By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
The Baptist and Reflector celebrates a milestone in 2015 — its 180th anniversary.
On Jan. 1, 1835, the first copy of THE BAPTIST (the forerunner of the Baptist and Reflector) rolled off the press. See replica of the first issue on this page.
Former B&R Editor Fletcher Allen compiled a history of the paper (Telling the Truth in Love)which was published in 2005.
In his “prologue” Allen recounted a portion of a letter received by the B&R when it celebrated its 140th anniversary in 1975.
The letter of congratulations was written by Porter Routh, then executive secretary-treasurer of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.
“Ten years before the invention of the rotary printing press, Tennessee Baptists were receiving a crudely printed journal which not only served as a guide book in the development of spiritual truth but also as a chronicle of historical events in those early days.
“During these 140 years, the Baptist and Reflector has continued to be ‘looked for’ by Baptists of the Volunteer State, and today it is providing an enlarging service and greater inspiration as it is ‘speaking the truth in love.’ ”
Allen observed that from its birth in 1835 the strength of the paper “has been its unwavering call for freedom of the press. The editors, coming from different levels of experience, recognized their responsibility to ‘trust the Lord and tell the people.’ From handset type to sophisticated computerized efficiency, they managed not only to survive, but also to tell the story.”
R.B.C. Howell, the first editor of the paper, wrote these words in that first issue 180 years ago:
“We confess that we do not, without many fears and misgivings, enter the editorial field. … And, inexperienced as we are in editorial tactics, and perhaps in other respects, … to sit upon the whirlwind and manage the storm, which now rages in the moral world, we tremble lest we should not be able to accomplish all the good which is desirable THE BAPTIST should effect.”
As part of Allen’s research, he discovered the forerunner of the B&R was published monthly and the subscription cost was a whopping “one dollar a year, paid in advance.”
Allen wrote: “Howell knew the importance of the printed page in shaping thought among Baptist churches and developing spiritual fellowship.” Keep in mind that in 1835, the nation was less than 60 years old and the Tennessee Baptist Convention had not even been formed yet.
In looking at the formation of the paper, Allen noted that “the paper’s struggles to build readership and financial support was difficult. Things haven’t changed much since then.”
And that definitely leads us to the present.
We have about 27,000 more readers of the print issue than THE BAPTIST did on that first day of 1835, but getting (and keeping) print readers continues to be an ongoing challenge.
There is a major difference between today and 1835. In 1835 people were eager and wanted to read the printed page. There was nothing else.
Today, many people (at least those who still like to read) are foregoing the printed page for digital publications.
The Pew Research Center reported on Oct. 11, 2012 that “only 29 percent now say they read a newspaper yesterday — with just 23 percent reading a print newspaper. Over the past decade, the percentage reading a print newspaper the previous day has fallen by 18 points (from 41 percent to 23 percent).”
Secular newspapers have been the hardest hit. A number of once renowned newspapers such as The Rocky Mountain News have either ceased publication or cut operations to the “bare bones.”
When my wife and I moved to Nashville in 1982, the city had an evening (The Nashville Banner) and morning (The Tennessean) paper. Today, only The Tennessean is still in operation and it is much smaller than it once was.
Baptist state newspapers have fared better because we are “niche” publications. In our case, we focus almost entirely on Tennessee Baptist news. No other publication does that. Our goal is to continue publishing what our readers want as efficiently and effectively as possible.
Yet where as most Baptist papers printed weekly in 1988 when I joined the B&R staff, less than a half dozen do so today. Most have gone to a monthly or every other week format.
In June of this year, we became one of those state papers that moved to the every other week format.
I must confess. I knew the day was coming when we would have to do it, but I kept hoping it would be a few years down the road.
And though our print circulation has remained stable (with just a slight decline) over the past few years, our revenue from advertising has steadily declined due to the economy.
Yet, the cost of printing and postage continues to increase. Declining revenue and increasing costs do not work well together.
As a result, we made the difficult decision this year to cease weekly publication.
Here are the words I wrote on May 21 when the move was announced:
“Honestly, these changes are occurring quicker than I imagined, but once the pain of change is over, I think it will prove to be a great move for everyone involved with the Baptist and Reflector, from me and our staff to our most important resource, our readers.”
Seven months later as I reflect on those words, I was actually right.
The move has been beneficial in many ways. With a bare bones editorial staff (myself and Connie Bushey) and weekly deadlines, it was very difficult to develop and write articles that required extensive research and interviews. The extra week has given us an opportunity to do more extensive features and news articles and our readers have noticed. That is a positive.
Another positive move for the paper has been its inclusion within the Tennessee Baptist Convention’s Communications Team.
Admittedly, I was not exactly thrilled with this move when it happened, not because I did not like those on the communications team, but because I felt it would limit the editorial freedom of the paper.
That has not happened. Both TBC Executive Director Randy C. Davis and Chris Turner, TBC director of communications, have been very careful to not restrict freedom of the press.
What’s more, being part of the Communications Team has actually increased the staff of the paper substantially.
Chris is a longtime journalist with both secular and denominational experience. He is an excellent writer and he already has written and will write future news and feature stories for the paper.
We also have access to two excellent designers in Royce DeGrie and Johnnie Mack Stephens. Stephens will eventually take over the design of the paper which will free even more time for Connie and myself to write and develop stories that will impact Tennessee Baptists. DeGrie is a professional photographer who has achieved success in that arena in addition to his design expertise.
Let me paraphrase R.B.C. Howell from the first edition of THE BAPTIST.
“We confess that we do not, without many fears and misgivings, enter the digital world.”
As we face the future in the digital world, we do have some experience. We post stories online at www.tnbaptist.org and we publish a digital version of the print issue. The digital version has been well received. And, as we post and publicize stories on the website, traffic has increased there as well.
And, it should get even better on the website. Plans are underway for construction to begin in January for a dedicated B&R website. This will enable us to get information and news out in a more timely manner than ever before. I am excited about the potential of the website.
And, for those who like to get newsprint on your hands, there is no immediate plan to cease publication of the print issue. A survey conducted earlier this year shows that we have readers who desire both.
Our goal is to continue to provide a print version of the Baptist and Reflector as long as it is economically feasible. A lot of that falls upon our readers. We need churches to continue providing subscriptions and for new churches to provide subscriptions for their leadership, if not all of their members.
In 1835 R.B.C. Howell had a vision that Tennessee Baptists needed a newspaper. He was right. The fact that the paper still exists 180 years later is positive proof.
During this time of change, Chris said to me many times, “I believe the best days lie ahead for the B&R.” You know what? I believe him. As long as we continue to tell the story of Tennessee Baptists and give God the glory and honor, the B&R will be around for years to come.
Thank you for your prayers and continued support.