By Mark Pattison
WASHINGTON (CNS) — Tim Walter, executive director of the Catholic Media Association since 2008, is preparing for his exit after heading the organization over the past 13 years.
Truth be told, he’d been preparing for this moment for six years or so.
“We’ve been working on a transition plan for four to six years,” said Walter, who turned 70 in March. “In the last couple of years, we’ve had this conversation with the board of directors. When I was ready to retire, I’d give them three to six months’ notice.”
A lot of CMA members picked up on that during the virtual 2021 Catholic Media Conference June 8-10, when Walter alluded to it being “my last” such convention for Catholic media professionals in the association.
The transition plan consisted early on with “conversations with the sitting president. It’s been an odd situation: ‘How much longer am I going to work?'” Walter told Catholic News Service in a June 24 phone interview.
“It started with the president, J.D. (Long-Garcia of America Media), maybe even farther (back), that we would work on a plan. As long as there was mutual trust and confidence among the parties, we could work on a plan,” Walter said, “rather than hi, goodbye, you work it out.”
Walter had served 19 years for the three Catholic Herald newspapers in Wisconsin: the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, and the dioceses of Madison and Superior. He was circulation manager in Milwaukee and advertising manager for all three publications before being promoted to assistant to the general manager for the trio of papers.
From there, Walter got on the board of directors of the now-defunct Catholic Advertising Network. “That’s how I got acclimated into the CPA’s administrative level,” he said.
“Then Owen McGovern retired and they hired a new executive director and moved the offices from New York to Chicago. That new executive director, Tom Conway, he resigned after 18 months and then I threw my hat into the ring and ended up getting the job.”
It was a four-hour, round-trip train commute from his Milwaukee home, but “what I liked” in taking the job, he said, “is that we had a lot of dedicated and passionate members. What I winced at was the association was broke, and people were disgruntled with leadership at that point in time.”
But to get on a firmer financial footing, Walter said, “we had to win the trust and confidence of the membership. So I pledged accessibility and transparency. The third part was building relationships.”
He added Conway’s approach was that the president should be the face of the organization — but in the CPA’s culture, it’s the executive director who’s the face of the organization, followed by the president, who comes from CPA membership.
Walter said his task was “building confidence in active participants that leadership was on the right track. You do that by being transparent: Here’s what’s working, here’s what’s not working.”
He added, “As we built that, rebuilt that culture, then people started to join. Our member increased by 14% over the first 10 years; I wouldn’t count the last two because of the pandemic. We’ve shown a nice growth on the draw that took place. We built partnerships with a lot of different organizations.”
When Walter took on the role, the CPA was $200,000 in debt. He leaves with the association having $1 million in assets, “and all without a dues increase since 2012.”
He also leaves the organization with a new name: the Catholic Media Association.
“We were already talking about changing the name back in 2010, but our membership didn’t reflect it,” Walter told CNS. “Then through a long relationship with the Catholic Academy of Communicating Arts Professionals, we started hosting their conference for them at our conference. … Eventually, as the CPA got healthy, communications directors’ roles were changing, editors’ roles were changing, and communications directors started joining the CPA.
“Four years ago now, the Catholic Academy closed down, most of their members joined the association,” he said, “and the last two years, three years, we saw that our membership was becoming 13, 15, 18% of the members were not journalists. They were communications specialists from another area.”
Walter continued, “And our members were not just publishing a print product. They were producing online, social media and newsletters. They were becoming more than print journalists and when those changes reflected the members, and membership said that yes, we would like to change our name, we went through the legal process to do that.”
Walter is scaling back his workweek to save the CMA some money and so that he can spend some time mentoring his successor. He’s hopeful that whoever succeeds him will be able to take over the reins well in advance of “awards season” in the organization, “and host the next in-person Catholic Media Conference.”