The announcement of the definitive cessation of activities by a renowned ecumenical press agency has come.
Ecumenical News International (ENInews) will not outlive the drastic financial reductions imposed by its two main sponsors, the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Lutheran World Federation (LWF).
Approaches made to other potential partners, notably in Asia, proved fruitless.
It’s the end of an adventure that strengthened the influence of the ecumenical movement. ENInews was a true press agency, independent, recognized and given awards several times over.
Its network of almost 50 correspondents on five continents, linked to a very well informed editorial team based in Geneva, produced a stream of trustworthy and quality news.
It’s true that certain news ― critical of the WCC itself ― was received with considerable ill-feeling within the establishment. But to say that this was the reason for its downfall is to go too far.
It was clearly the financial difficulties facing the WCC that led it to turn off the financial tap in favor of other activities that in its eyes were more vital. It was a choice that brought with it the withdrawal of the LWF, leaving the World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC), WACC and others as sole supporters of ENInews.
A true ecumenical label
Ecumenical News International contributed to the influence of the ecumenical movement by deploying a clear and valued editorial line. Careful to find topics using the prism of the great inspirations of the ecumenical movement, it provided a unique thread of information.
It allowed readers to hear an echo of the WCC’s intuitions at the heart of its member churches, in their social engagement, their ethical and spiritual debates. Reading ENInews presented many observers with clear information about what was at stake, the progresses and impediments affecting relations between the churches, but also between the global North and South.
In a study commissioned in 2009, the importance of institutional type coverage was observed: more than 45% of ENI stories sent out in 2006 was about statements by church leaders or executives! A high proportion, some would say too high.
Certainly this statistic reflected the intensity of exchanges and meetings at the heart of the ecumenical movement as much as the attention Christians of different backgrounds were giving to each other.
The impossibility of financing the press
For more than 15 years, the undeniable “institutional ecumenical winter” has cut the ground from under the feet not only of the WCC in Geneva, but also of all those who depended, financially and culturally, on its activities. ENI was one. It paid the heaviest price, even if those responsible for it tried during the last few years to secure new sources of finance.
As for the direct sale of news coming from ENI, that was always a difficult task. Not only had the logistics to work very well, but the network that might consume the news must agree to pay. This was not widely the case in church circles, accustomed to live on exemptions.
As for the quality newspapers, themselves in financial difficulties and en route to secularization, they were not ready, with rare exceptions, to support ENI economically through the purchase of news.
There were also the information culture gaps between the West, the East and Africa, which is also a gap between rich and poor countries.
Working according to the western model, ENInews was not, for partners from Orthodox cultures ― and certain African ones ― a tool adapted to their culture, at least not for their elites, who preferred church information that was controlled.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, one might have hoped for ENInews, that unique ecumenical label, to become a means for greater understanding, for keeping in touch and building the fellowships of tomorrow…
In search of new models of exchange
Perhaps the model of an international agency, working according to a pyramid logic with an editorial center putting out news to the circumference, has outlived its time. We have to imagine ways of exchange that are decentralized, respectful of regional and linguistic dynamics and needs.
The rapid emergence of social networks, the roles they have played in the Arab revolutions, beg questions. After all, an incident, a gesture, somewhere in the depths of an unknown village, might be the most important and significant information to make known.
From this point of view, the ball is not just in the journalists’ court, but also in that of the churches, NGOs, and people on the ground. It’s for them to decode the wheels of injustice, the signs of hope. In traditional language, one would say: “It’s for them to witness.”
Perhaps today it would be necessary to say “It’s for them to do ecumenical live tweeting.”
Michel Kocher is a journalist, director of Médias-pro in Lausanne, a member of WACC, and former president of ENInews.