CINCINNATI, Ohio — The Rev. Dan Kroger braced for bad news a few weeks ago when he asked a focus group of college students what they thought of the St. Anthony Messenger, the Catholic magazine he publishes in Cincinnati.
Only two of the 12 students had heard of the monthly magazine, and none subscribed to it or read it.
The comments stung, but Kroger wasn't shocked. It was just one more reminder that his 116-year-old magazine, one of the largest religious publications in the country, needed to adapt to a rapidly changing world.
"These are the realities," said Kroger, the magazine's publisher since 2007. "It's either change or die."
The same, stark message is being heard at religious newspapers and magazines across the country as tough economic times and changing demographics threaten their viability and — in some cases — their survival.
Publications as varied as Baptist newspapers in Idaho and Utah, the United Church of Christ's newspaper in Cleveland and a Jewish lifestyle magazine in Canada all have either closed or moved exclusively online in recent months.
The St. Anthony Messenger's circulation has fallen from 350,000 to 250,000 in just five years, and dozens of other publications have experienced similar drops.
Many, including the Messenger, are cutting staff and rethinking their business models.
The problems are similar to those now wreaking havoc on secular newspapers and magazines: less ad revenue, declining circulation and higher costs.
While secular journalists fear cuts to their newsrooms will diminish their role as government watchdogs, Kroger and those in the religious media worry about the erosion of a critical connection between believers and their faith.
Religious publications cover an array of faith-based topics — from charitable giving in a recession to the importance of Scripture in the movie "Knowing" — that is rarely found in the secular media.
They may write about the same subjects as the mainstream press, such as culture and politics, but they do so in the context of religious tradition and teachings.
"Catholic publications form a direct line of communication to Catholics," said Tim Walter, executive director of the Catholic Press Association. "When those publications close ... the biggest threat is the loss of that Catholic voice."
Journalists of other faiths express similar concerns. Without religious publications, they ask, who will tell the stories that matter most to people of faith?
Those in charge of religious publications say they are working hard to keep their papers, magazines and newsletters healthy and relevant.
Like their brethren in the secular media, they may not yet know how they will change. But they know they must.
Kroger still is working out the details, but his goal is to make the magazine and dozens of other publications he oversees healthy and competitive for years to come.
As CEO of St. Anthony Messenger Press, the Cincinnati-based nonprofit that produces the magazine, newsletters, videos and about 40 books a year, Kroger is at the heart of the struggle. The economic and cultural shifts of the past few years have affected every aspect of his business.
Sales are down about 10 percent across all of the company's product lines this year and the magazine lost about 30,000 subscribers last year.
The company, which has an annual budget of $15 million, recently closed its call center, eliminating 44 part-time positions. It's also looking to reduce its 90-person work force through voluntary early retirements.
Kroger knows those are temporary solutions. To survive, he said, the company will have to revamp or eliminate some products, expand its online presence and appeal more to young people.
"We want to be more market-driven," Kroger said.
Similar moves are under way at other religious publications, and the results have been mixed.
"There's a lot of concern out there," Walter said. He said circulation among Catholic publications has fallen from 14 million to 11 million in the past five years and rising postal rates are crushing budgets, since most rely heavily or exclusively on the mail to reach subscribers.
The United Church of Christ decided last year it no longer could sustain the print version of United Church News, which once reached 200,000 readers a week. Ads and circulation only covered 25 percent of the paper's $750,000 budget, with the church picking up the rest.
The paper now is an online-only operation. "We're hoping our ability to create and distribute this news continues," said Gregg Brekke, the Web site's news director. "It's just taking a different form."
The World Jewish Digest, based in Chicago, also went online-only last year after five years of trying to make it as a general interest newspaper geared toward Jews.
The paper once had a staff of 25 and printed 225,000 free papers every month. Now, as the Web site worldjewishdaily.com, it links to news stories written by other media outlets and has one full-time employee and two part-timers.
"There was some early talk of a return to print publication," said Gerald Burstyn, who edited the paper and oversees the Web site. "Now that looks unlikely."
Tricia Hempel, editor of Cincinnati's Catholic Telegraph, has no plans to eliminate the print version of her paper.
But she's hedging her bets.
The Telegraph recently revamped its Web site in hopes of drawing more readers to photo galleries, school events and other content that might not make it into the paper every week. Hempel said the goal is to have as strong and busy a site as possible in case the paper one day must move more or all of its content to cyberspace.
The paper has about 60,000 readers while the online edition draws about 8,000 hits a month, Hempel said.
"I'm still hanging on to the print edition," Hempel said. "The paper is 178 years old and I'd hate to give up the print edition on my watch. On the other hand, I don't want to be stubborn about it."
Kroger said publishers can't afford to be sentimental about print. He said the struggles of religious and secular publications go beyond the lousy economy. They also are about a fundamental cultural and technological shift.
"There's just not that many people reading the printed newspaper," he said.
Brekke said United Church News learned that lesson when its research showed that almost 75 percent of its print subscribers were over 60. "That's just not a model we can sustain or justify," he said.
The move online would be less painful if the money followed, but it usually doesn't. Ad rates are lower and subscription fees are rare, so moving online often means cutting staff and weakening the product.
But Kroger said finding a way to make it work is more important than ever for the religious media because traditional ties to religious institutions are fraying.
"When I was growing up, the church was always there," Kroger said. "You went to the school. You played on the football team. You went to the festivals. You went to church every Sunday.
"It's a different culture today."
He said religious publications, whatever form they ultimately take, can keep people connected even if times have changed.
"Touching hearts and minds, that's what we do," he said. "We want to reach people."