The new Leaven: For once, it is all about you

by Anita McSorley
anita.mcsorley@theleaven.org

We here at The Leaven have a confession to make.

We’re old. We’re tired.

And up until now, we were so not cool.

Now Father Mark might argue that last point. He’s always texted like a digital native. He’s down with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.

But if he lived with tweens or teens, as most of us do, he would have known better.

They would have told him.

Furthermore, we’re also not quite as good at long-range planning as we might be.

You see, we worked very hard all summer long to create something new and exciting for our readers.

Imagine our surprise when, at the last possible moment, we discovered that we would need your help to make it work.

Our first task here at The Leaven each summer, when our switch to biweekly production lets us come up for air, is to analyze the efforts of the previous year.

The second is to set goals for the upcoming one.

This year, we knew just where to start. Although far from digital natives (those who, like our kids, have grown up with computers, cell phones, digital cameras, etc.), we use those resources daily.

And we knew that while we were constantly going to other people’s Web sites, we rarely gave much thought to our own.

But that immediately raised another question: Why exactly does a newspaper need to worry about its Web presence? Aren’t they two different animals?

If it walks like a duck…

That’s when we decided to take a good long look at exactly what it is we do here at The Leaven. Despite the fact that you get the paper we produce every week, that’s not as easy to articulate as you might think.

It’s hard to understand, if you don’t work in the chancery, how different we are from other church office employees, most of whom minister or administer in some fashion or another. But here’s a clue.

During the recent disaster planning process undertaken at the chancery, we were told to imagine this worst-case scenario: On the weekend, when no one was in the building, the church offices had been entirely destroyed — say, by a tornado.

Rumor has it that we weren’t the only office that failed to tear up at the prospect of a chancery obliterated.

But I bet we were the only ones already counting the awards we might win with our coverage of the event.

So, in a sense, we are much like the old-time journalists — adrenaline junkies, writing to deadlines, and always chasing the big story.

On the other hand, we’ve long relied on our exceptional photographers to tell the stories words couldn’t. And we’ve been tinkering with slide shows and video long enough to know that our ambitions don’t end with print.

That, we believe, is a good thing, because print is not the medium of choice for several generations of Americans — generations that just happen to represent the future of the church in the United States.

In the end, we decided that we might always be journalists, and on our best days, we’re evangelists.

But most of the time, we’re something much simpler.

We’re storytellers.

And the stories that we tell are yours.

Catholicism in surround sound

Where does that leave us? In a way, freed from the constraints of print. Although we have for many long years tried our best to tell the stories of our faith through words alone, perhaps no other institution in the world excites the senses like the Roman Catholic Church.

Couldn’t we all rattle off the top of our heads a dozen sights and sounds — even smells and tastes — that we associate with our ancient faith? Indeed, for cradle Catholics, all those sensory experiences have been subtly but indelibly woven into the tapestry of our lives.

No, we have not yet discovered ways to recreate and “publish” the smells and tastes of Catholicism. But with the aid of new technology, we do believe we’ve told some old stories in a very new way.

These stories are waiting for you right now on our new Web site at: www. theleaven.com.

Take a three-minute glimpse into the work and world of the Sisters, Servants of Mary, or travel to World Youth Day in Australia with young adult consultant Kimberly Rode.

Join archdiocesan liturgist Michael Podrebarac for a quiet meditation during this month of Mary, or view a playful account by Leaven reporter Joe Bollig of his trip to the archdiocesan youth camp in Williamsburg.

And there will be more. So, if you like what you see, either visit often or be sure and register for the e-mail alerts that will notify you to the posting of a new video, slide show, or edition of The Leaven. And don’t forget to send our link to your friends, so we really can take our message, as the directive goes, to the ends of the earth.

Everything old will be new again

As anyone who has ever started a home repair project will appreciate, every attempted project led to another. So the early summer planning sessions that helped identify some new opportunities for us led quickly to a brief Web survey of visitors to our old site.

When survey results confirmed we were headed in the right direction, we quickly realized we couldn’t post cool and exciting new things on an old and boring site.

Enter Darin Hansen, St. Agnes school-teacher by day, webmaster by night. Darin gave our site a sleek new look in an appropriately clerical black and white, so as to better highlight our photography. The new site is easy to use and includes complete copies of back issues of The Leaven, starting with the current volume year. We will add previous volumes as time allows.

Once we started cooking on the Web site redesign, of course, Leaven designer Todd Habiger couldn’t possibly live for another year with the current design of the regular paper.

His goal, he said, was to better utilize the new color capacity we’d gained on additional pages, make the calendar more user-friendly, and increase the general readability of the whole paper.

And by the way, could he buy a whole new set of type fonts to make that happen?

Next, writer Kara Hansen and ad manager Jennifer Siebes — the youngest members of our staff — decided we needed a faster way to touch base with our readers on both traditional and nontraditional story ideas.

Presto! Our Facebook presence was born. (Look for us under “The Leaven”).

Finally, as we kicked around how we could tell our stories in new ways, it brought to mind old ways that had been particularly successful. Many years ago here at The Leaven, we introduced a feature called “Priests’ hobbies,” which we discontinued after featuring all the priests willing to chat with us.

Since we’ve gained a whole new crop of (unsuspecting) candidates since that time, however, we’re bringing back that series and will kick it off in a couple of weeks when we explore the hobbies of our new chancellor, Father Gary Pennings.

Calling in the chips

But then came the bad news. To accomplish all our grand plans, we wouldn’t need only a new Web site or a new typeface. We would need a whole host of people to extend our reach — and in some cases, to bring to the table talents we just didn’t have.

Like those of Deacon Matthew Schiffelbein. A jazzman of the first order, this soon-to-be priest of the archdiocese recorded a half dozen sax solos for use in our slide shows, two of which are already on the new site.

But Deacon Schiffelbein was only the first to be co-opted into our enthusiasms.

Dana Nearmyer and his wonderful camp folks, Kimberly Rode, Michael Podrebarac . . . they all got sucked into our maelstrom.

Things got so bad that when reporter Joe Bollig learned that one of the new chancellor’s hobbies was photography, he warned Father Pennings to hide his light under a bushel, lest he be pressed into service.

And still the monster we had created cried, “Feed me!”

Get your press pass here

That’s when we began to realize that in an archdiocese this size, there were way too many stories suitable to the new technology for a staff of six to cover — even with a little help from our friends.

So now we’re appealing to complete strangers.

Ever wonder why we didn’t have a photographer at a church event you attended? Well, now we will: you!

Musicians, haven’t you ever been tempted to light folks’ hair on fire with some really cool covers of traditional church hymns? Why not brandish your musical genius through The Leaven?

Students, are you looking for ways to stand out to a college admissions board or in that first job interview? What better way than to whip out your clips from an award-winning newspaper that goes into more than 50,000 homes?

In short, if you ever suspected that somewhere, somehow, you missed your true calling, take it from us.

You did. You were always destined to be a card-carrying member of the Catholic press.

Lucky for you, it’s not too late.

Just do it!

On our new Web site — www. theleaven.com — you will find a button labeled: Contact us. Drag the menu down to click on either Photo Submissions or Music Submissions. Read the guidelines carefully. Then, next time you surprise yourself with either your musical or photographic genius, share the wealth.

We’ll start posting the best of the photo submissions as soon as we have enough to fill a slide show, but music submissions will probably await a particular need. Musicians can expect some quick, brief feedback, though, so they’ll know they’re on the right track.

Although we’ve identified a need for photogs and musicians here, don’t let that discourage you from offering other talents. Since writing is sort of what he pays us for, the archbishop pretty much expects us to do that ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we’re not always interested in encouraging young — or even not-so-young — talent. Show us your stuff, and we’ll at least be able to offer some helpful advice.

And we can definitely use folks who know more than we do about this convergence media stuff, if only to pick their brains.

So where does that leave us? Eagerly checking our e-mail boxes from this day forward, ready and willing to welcome on board all those caring to collaborate with us on spreading the good news.

Unless, of course, all that disaster planning pays off sooner rather than later.

Then we’ll be expecting you at 126th and Parallel before the sirens fade!

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