Mass Appeal: Pope’s Popularity a Blessing for Media


Mass Appeal: Pope’s Popularity a Blessing for Media

The ‘Francis Effect’ Proves a Boom to Niche Publishers, Broadcasters


Liam Moloney

Updated March 11, 2014 2:58 p.m. ET

Pope Francis is in big demand. From video broadcasts to dedicated papal magazines with centerspread pull-out posters, Liam Moloney reports on the insatiable appetite across the globe for Pope Francis. Photo: Getty Images

VATICAN CITY—Francis mania is lifting up the religious media.

As Pope Francis approaches the first anniversary of his election this week , his popularity is generating a boom for a media niche that rarely gathers much notice.

“We are just working night and day to satisfy demand,” said Monsignor Dario Vigano, head of the Vatican’s broadcaster, Vatican Television Center, or CTV, which shadows the pope and supplies papal newscasts and images for both Catholic and lay broadcasters. Revenue at CTV leaped 40% in 2013, as broadcasters as far afield as Tanzania now want the recordings of the pope’s weekly audiences. The windfall has allowed CVT to splash out on more modern cameras and a new €1.8 million ($2.45 million) control room.

Last week—on Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent — Mondadori MN.MI -0.68%Arnoldo Mondadori Editore S.p.A.Italy: Milan 1.47 -0.01-0.68% March 11, 2014 5:30 pm Volume : 203,757 P/E Ratio N/AMarket Cap€363.53 Million Dividend Yield N/ARev. per Employee €356,18103/11/14 Pope Francis’s Popularity a Bl…More quote details and news »MN.MI inYour ValueYour Change Short position SpA, the publishing house controlled by the family of media magnate-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi, launched a new weekly dedicated to the pope. The magazine, Il Mio Papa, which will initially cost 50 euro cents a copy, will include a pullout centerfold with Francis quotes and will print three million copies for its first month of publication.

A woman shows the cover of the Italian edition of Vanity Fair magazine, dedicated to Pope Francis, whom they elected Man of the Year for 2013. AP

Interest in the papacy exploded after Pope Benedict XVI’s surprise resignation last year, and it carried through the conclave that elected Pope Francis. But Pope Francis’s heartwarmingly human—and telegenic—gestures, such as washing prisoners’ feet on Good Friday and taking selfies with fans in St. Peter’s Square, have kept interest high.

“We really have seen a ‘Francis effect,’” said Dennis Coday, editor of the National Catholic Reporter in Kansas City, Mo., whose monthly online page views have soared 44% since Pope Francis’s election.

A rise in subscriptions and newsstand sales allowed the Tablet, a British Catholic magazine, to spend more than €7,000 to send its Rome-based correspondent on the papal plane to cover World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro last July. It has also hired a stringer to cover Latin America, the home turf of the Argentine pontiff.

“We wouldn’t have normally done the Brazil trip as it is colossally expensive,” said editor Catherine Pepinster.

Pope Francis’s huge cross-over appeal also has drawn the mainstream media. He was put on the cover of Time magazine as 2013 Person of the Year, and he was the first pontiff to make the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. A Rolling Stone spokeswoman said that the pope issue, which was in January, sold above average.

The warm, grandfatherly style of the 77-year-old Pope Francis not only contrasts with the more retiring and austere profile of Pope Benedict but also plays well in an age when high-profile figures speak directly to their audiences. Pope Francis has picked up the trend started by Pope John Paul II, the charismatic, globe-trotting pontiff who was an actor in his youth and delighted reporters with punchy one-liners.

“John Paul II was someone who spoke to the media, while Benedict addressed the Church,” says Francesco Siliato, who lectures sociology of communications at Milan’s Polytechnic. “Francis goes straight to the common people.”

As a result, Vatican-owned media that enjoy special access to the pontiff have an edge.

At Avvenire, the paper owned by the Italian bishops’ conference, circulation rose 5% last year, a rare bright spot on a dire Italian media landscape. And Catholic magazine Famiglia Cristiana launched a new weekly called “Credere, la gioia della fede” (Belief, the joy of faith) distributed to church-goers; it now sells nearly 60,000 copies, pushed up in part by increased attendance at Mass in Italy, according to general manager Maurizio D’Adda.

La Civilta’ Cattolica, an obscure Jesuit journal, had to order extra printings of an edition last year featuring an interview with the pope. The publication usually breaks even in its annual accounts but it expects to post a profit for 2013, said Rev. Antonio Spadaro, managing editor of the Jesuit publication. He is considering opening more space to advertisers after a surge in demand, and launched the English edition of a book based on the papal interview last week.

Pope Francis’s appeal is also seen in social media. Catholic News Service, a division of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says its number of Facebook followers is up tenfold in the last year. A book of Pope Francis’s November manifesto, in which he criticized economic inequality, and two volumes of compilations of his “Simple Wisdom,” which are excerpts from his weekly audience talks, are selling briskly, said Catholic News Service. The books are published by the USCCB.

Positive comments about the pope on Twitter have outnumbered negative ones by five to one so far in his papacy, according to Pew Research Center figures released last week. By contrast, 70% of tweets about Pope Benedict were negative during the year before he stepped down.

Meanwhile, the Pope’s Twitter account, including a Latin version, has 12.2 million followers.

Pope Francis’s human touch has made him popular world-wide and improved the fortunes of Vatican-owned media. filippo monteforte/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Write to Liam Moloney at


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