By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
As a person who has spent the better part of his career and adult life in the production of newspapers, it is sad whenever I hear that a print publication has “bit the dust.”
Such was the case last week as I held the last print copy of the The Christian Index in my hand. The Christian Index has been in existence for 193 years, making it older than the Baptist and Reflector which celebrated its 180th anniversary last year.
The Christian Index has long laid claim to the fact that it is the oldest continuously published religious periodical in the nation.
Managing Editor Joe Westburg wrote: “You’re holding a piece of history in your hands — the final biweekly print edition of The Christian Index. This 11×17 publication has been an old friend for many years. … But earlier this year The Index became a free online news service providing must faster delivery of breaking news.”
While delivering the news faster and more cost efficient sound good, is it really cost effective if you don’t reach the same number of folks that the print issue did? That’s a question every state paper (and other religious publications) are having to ask.
In Tennessee, we are blessed. We made the commitment more than a year ago to “beef up” our website and last year the new B&R website was launched. And it has been successful. We are reaching readers who would not read a newspaper, but it is still a work in progress. We are not even close to reaching the number of potential readers that the print issue, with a circulation of more than 24,000 copies every other week, will reach.
Applying the newspaper standard that a print copy will reach two-and-a-half people (and some publications say four people), the B&R’s potential readership every other week is about 60,000. And that doesn’t tell the whole story. Many churches get one copy and place it in the church where anyone can read it. Over the years readers have told me that while they don’t get the B&R delivered to their home, they either read it at their church or at a relative’s house.
While we are extremely pleased with the early success of our website, we would lose thousands of readers if we ceased print publication at this point in our history. That is why we also made the commitment to keep the print issue for as long as it is economically possible. How long is that? We honestly don’t know, but we are moving full speed ahead with plans for both our print and website versions.
Our desire is to provide a publication, regardless of format, that meets the needs and desires of Tennessee Baptists. We conducted a survey more than a year ago and Tennessee Baptists told us they want more Tennessee news as well as information on cultural issues. We took that to heart last year with special issues dealing with topics such as addiction and same-sex marriage.
We are planning similar issues this year on generational issues, family, education, and more. It is important that in addition to providing Tennessee Baptist news that we also tackle hard cultural issues to help inform people’s biblical worldview at a time in our culture when so much of our Christian worldview seems to be challenged.
In December, Bob Terry, editor of The Alabama Baptist, referred in an editorial to a 2012 study entitled “Catholic News Media Use in the United States.” Terry quoted Matthew Schiller, business and advertising manager for Catholic New York: “Basically the study found that when the church converted its distribution of news from print to online, there was a direct correlation with less giving, less volunteers, and fewer (people) in the seats.”
Terry observed that the Catholic study and its implications are important for Baptists. “Churches and religious organizations initially hailed the arrival of e-mails and websites as an answer to prayer. For little cost churches would be able to communicate with members anytime, anywhere. Information could be placed on a website and everyone could be reached.
“Unfortunately, that vision of the future was little more than a pipe dream,” Terry wrote. “The Catholic media use study found only 9 percent of Catholics visited a church website as often as once a month and only 4 percent regularly visited their local church website.”
I imagine the same holds true for Baptist churches as well.
I’ve been a Baptist all my life and one thing I have learned is this: You can’t tell a Baptist something just once. It takes multiple times to get your message across. You can post it on the wall of your sanctuary, put it in your newsletter, announce it from the pulpit several times and, invariably, you will have a church member say, “Why didn’t I know about that event or activity?” Baptists need print and online publications. It’s not an either/or.
The Baptist and Reflector is your connection to what is happening within the Tennessee Baptist Convention. No other publication focuses on our convention and our churches We also are your link to inform you on how Cooperative Program dollars are used. We also provide information on what happens in the Southern Baptist Convention.
For the Baptist and Reflector to continue to be most effective we need to keep the print edition viable and relevant. Online versions meet a need, but for the present and immediate future, they are not enough.
Our current readers are our best spokespersons. Encourage your churches and friends to subscribe to the print version of the Baptist and Reflector.
History has proven Baptists are most effective when they are informed. Call our office at 615-371-7929 to find an individual or church subscription plan to meet your need.