Pathway completes sixth year in print
Historian Walter Shurden has described state Baptist newspapers as the “glue” which holds the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) together.
As state Baptist newspapers continue their journey into a second century, it is appropriate for Southern Baptists to consider whether Shurden’s assessment still rings true. Some would agree that it was an accurate portrayal for the first 100 years of their existence leading up to the beginning of The Conservative Resurgence in 1979. Some have suggested that the state Baptist papers stopped being “glue” when they began editorializing on whether The Conservative Resurgence was a good or bad thing. The perception by most Southern Baptists was most of them regarded it as a bad thing, a poor decision given the decided conservative trend that the majority of messengers who were horrified at the neo-orthodox/liberal direction American Mainline Protestantism was taking.
Time has passed and The Conservative Resurgence has matured, causing Southern Baptists to look inward in an attempt to be true to the ideals that saved the SBC from theological liberalism. Part of that examination should be – and in many cases is – directed at state Baptist newspapers. What is their purpose? What should they look like? How can they survive financially? Who should have oversight of them? None have easy answers, but that is a topic for another time.
Newspapers in general are in a period of transition. Some are just trying to survive. Everyone in newspapers have known for sometime that a tectonic shift in the media world is rapidly unfolding, a process punctuated by The Tribune Company’s filing for bankruptcy, the Detroit Free Press’ announcement of its impending cessation of home delivery on most days, The Rocky Mountain News contemplating going out of business, The New York Times is reportedly running on financial “fumes,” and the daily drumbeat of layoffs (the San Francisco Chronicle eliminated 100 newsroom jobs in 2007), buyouts (the Miami Herald and the San Diego Union-Tribune are reportedly on the selling block) and firings have become downright ubiquitous.
State Baptist newspapers have not been immune, though considerable debate is ongoing as to the cause. In 2007, state Baptist papers’ total circulation dropped below the 1 million mark for the first time. While circulation is down 22 percent over the last decade alone, the decline has been in the works for more than four decades. Missouri Southern Baptists have seen it first hand with Word & Way as its circulation has dropped from 65,000 in 1965 to about 27,000 in 2002 to below 13,000 today. The Baptist Standard, which serves the Baptist General Convention of Texas, had a circulation of 370,572 on June 1, 1965. By 1998 it had dropped to 189,000 and today is less than 85,000. Virtually every state Baptist paper has experienced some decline in circulation, although three of the newest papers, The Texan of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (approximately 36,000), The Proclaimer of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia Convention (16,000), and The Pathway (about 15,000) have built circulation in recent years from zero to their current levels. It is no coincidence that all three are unapologetically conservative in their theology, although they are by no means the only papers now with conservative editors. Indeed a majority of the state newspaper editors are conservatives.
There are several reasons for the decline in circulation. When the decline began in the 1960s I think it could largely be attributed to poor content. Some were too liberal for most Southern Baptists and some were nothing more than country club publications for pastors that virtually ignored SBC laity. Their content and presentation was boring, offering too many “grip and grin” photographs instead of ones portraying Southern Baptists at work. Certainly the denominational struggle hurt circulation. Liberals/moderates wanted to maintain control of the content, while the ever-increasing number of conservatives in the convention became frustrated with the mischaracterizations of their views and a perceived lack of fairness in coverage. In Missouri, the action by Word & Way’s board of trustees to become self-perpetuating without getting Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) approval is a stark example of how liberals/moderates sought to control a state newspaper – even if it triggered a protracted and costly legal battle. The trustees took that action only after conservatives had won control of the MBC.
Today, the challenges for state Baptist papers are different. While the legal battle continues in Missouri, conservatives here have moved on. The Pathway is the clearest example of that shift, one that will only gain momentum with the coming of a new executive director for the MBC. The Internet is having a profound impact on how organizations communicate. How The Pathway and the MBC responds to the Internet will likely have a great impact on both for the future.
Pathway subscribers are among the most loyal. For this we, here at The Pathway, are grateful as we conclude our sixth year in print. The Pathway will always focus on telling the story of Missouri Southern Baptists and what our other fellow Southern Baptists are doing on mission for Christ around the world. We will also work harder to make our storytelling more interesting, encouraging and challenging. We will never back away from telling the truth in a fair and balanced way and we will always reflect a biblical worldview of reality.
I am humbled to serve as editor and Missouri Southern Baptists can be confident that their state newspaper has the best staff any newspaper could ever hope to have. Thank you Missouri Southern Baptists for sharing your story with us and most of all, thank you for your prayers and financial support through your subscriptions, advertising and support of the Cooperative Program. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from The Pathway team!