ALEXANDRIA, La. (BP)–A commentator compiled a parody about why people continue to read newsprint. He listed: doing the crossword puzzles; reading the funnies every day; finding out who died; reading about the school board and public library board actions; doing the Jumble; working the WonderWord puzzle.
“I suppose that some of those things may still take place online, but I doubt that those rituals can be replaced,” he wrote. “I’m still having a tough time getting over the reduction in the Sunday funnies from two sections to only one.” The writer is a median adult because 30-somethings don’t even remember seeing two pages of Sunday funnies.
The world of newsprint publishing is declining. David Moore, a writer with MediaLife, says, “Over the past decade, newspaper readership has usually declined by one-half percent per year.” The Pew Foundation report on the State of the Media 2007 stated that “the transformation facing journalism is epochal, as momentous as the invention of the television or the telegraph, perhaps on the order of the printing press itself. The effect is more than just audiences migrating to new delivery systems. Technology is redefining the role of the citizen — endowing the individual with more responsibility and command of over how he or she consumes information — and that role is only beginning to be understood.”
State Baptist papers have not been exempt from the loss of circulation experienced by other newsprint systems. Down 22 percent in the last decade, editors are scrambling to redefine who they are and their publication’s future ministry role. They all realize that with the decline in circulation comes the loss of income and more importantly influence.
The circulation decline over the last decade has birthed a rethinking about the purpose of state newspapers. Bob Terry has been an editor of a state paper for more than three decades. He says that his paper, The Alabama Baptist, has redefined itself to become a resource for Christian living and his state’s primary resource for telling the mission story.
During the 1980s many people viewed Baptist journalists like secular journalists looking for a Baptist Watergate. Some viewed their journalistic role as that of a convention watchdog snooping under every rock to find some story angle that tantalizes Baptist readers.
If Baptist journalists were ever the convention watchdogs, then the pit bull of the past has morphed into a golden retriever. Today’s antagonism has moved to the blogsphere and the current venue of Baptist papers is more of a reflection of convention loyalty and statesmanship.
The current state of the Baptist papers reflects a mood across the landscape of Southern Baptist life. Southern Baptists are resisting the notion of constant fighting and want to know the truth about what is going on in Baptist life. Baptist Press provides a synopsis of the various 2007 state convention meetings. This year vigorous debate occurred but without exception, the state conventions ended with renewed passion for the mission of reaching their states and the world with the Gospel.
Baptist journalists have changed to reflect the mood of their respective states. To do so, they didn’t have to lose their integrity or objectivity. Today, they are much better at telling the story about an event and focusing on what Baptists are doing when they are on mission with God.
Also, Baptist editors are recognizing the change occurring in the delivery systems for news. The Internet does give people instant access to all kinds of information. With the Internet, Baptists don’t have to wait a week or a month to find out what is going on in Baptist life. The number of households with Internet access has exploded exponentially since 2000. The Pew Internet and American Life Project has reported that 71 percent of American households have an Internet connection, up from 50 percent in 2001. That only leaves only 31 million households offline. Many of those will come online when technology for high-speed Internet access is less dependent on wires and open to satellite communications.
In addition, economics contributes to the change among the state papers. The double-digit postal increase of 2007 will be repeated. The question is not “if” but “when.” The cost of printing/production will increase in the course of the next few months. There are only a limited number of paper suppliers in the United States and they are owned by foreign companies that are trading on the global market. Personnel costs are not slowing down. If a state paper curbs the cost of personnel by outsourcing, there is the risk of poor timeliness and inappropriate terminology that is incompatible with Baptist sensibilities.
Will state newspapers continue to adjust to the future? Can they reverse the paid subscription hemorrhage? That remains to be seen. Will state conventions continue to invest Cooperative Program dollars in antiquated news systems or gravitate to digital formats and glossy direct mail magazines that tell the story of Baptists on mission with God?
What will the next 10 years look like? No one has a prophet on retainer. However there are some clear indicators on the horizon and some state papers are already engaged in implementing some progressive ideas.
MORE TARGETED CIRCULATION
State conventions must drill down into their databases and ask who is receiving the state paper. In the future, the focus will be on delivery to the church lay leadership. Less value will be placed on sending papers to people who don’t really want Baptist news delivered to their mailbox. The church leaders will be determined by their selection to serve their local church in a leadership role. Gleaning from the Annual Church Profile the contact information of local church leaders, state conventions want these leaders to receive the state periodical.
Along with this change will be items of local information that interest local church leaders. Steve Davis, executive director/editor of the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana uses the space beside his column to list all the churches without pastors. That is a winning idea because on any given Monday, pastors want to see who went where and what is open.
Like all other areas of ministry, Baptists are learning we cannot do what we are supposed to do alone. Collaboration is the hot word in business and ministry circles that describes how many sources of information come together to accomplish a common goal. Some collaboration is crossing state lines. For years Kentucky Baptists’ Western Recorder has printed a customized version of their state paper for some new work state conventions. A new work state saves a huge amount of money on pre-press development and Bluegrass Baptists minister to a broader number of people.
The digital world of photography has changed how editors tell their story. No longer are words sufficient. Picking up a periodical, people prefer snippets of information not research. A photo can help an editor cut the length of a story by 30 to 50 percent. With the heightened expectation for more photos comes a higher grade of paper. A photo on coated 60-pound paper “pops” with color. A photo on newsprint is one-dimensional and usually distorted. It is possible to make good use of photos on newsprint but most state papers cannot afford the graphic designer who can make that happen.
Baptists grow weary of fluff. They become hungry for reflective content that touches the heart and simultaneously empowers the believer with deeper understanding of biblical truth. A comparison of state papers shows that for some periodicals the idea of taking on issues is not their forte. However, papers such as the Florida Baptist Witness or the Southern Baptist Texan have made the decision to openly describe and give biblical understanding to the significant moral and theological issues of the day. This practice probably will not increase their number of paid subscribers but their constituency has a deeper respect for their content.
Social media is the hot term in today’s media circles. While younger, more tech-savvy church leaders have relished the idea, the Web has not ushered in the Kingdom. However, print and web must learn to work together in a cohesive communications stream to Baptists. The story remains the same that Baptists are on mission with God to reach the world with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus.
State periodicals have a powerful role in the future of Southern Baptists. The secular media is not interested in printing our stories of faith and transformation. Healthy churches are led by people who have a vision of God at work beyond their Jerusalem. The publication produced by the state coupled with a robust Internet presence provides the window of information about God’s work through His people called Southern Baptists.
John L. Yeats is the recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention, director of communications for the Louisiana Baptist Convention and editor of LBCLive, the state convention’s missions magazine. He previously served as editor of two state Baptist papers, the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger and the Indiana Baptist.