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Baptist Press, at 60-year mark, continues to expand its reach

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When Texas pastor Bart Barber shared the story of church members countering anti-Christian graffiti scrawled on their property with messages of God’s love, he was surprised how fast the news spread following an interview with Baptist Press. The nearby ABC television station affiliate called to request an interview that allowed the story to be told to a secular audience.

“Where on earth did you hear about this?” Barber asked the reporter. He was told an editor read of the lead on Baptist Press, an explanation repeated throughout the week as reports of the story came in from contacts in other cities and states, all generated by the early BP article by writer Greg Tomlin.

After the interview, Barber attended a local Rotary Club meeting where a Methodist minister commented on the incident, saying, “I read about it online through Baptist Press.” With his computer programmed to search news relating to their town, Google News passed the BP release along that morning to the minister.

“Baptist Press is a valuable and widely read news service that carries the Baptist story and witness much further than I had realized before,” Barber said.

The need for such a service was recognized by Southern Baptists attending the convention’s annual meetings as early as 1919 when messengers adopted a resolution calling for a denominational newsgathering service. “It is not enough to have the truth,” they declared. “We must transmit the truth.” However, a lack of funding delayed the venture for several decades.

After state Baptist paper editors pressed SBC leaders to offer more news, the Baptist Sunday School Board began offering vignettes of Southern Baptist life through their Baptist Bulletin Service. When C.E. Bryant filled a publicity vacancy at the Executive Committee, responsibility for telling the Southern Baptist story was transferred and a news service was underway by 1946. Clearly following the abbreviated references to Associated Press as AP and United Press International as UPI, Baptist Press utilized BP as a point of reference, prompting a secretary to remark, “We’ll have to wait and see whether it beeps or burps.”

Immediately, both Baptist and secular newspapers made use of the professional content. Over the span of 60 years, that reach has extended to more than a million readers accessing BP through state Baptist papers and 1.44 million unique Internet sessions every month as news and feature articles are accessed around the clock.

“Most reporters who cover the Southern Baptist Convention have the Baptist Press wire on their ‘favorites’ list. If they don’t, they should,” said Berta Delgado-Young of the communications staff at the Dallas-area Prestonwood Baptist Church. A longtime religion writer for the Dallas Morning News, Delgado-Young said, “Baptist Press provides timely, reliable stories that are very helpful in keeping up with the SBC. In the years that I covered the convention, along with my sources, the BP wire was critical in keeping abreast of what was going on in Baptist circles.”

Once the ministry got off the ground, it was hailed in a convention report in 1947 as “a unifying and promotional stimulant — uniting the brethren in fellowship through information and promoting through sharing of new ideas.” Soon, Baptist Press was turning out more than 500 news stories a year delivered by mail to about 100 Baptist and secular newspapers. The addition of regional reporters and a branch office in Washington, D.C., provided more depth to the news service and faster dispatches.

Directed to “conduct the general work of publicity in cooperation with the other agencies and institutions of the Convention,” the Executive Committee often faced a balancing act between credible news reporting and heavy-handed editing to avoid a fear of damaging Baptist fellowship. At times, secular newspapers broke news involving Southern Baptist ministries that preferred to keep some of the negative details from the constituency. One of the earliest tests came in 1958 when 13 professors were fired at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. BP turned to state Baptist editors and seminary communicators to report the facts, not opinions, the late Executive Committee staffer Albert McClellan recounted in his book on the Executive Committee.

Nearly 50 years later, Southern Seminary Communications Vice President Lawrence Smith describes Baptist Press as a vital service both to Southern Baptists and for Southern Baptists. “BP is a means by which local church members can keep up with what’s happening with the entities they support. It also provides a window through which the secular media and the general public can see what Southern Baptists are doing and thinking,” he added, calling the news service “a significant voice in the public square.”

The development of a bureau system of news coverage by Southern Baptist entities increased the frequency and speed of releases as professional journalists in Nashville, Atlanta, Richmond, Dallas, Memphis and Washington, D.C., produced articles relating SBC ministries. In 1979, BP distributed 1,040 news stories and 165 features to 450 religious and secular news media.

The news operation of Baptist Press and public relations function of the Executive Committee were separated in 1990. “Baptist Press has as much or more independence today than in all of its years of operations,” stated Will Hall, vice president for news services. As the officially chartered news service of the Southern Baptist Convention, BP now distributes an array of news and feature articles throughout the week. Notable personalities and experts on specific subjects offer regular first-person columns, including opinion pieces from Phil Boatwright, The Movie Reporter, on pop culture, Henry Blackaby on marketplace ministries and Howard Dayton of Crown Financial Ministries on stewardship and personal finance.

No longer a mere public relations arm, Baptist Press assigns personnel and other resources to produce in-depth coverage of events and trends affecting Southern Baptists. In recent years, extensive reporting by Baptist Press addressed concerns as diverse as theological questions relating to Weigh Down workshops, infringement by the Navy on the First Amendment rights of evangelical chaplains and the spiritual triumphs that emerged out of the tragic shootings at Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

Hall recalled on-site reporting of the race riots in Cincinnati, school shootings in Santee, Calif., presidential election coverage in West Palm Beach, Fla., the death of Terry Schaivo in Florida and the initial phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom. By addressing policy issues in the U.S. and abroad, BP gave Christians the opportunity to form opinions and make decisions reflecting the tenets of their faith on a host of subjects, including Intelligent Design versus evolution, the ethical use of stem cells and the AIDS crisis in Africa, noting the success of abstinence and marital faithfulness in reducing the incidence of infection. Through the feature Marriage: One Man, One Woman, over 500 articles relating developments in the defense of traditional marriage provide an online repository of information on the topic.

“In every issue, global or national, from covering the natural disasters of the Indian Ocean tsunami or the wrath of Katrina in the U.S., Baptist Press not only covered the details of the events, but also uncovered the intersection of faith in the crisis,” Hall said. This allowed BP to highlight the ministry of Southern Baptists to meet immediate survival needs of victims as well as the eternal spiritual needs of the lost, he added.

“Baptist Press wrote and distributed numerous stories about the devastation caused by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and about the valiant efforts of SBC Disaster Relief volunteers,” Louisiana Baptist Convention Executive Director David Hankins said. “When our Southern Baptist family joined together to help us financially weather the storm, Baptist Press broke the story of unprecedented cooperation. In the last year, I’d say Baptist Press has been an invaluable partner.”

Access to Southern Baptist news also includes 12,500 subscribers who receive each weekday’s BP releases via e-mail. Those dispatches travel around the world via the Internet, reaching even the most remote Southern Baptists.

When Clinton and Teresa Wolf first served as Southern Baptist missionaries in Albania in the early 1990s, they had no access to the Internet, telephone or any form of communication except hard-copy mail. A retiree from a Baptist church in Texas printed the BP news he received by e-mail and mailed it to the Wolfs in monthly installments. “We would pour over it and felt that in some small way we were connected to Baptist life even though we were living in an isolated and technologically backward environment,” Wolf remembered.

“Now, of course, with the Internet much more accessible, we have the same advantage of being able to read all of what’s happening in Baptist life, able to get online and view it from anywhere in the world almost instantly,” Wolf said. “Without Baptist Press we’d be hard pressed to find a broad overview of SBC life that is accessible to all at any time.”

Local churches feature BP headlines that are automatically updated with links to each day’s BP articles. When visitors clink on a headline, a new browser window displays the selected story and then returns the reader to the church’s website when finished. Currently, 8,250 websites host BPNews headlines.

“For years the customer base for Baptist Press was the state Baptist papers,” said John Yeats, director of communications for the Louisiana convention and former editor of the Oklahoma Messenger and Indiana Baptist. While BP continues to view the 41 state Baptist papers that reach about 1.2 million readers as its primary outlet, changes in the world of communications have radically affected that process, Yeats noted.

“Baptist Press under the leadership of Will Hall and his team is on the right track of telling our story of Southern Baptists on mission with God to our constituency and the general public.” Aware of the circulation struggles of printed communication, Yeats predicted by the year 2012 “the connectedness of electronic communications among Southern Baptists and our ministry partners will be as commonplace as a golf shirt on Sunday morning.”

Comparing the dependence on printed communication with those who continue to wear “white shirts and a tie,” Yeats said, “Baptist Press continues to investigate cutting-edge technology so that a culture of connectedness finds expression among Southern Baptists.”

T.C. French, pastor of Jefferson Baptist Church in Baton Route, La., acknowledges that younger generations are more comfortable with websites and e-mails than reading a church newspaper. “We needed a way to assist them to be aware of what Southern Baptists are doing. Since church training does not reach them as it did in my generation, I want them exposed to as much cooperative work, missions, seminary needs, ethics and religious liberty matters, LifeWay literature and Baptist polity as possible,” French said, explaining the church’s decision to post BP headlines on its website.

Aware that the world and other religious groups do their own share of recruiting and dissemination of information, French said, “We hope that Baptist Press will give them excellent information about Southern Baptists and tie them to our Cooperative Program work.” Older members also are assisted as they become aware of the church’s website and check it for late-breaking information, church services and projects, he added.

When Southern Baptists have disagreed on how to tackle a problem within the convention, Baptist Press kept readers informed on issues such as the Disney boycott and the call for diligence in monitoring the educational influences on children. Following former SBC President Bobby Welch on his coast-to-coast bus tour the “‘Everyone Can!” initiative for Southern Baptist churches to baptize 1 million people, BP reports helped generate interest in evangelistic outreach.

BP frequently earns honors from Evangelical Press Association, Associated Church Press and Baptist Communicators Association in annual competitions. The Library of Congress selected BP’s “Patriot’s Faith” war coverage series for inclusion in a historic collection of the 2003 War on Iraq Internet materials available to researchers from across the world.

With the recent addition of a Spanish-language section of Baptist Press, an even broader audience will be tapped. Spanish-language missions and ministries are featured along with first-person columns by Southern Baptists engaged in ministry to Hispanics, as well as selected BP articles.

“The fact that this translation is being made by our denomination in Spanish is a clear sign of the desire to keep the Hispanic Baptist constituency on an even playing field,” said David Galvan, pastor of New Life Baptist Church in Garland, Texas. Citing growth in first-generation Hispanic Baptists, Galvan commended BP for reaching these Spanish readers. “It further keeps the Hispanic constituency that is Spanish-speaking only abreast of what is happening in our beloved denomination.”

The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention attracts the largest number of journalists to any denominational event. Last June, 225 writers and photographers were given credentials by Baptist Press, 50 of those representing secular media outlets.

Sixty-two publications, news services and broadcast outlets have agreements with Baptist Press to utilize news releases for their readers and listeners, ranging from small community newspapers with a few thousand readers to Online outlets like Crosswalk.com to American News Network reaching 80 million homes. An archive of related photographs and cartoons provide further connections to news and feature articles.

Baptist Press also offers a Christian sports news service at www.BPSports.net to report on scores and other sports news while also sharing the witness of Christ offered by athletes. BPSports headlines are hosted on 1,250 websites.

Through a Collegiate Journalism Conference sponsored by Baptist Press, students are encouraged in their pursuit of a career in journalism that honors God. About 125 students experience skill-building workshops and spiritual encouragement led by a faculty of 30 Christian journalists representing such major media outlets as Fox News, People magazine, Dallas Morning News, San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Times and Focus on the Family.

“The strong positive response by the schools and the number of high-profile journalists joining our conference team signal the strong potential for this event to contribute positively to the health and growth of Christian journalism,” Hall said.

As a Baptist historian, Bart Barber considers religious newspapers to have been one of the most powerful influences in Baptist life. “Unlike the era of J.R. Graves when the editorial viewpoint of these key papers often reflected the sentiment of one powerful person, today we have in Baptist Press a reliable source of news that operates in accountability to the whole of Southern Baptists.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter