the help early on of the late Bishop Charles H. Helmsing of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., started the National Catholic Reporter. Almost overnight, NCR changed the nature of religion reporting, particularly reporting on the Catholic church.

At the time Hoyt and others set out on their publishing adventure, the Catholic world did not lack for magazines and newspapers. There were hundreds of them in the United States. “My hindsight feeling,” Hoyt told an interviewer in the 1980s, “is that the NCR changed things instantly, or damn near. Other papers were not seeking out the news and printing it without fear or favor.” The paper’s name was not chosen by accident. Reporting was the element missing in Catholic publishing, Hoyt believed, and reporting became the central mission of the paper.

Hoyt, in that interview, recalled that the bishop who was helping them start what was first called the Catholic Reporter, actually wanted the paper named “Veritas.” “Our staff had already settled on Catholic Reporter because that was what was missing in the diocesan press -- the reporting function. So it was wonderful. I just said to him, ‘ Only one problem with Veritas -- it means the same as Pravda.’ His face just fell apart -- but he got the point right away.”

I mentioned those two pages earlier because they have become important guideposts to the current efforts of NCR. In discussions over recent years about what changes were required in the electronic age and an era of aging readership and all of the problems attracting young readers, one thing remained constant -- the need to report. That’s why we sent John Allen to Rome and why we reopened our Washington office with Joe Feuerherd and why we are trying to exploit the Internet as much as possible to bring our readers news and information.

I never met Bob Hoyt in person. I know him only through the histories I’ve read, the conversations I’ve had with people who knew him and through his clip files. I think I would have enjoyed him immensely. And if he should be looking in on things, as I suspect, from another vantage point, I want to assure him that the central mission of NCR -- “pressing for as much information as can be had about events and their meaning” -- has endured and remains unchanged. Thanks for the vision, the determination, the wit and the faith you showed in both the church and the journalistic enterprise.

~ ~ ~

One of the difficulties in covering the church today is the fear among some that honest discussion will bring reprisals from on high.

That reality was strikingly evident recently when Gill Donovan traveled to San Antonio to cover the latest Common Ground Initiative gathering to discuss priesthood (click here for more).

In order to accommodate the group’s concern for having the frankest discussion possible, NCR agreed to ground rules that allowed participants to say they did not want to be identified. It is a concession that we make only in rare circumstances where gatherings are not open to the public. Such concessions are made by the general press in other circumstances, not least in places like Washington.

The church is desperately in need of the kind of conversation that Common Ground can foster. How unfortunate, then, that in order to have such discussion, it must be confined to a small circle of participants. Too many fear reprisals should their frank comments get back to the boss.

So, it is within those limitations that we bring you what we’re able to from the San Antonio meeting. There’s enough to get further discussions going. While understanding the need to tread gingerly, our hope is that in time more will feel free to participate openly and allow the discussion to be relayed to an ever-wider audience.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 2003

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