At our recent annual meeting of state Baptist editors in Ontario, Calif., we attended several workshops ranging from websites and video storytelling to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs and a host of other social media. Looking around the classroom at the editors gaping at computer screens and monitors displaying PowerPoint presentations, I thought, “Look how far we’ve come!” But as I listened to our instructors, all faculty members at California Baptist University, another impression coalesced: “We haven’t seen anything yet!”
At 17, I felt called to the ministry of religious journalism. I did an internship with the Baptist Courier while in college and then at the Western Recorder while in seminary. Thirty-five years have passed. There has been a lot of advances in the publishing process.
Today, we press a few buttons on a computer to upload a PDF of a page or an entire issue — complete with scans of color photos — to an FTP site. A printer will download the file(s), and page images go straight to plates for the press. The whole process takes a matter of minutes.
Back in the heyday of Baptist newspapers (1970s to early 1980s), they had grown to 38 papers. For the most part, many of the more established ones, particularly in the Bible belt, were weekly publications seeing circulations topping 30,000, 40,000, 50,000, even 100,000 readers. In the early-1980s, state Baptist papers were peaking at a combined total circulation of 1.8 million homes, and they were looking forward to a day when they would climb past 2 million.
For a lot of reasons in denominational life and societal trends, however, reaching the 2 million mark proved elusive. For many Baptist papers, their circulations then likely were double, even triple, what their numbers are today. According to the 2016 SBC Annual, total circulation of Baptist newspapers now stands at a shade over 566,000. And, for many, as their circulations dropped, Cooperative Program support also declined — even though they had grown increasingly dependent on it to thrive. Consequently, there are only four remaining weeklies. That is, indeed, a very sad state for Southern Baptists.
Baptist editors are all too aware of these grim statistics. So, I’d like to offer some “additional facts,” for I believe this is only part of the story. With the times, state Baptist papers have morphed into so much more than print publications. Subsequently, potential readership of our stories, or rather viewership, has increased exponentially. How?
State Baptist newspapers have become state Baptist news agencies. Western Recorder trustee Dan Summerlin of Paducah recently observed, we still have only one product — Baptist news — but it is now being delivered through multiple mediums. We tell a story about how God is at work in our states, across the nation, and on our mission fields to a far larger potential audience than our predecessors — the editors of a bygone day — did. To limit one’s perspective of a state Baptist paper’s audience to only its print circulation is a gross misrepresentation and short-sighted misunderstanding of its true potential — which, dare I say, is LIMITLESS.
You see, our stories no longer are read only by readers in our respective states and perhaps some in other states whose newspapers happened to pick up our stories from Baptist Press releases. Thanks to computers, iphones and tablets, at the push of a few buttons, our stories are readily available through websites, digital editions, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, videography, Instagram and other social media to a global-wide audience.
Our stories also frequently appear on the websites of multiple state Baptist papers and in their Facebook and Twitter feeds. Now, Baptists not just in our state, but wherever, almost instantaneously may read our stories and be inspired by what Southern Baptists are doing together. The impact of a story written by today’s Baptist journalist extends well beyond our state borders to countless viewers, both Baptist and non-Baptists, everywhere around the globe.
That’s exciting! That’s what keeps driving me onward, as your editor. The Internet is not the great enemy of state Baptist newspapers, as some have feared. It can be our great friend — if Southern Baptists will see the potential impact of their state Baptist news agencies, again support them, and thereby enable them to seize the moment. That’s a message our state and national denominational leaders need to hear: Baptist journalism isn’t in decline; we have a far greater potential now to advance the Kingdom than we’ve ever had before.