By David Roach
NASHVILLE — In an era of shrinking newspaper readership, Baptist state papers retain a viable path forward as “niche publications” with strong online and print presence, state paper editor Lonnie Wilkey told the Tennessee Baptist Historical Society (TBHS).
“The newspaper industry is declining, but Baptist papers still have a future,” said Wilkey, editor of Tennessee’s Baptist and Reflector newsjournal. That’s “mainly because we are niche publications … If you want to read about Tennessee Baptists, the only source you really have is the Baptist and Reflector.”
Baptist papers in other states, he said, similarly serve as the main viable sources about Baptists there.
Wilkey made his remarks in a keynote address March 8 at the TBHS’s 20th annual meeting in Nashville. Held at the Southern Baptist Convention Building, the gathering also featured a business session and a panel discussion on the society’s first 20 years and the need for a new generation to pick up the mantle of preserving Baptist history.
State papers, Wilkey said, are key sources for preserving Baptist history because “the news we report today is tomorrow’s history.”
Nonetheless, newspapers in general “are dying,” Wilkey said, noting that from 2008-11, 166 secular newspapers stopped publication or shifted exclusively to online content. With the transition to online news content, he added, readers are spending less time consuming news articles.
Amid those realities, Wilkey suggested ways “to breathe new life” into Baptist state papers.
First, state papers must adapt by combining a “strong online presence” with continuing print publication, though perhaps with less frequent print editions.
For the Baptist and Reflector, Wilkey said, developing a website “has actually helped us become a better, more effective newspaper” by publishing stories as they break rather than waiting for the next print edition. At the same time, “we would lose a huge section of our readers” — especially in smaller churches — “if we stopped publication of print” editions.
State papers also must adapt by involving more young adults in their production, Wilkey said.
Seminary communications offices and state paper internships used to produce numerous young Baptist journalists, he said. But today “there are not that many young journalists coming along, so it’s up to the papers to go out and find people who will carry the banner.”
While innovative strategies for increasing revenue and readership are essential for state papers going forward, Wilkey said, their survival ultimately is a spiritual matter “in God’s hands.”
“If we continue to tell stories … of how the churches are bringing Him glory and honor, our publication will succeed and will survive because we have to have someone to tell those stories,” Wilkey said.
The TBHS panel discussion featured retired Tennessee Baptist Convention executive director James Porch, retired Belmont University historian Albert Wardin and retired Middle Tennessee State University historian Fred Rolater, who received the Albert W. Wardin Meritorious Service Award during the meeting to honor his contributions to the TBHS.
Wardin, author of a 700-page history of Tennessee Baptists, encouraged Southern Baptists to learn not only the history of their own denomination, but of other Baptist groups as well.
“We don’t realize the history and the past relationship to other Baptist groups,” Wardin said, “and why there have been divisions.” Those divisions have “made what we are today.”
Porch, who holds a doctor of theology degree in church history, said Baptist historians, like Baptist journalists, need to develop a new generation to carry on their work.
“If we could develop a core” group from younger generations who understand “the importance of our history,” Porch said, “it would be one of the best things that we could do.”
See related Baptist Press story on state Baptist newspapers.