Fears for church magazine sparks war of words

A WAR of words has been sparked off over the future of Life and Work, the glossy monthly flagship publication of the Church of Scotland.

The 131 year-old magazine finds itself at the centre of fears that it may be closed down, despite claims to the contrary.

In Thursday’s edition of The Scotsman newspaper, John Brown – brother of former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and a former head of PR and marketing at Glasgow City Council –  is quoted describing the Church committee overseeing the publication of Life and Work as “vindictive”.

Meanwhile, in The Herald newspaper, last Monday, he was quoted, saying:  “Life and Work …is losing between 2000 and 3000 readers a year. The next two or three years will be critical.”

Brown was speaking after resigning in May from the Kirk’s publishing committee ahead of it being disbanded to coincide with a decision by the Church’s ruling body, the General Assembly, to shut the Kirk’s book publishing arm, Saint Andrew Press.

Life and Work has a circulation of more than 30,000 and sells at £1.60. It is edited by Lynne McNeil.

Last week’s Herald story prompted the Church to post, on Thursday, a statement on its Facebook page – signed by McNeil and the Rev Mark E Johnstone, convener of the Church’s Mission and Discipleship Council, which now has responsibility for Life and Work.

“Dear Friends – An abridged version of our response to [The Herald article] has appeared in today’s Herald (July 1), but we would like to share its full content with readers to clarify the position but also to demonstrate the strong commitment to the magazine by the Church of Scotland.”

It reads as follows: “We refer to your article …published today (Monday June 28), implying that Life and Work, the editorially independent magazine of the Church of Scotland, was threatened with closure. There are a number of misleading factual inaccuracies that we would wish to correct arising from this article.

“Firstly, there have never been any plans by the Mission and Discipleship Council of the Church of Scotland to close Life and Work or turn it into a little more than a parish newsletter. Indeed as recently as last week, the Council which now directly oversees the business of Life and Work, warmly supported outline plans for the future development of the title.

“Secondly, Life and Work’s fall in circulation is actually below 2,000, representing a year-on-year decline of 5.8 per cent, compared with The Herald’s drop of 6.2 per cent (according to the most recent Audit Bureau of Circulation figures).

“All printed media operates in a challenging marketplace in the 21st century and there are no easy answers – and we all suffer from an ageing and declining readership. Life and Work remains the biggest selling monthly Christian magazine in the United Kingdom and the second biggest-selling (monthly) magazine published in Scotland (second only to The Scots Magazine).

“Thirdly, our advertising has actually grown year-on-year and continues to do so, despite the overall trend of sharp decline. The figures remain commercially confidential, but have bucked the trend of the marketplace with continuous and sustained growth in a difficult business environment.

“Fourthly, the publishing committee, which was dissolved last month, had every opportunity during its five years of life to invest and develop Life and Work and did nothing to halt its decline.

“Fifthly, Life and Work is actually 131 years-old, not 128 years-old, having been founded in January 1879, by Professor Archibald Charteris.

“Sixthly, Life and Work continues to deliver a six-figure surplus for the Church and has never been in deficit. Only last month, the General Assembly – the annual business meeting of the Church of Scotland – reaffirmed the editorial independence of Life and Work and approved a report which called for investment in the title over the next two years. This is a clear and serious statement of commitment to the magazine.

“We are also astonished that a statement from the Church on this matter was not included in this article, which was jointly prepared by the Life and Work team and the media team of the Church of Scotland following an approach from the reporter by-lined. This statement would have clearly corrected many of the points that we now have to raise.”

In a letter in The Herald on Friday, John Brown wrote: “The publishing committee (on which I was a co-opted member for its last two years) took several decisions to improve the magazine’s finances and marketing but some were never followed up as management and editorial responsibilities did not rest with the committee.

“The ‘six-figure surplus’ Life and Work makes for the church is a paper profit of around £120,000. There would be no profit if hard-pressed congregations and church departments did not take – and pay for – minister vacancy and promotional ads in the magazine.

“A ‘marketing push’ to stem declining circulation is not enough. If the church is serious about engaging its membership and the wider community, its communications in print and online need a complete and co-ordinated overhaul, including Life and Work and the church’s archaic website.”