Further to my post yesterday about the future of Church House Publishing, I said that there would be a ‘part two’ in order to cover my questions regarding the new media side of CHP’s work. So here it is!
I think the New Media side of CHP’s work is slightly different and I do want to continue the examination of recent developments by taking a good look at this side of things, however before I do that – a quick bit of history for those that don’t know.
CHP entered the world of new media in the late nineties. To say it happened ‘by accident’ wouldn’t be correct but one might say that CHP and the AC were not prepared for the success of all that was to follow at that point. Tim Anderson, an IT journalist, developer and non-stipendiary minister, approached them with the idea of publishing a software product for the planning and production of liturgy which they took up and published around 1997. Visual Liturgy, as it came to be known, took off in a way that few had expected and very quickly became the de-facto liturgical software for the Church of England.
Of course, since then Visual Liturgy has seen various versions. It has been published in other markets and, over the years, it has been a success story for the church. This isn’t me blowing my own trumpet because I was involved. Very little of that success was down to me. It’s not perfect either. I know various things we might have done better and differently, but I think it’s very fair to say that it did well and it deserved to do well.
With the publication of Common Worship, came the Common Worship website, and (if you like) the start of a new media portfolio of work for CHP. The work grew to the point where it needed dedicated staff and I was CHP’s first New Media Manager. We established an e-publishing policy for the Archbishops’ Council. Since then, the Crockford website, the revamped CHP website, Fresh Expressions DVDs, lectionary downloads for calendars plus numerous other smaller projects have all come around. Since I left to be ordained, the team has continued to build on the work I was involved in – including the publication of the subscription-based Visual Liturgy Live.
Three important things to remember in regard to CHP’s new media work are that, firstly, there was never a large central team. There’s never been more than two people involved at CHP. All these things happened through paying a number of freelancers and specialist IT companies for their services and, crucially, prevailing upon the good graces of a huge number of willing volunteers from the church who were keen to help and see things like VL really grow. In that sense, there were not huge ‘fixed costs’ like the book side.
Secondly, a very important thing to remember is that new media products are not like books in that they hang around. While you publish a book, sell it and forget about it (until it needs to be re-printed), software and websites take constant supervision. You have to deal with technical support enquiries, you have to keep the flow of information up-to-date. As time goes on, that requirement gets more and more demanding. You start with one project and things are okay. By the time you’re on project five or six, you’re looking after all of those projects (still) whilst also trying to produce new things. It’s exponential, in that sense, in terms of staff time and resources.
Thirdly, the final thing to bear in mind is that the staff CHP have in new media are specialists. While I know roughly what lots of my colleagues did ‘on the book side’, I couldn’t tell you in great detail. Indeed, they had a rough idea of what we did but I doubt they could describe the detail of our day-to-day work either. Some skills cross-over (like parts of the editorial process) but many do not. We were IT project managers and, in that sense, very odd fellows to find in a publishing company.
Turning to the future of CHP, the recent press release that I talk about at length in part one of this blog post makes no specific mention of the new media work and that has me worried. It does say that ‘liturgy’ will continue to be one of the key areas for publication but my questions on this side of things are these:
- Does Hymns Ancient & Modern have a staff compliment that includes new media specialists? In short, are they going to be able to handle managing a software project like Visual Liturgy, a subscription website like Crockford and all the rest?
- If they don’t or can’t acquire such specialists (and HA&M may not want to if they are only employed for CHP’s benefit – that will not be cost effective), what will happen to Visual Liturgy and the other new media projects?
Clearly, HA&M do have their own electronic products, not least the Church Times website and other things. What I don’t know is what set-up they have in-house for such things and what they buy in as services. Can they handle that ‘exponential’ increase in project management and the administration of existing projects alongside whatever they are doing for their own projects?
If there isn’t a central hub and the capacity to handle CHP’s potential requirements, then it seems to me highly possible that the new media side of work for CHP and the Archbishops’ Council risks being cancelled entirely because HA&M don’t take it on and the AC don’t retain their staff to do it within their (new and much smaller) CHP command structure.
Needless to say, the demise of these products (if it happened) would be a great shame… not least for the several thousand people (including me) who make use of Visual Liturgy to plan church services week by week, who make use of the Crockford website and the various other things that CHP do either online or in software. I can’t imagine the Liturgical Commission would be best pleased about VL dying either, since a lot of their control of the texts in electronic formats could potentially be lost in such a move.
This is not the apocalypse by any means. Firstly, it’s important to remember that the Church of England website is unaffected by all this and I don’t expect VL’s future will have any kind of impact on the Common Worship texts that can be found on that website but, ultimately, the texts there are not very usable – certainly not compared to Visual Liturgy. That version of the texts is, if you like, a library to reference and dip into. VL is a tool.
Secondly, if my doom-mongering does come to pass and VL does die in all this, then there clearly is demand and a will for such a tool amongst clergy and other church workers and I’m sure it would re-emerge, perhaps as an open-source project held together by many of those willing volunteers that sustained the original VL. However, VL is solely owned by the Archbishops’ Council so if the rights can’t be negotiated in some way, it might mean starting from scratch or, at the very least, working some kind of relationship to ensure that the wider church at large gets what it wants (a software product or website with texts to use and plan from) and the AC and Liturgical Commission get what they want (some form of control, particularly in regard to the dissemination of the texts in accurate and helpful forms).
There are some important questions here and some possible implications for all of us as the wider church. As Dave Walker said in commenting on my post about CHP yesterday, ‘the debate around this needs to happen’.