A Letter to Our Readers

Dear Commonweal Reader,

It has been a tumultuous 2008, to say the least, with economic gloom, chaos in the financial markets, and a contentious election season. I’d like to take this annual opportunity to tell you a little about how Commonweal is faring as we conclude the year. Thankfully, although we’re as exhausted as anyone else, Commonweal does not need a bailout. In fact, aside from the general economy, the signs of the times for us are rather encouraging. After a quick overview of financial realities, I’ll give you some reasons why 2009 will, with your help, be another year where Commonweal takes some significant steps forward. 

Like every business, Commonweal is beginning 2009 with a healthy sense of realism. Our annual budget of just $1.5 million has little room for error, and during tough times for the economy and the stock market, we feel the pinch quickly.

Commonweal operates as a nonprofit foundation, but more than two-thirds of our revenue each year comes from subscriptions and advertising. The rest is provided by more than 2,000 generous Commonweal Associates (more on them later) and income from our modest endowment. While subscriptions are holding up well, we’re beginning to see some cyclical slowdown in our advertising, and our endowment’s recent performance in the markets has, unfortunately, been about as good as your 401(k). So we’re planning for a tight year on the budget front, even by Commonweal’s frugal standards. For example, we’ve slowed down some plans for a bit of additional office space to accommodate our cheerful but often cramped staff and volunteers.

Even before the economic picture got so bleak, we made plans to raise the annual subscription price of Commonweal from $49 to $55, effective January 1. We hate to increase prices, especially with the economy in recession, but we really have no choice. Over the past ten years, Commonweal’s subscription price has gone up only 11 percent, while overall inflation has risen 34 percent, and our postage costs have more than doubled. We need a little additional help from our loyal readers to keep our budget in balance.

For your additional $6 you will, I am confident, be receiving an even better Commonweal. We expect to extend our coverage of politics and our attention to contemporary theology, and next November’s 85th anniversary commemorative issue will be (as is usual on these occasions) filled with extra pages of contributions by many of your favorite Commonweal writers. We are very lucky. There aren’t many magazines that can boast of a roster of talent that includes Charles R. Morris on the economy, Andrew Delbanco on higher education, Barbara Dafoe Whitehead on social issues, former Tablet Editor John Wilkins on Jewish-Christian dialogue, philosopher Charles Taylor on secularism, Peter Steinfels and Robert Bellah on Charles Taylor (!), Peggy Steinfels, Denis Donoghue, and Patricia Hampl on books, E. J. Dionne on religion and politics, Robert Egan, SJ, on the ordination of women, and Luke Timothy Johnson on biblical theology. I could go on. Many more contributors deserve to be mentioned (and thanked!). In the issue you hold in your hands, long-time Commonweal (and Atlantic Monthly) contributor Paul Elie takes an in-depth look at where “Catholic” writing might be going. And then there are our exceptional columnists and reviewers. Every reader has his or her favorite writer, and every reader has a writer with whom he or she likes to disagree. That’s what makes a journal of opinion something more than a coffee-table ornament.

Another reason I am so confident about the quality and future of the magazine is our exceptional, and increasingly youthful, editorial staff. The talents and distinctive perspectives of Associate Editors Grant Gallicho and Matthew Boudway are becoming better known to readers, both in the magazine and on our Web site and blog (commonwealmagazine.org/blog). The literary and theater criticism of Assistant Editor Mollie Wilson O’Reilly brings a strong—and prolific—new voice to our pages. We are especially pleased that once again there is a woman on Commonweal’s editorial staff. (Business Manager Sandy Taylor and production editor Tiina Aleman have, of course, long been mainstays of our operation.) And don’t forget the ageless Patrick Jordan, Commonweal’s peerless managing editor.

In the past two years, thanks to a generous foundation grant, we’ve also had the benefit of a constant stream of college students and recent graduates to serve as interns. Their presence in the office not only livens up the place considerably, but keeps us in touch with what committed Catholic college students are thinking and doing. They also give us a great pool of potential future staffers—for example, our multitalented marketing coordinator Nicole Benevenia, who started here as an intern while still at Boston College.

I am also encouraged by the growth and commitment of the Commonweal Foundation’s board. This month we are welcoming three new members, New Yorker Paul Saunders, Minnesotan Tim Walsh, and former editor Peter Steinfels, to join eleven other dedicated advisers who help us plan for the future, review major decisions, and (not least) raise money. (A complete list is at commonwealmagazine.org/board.) I’m especially happy that the board has formed an active development committee, led by Jane O’Connell, that is off and running with several important projects.

One of those efforts is now ready for unveiling: Our 85th Anniversary dinner on Monday, October 19, 2009. Four years ago on our 80th birthday, our first “Commonweal Conversations” event was such a rousing success it took all of us by surprise. (Upon reflection, it shouldn’t have: Gathering three hundred passionate, talkative Commonweal readers, writers, and fans in one room by definition makes for a raucous and memorable night.) That event’s hit speaker and the first recipient of our Catholic in the Public Square Award, Mark Shields of PBS’s NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, will return to present the award to Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics and a long-time reader and contributor. So run and mark your calendar for next October 19 in New York, and watch for further announcements on special guests and tickets.

There’s still more to be done next year. We are hoping to develop and release a major expansion of the Commonweal Web site, with more daily updates and deeper resources for teachers and students. (Did you know, by the way, that paid print subscribers get free Web-site access?) We also want to expand our outreach to undergraduate and graduate schools, with more free subscriptions, more Commonweal speakers and conferences on campus, and more support for theology and religion faculty who want Commonweal as a teaching resource. To do this and more, all it takes is a commitment from you, our readers.

One subscriber recently wrote to us and said, “You’re doing a great thing—Commonweal is a ‘personal trainer’ for the church!” I must say I had never thought of my job in quite that way. But it does illustrate that for our readers (including you, I suspect), Commonweal isn’t simply a magazine that they enjoy reading, but a support for their faith, and a valued connection with a larger community of committed Catholics. If Commonweal plays something like that role in your life, and you want to pitch in and help in 2009 and beyond, here are some easy ways to support our future.

•  If you’re already an Associate, please consider increasing your gift, or including us in your will or estate plan. (Even a small bequest makes a big impact on a modest operation like ours.)

•  If you’re not yet an Associate, please join us at commonwealmagazine.org/associates. Your tax-deductible membership contribution, whether large or small, is significant to our future.

•  Tear out the Christmas gift card bound into this issue and give Commonweal to a friend, a pastor, or a college student. If each long-time Commonweal reader would recruit just one more subscriber, our financial situation would improve dramatically.

•  And of course, please mark your calendar for that 85th Anniversary celebration in New York on Monday, October 19, 2009. Everyone is welcome. If we have to rent a bigger room, we will!

If you have any questions, or know of other ways you can help, please drop me a note at editors [at] commonwealmagazine.org. Thank you for all that you already do, and, in advance, for what you’ll do in the future.

With best wishes,

Paul Baumann

Published in the 2008-11-21 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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