Milestone anniversaries of two Baptist state newspapers have occasioned reflection on the present ministry of state papers and their future role among Southern Baptists.
The Alabama Baptist celebrated 175 years of continuous publication Feb. 6 with a birthday party in Marion, Ala., site of the paper’s founding. North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder marked 185 years of ministry Jan. 17.
“State Baptist papers are a vital expression of Baptist theology, polity and practice,” Alabama Baptist editor Bob Terry told Baptist Press via email. “… In my judgement, Southern Baptists cannot lose state Baptist papers without losing crucial elements of how we have lived together as part of the Body of Christ.
“State Baptist papers face significant challenges, to be sure, but most of these challenges are the same challenges facing every part of our denomination. Together God can guide us through these challenges so we will continue to have faithful Christian disciples, strong life-changing churches and a denomination that unites us in missions and ministries,” said Terry, who will present his view of Baptist state papers March 2 during a symposium at Samford University.
Cumulative circulation of state papers — newsjournals linked in various manners with Baptist state conventions — has decreased by 67 percent over the past 40 years, according to statistics reported in Southern Baptist Convention Annuals. The present circulation of 593,500 represents a drop of nearly 1.2 million since 1977 and 418,000 in the past 10 years for print and digital editions.
Yet website traffic and social media exposure, which are not reported in SBC Annuals, appears to have grown exponentially over that period.
“Regardless of changes in the world of technology,” Biblical Recorder editor Allan Blume wrote in a January editorial, “information that is truthful and accurate will always have an audience.”
Papers ‘had to make adjustments’
Tim Boyd, president of the Association of State Baptist Papers, told BP the two greatest challenges facing state papers are revenue decreases and a shift toward electronic reading, especially among younger generations.
To confront those challenges, Boyd said, many state papers have decreased the frequency of their print editions and shifted to the less expensive medium of online content. In some cases — as with Georgia’s Christian Index — content now is delivered exclusively online.
At least 23 of the 42 Baptist state news outlets maintain print editions, according to the 2017 SBC Annual, though all but five of those have abandoned weekly publication. Some papers have moved to a magazine format rather than the traditional tabloid, and many publish their print edition monthly or quarterly.
“Most state conventions” — and by extension state papers — “have had to make adjustments in what they do because of financial changes,” said Boyd, editor of Kansas-Nebraska’s Baptist Digest. “Part of that is changes at the national level,” like reallocation of funds by the North American Mission Board and decreased subscriptions.
“Part of that is just the giving trends in churches as well,” Boyd said, noting state papers are funded in part through the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists’ unified channel for funding state, North American and international missions and ministries.
Since the economic recession of 2008, total CP receipts through state conventions have yet to recover to the 2007-08 level of nearly $542 million. In 2015-16, the last year for which statistics are available, total CP receipts through state conventions came in at $475, according to SBC.net.
Among revenue-generating initiatives attempted by state papers since 2008 are online “pay walls” that restrict access to free content, a book publishing venture by South Carolina’s Baptist Courier and a family magazine published by the Arkansas Baptist News in addition to its regular newsjournal.
‘A critical … resource’
Despite the challenges, Baptist journalists say there is a future for state papers.
BP editor Shawn Hendricks said that future includes state papers’ coverage of local events for the broader Southern Baptist public.
“Baptist state papers are a critical partner and resource in our work at Baptist Press,” Hendricks said in written comments. “While BP helps provide feature articles, news reports and occasional exclusive stories for them to report from a national perspective, they are the eyes and ears of what is happening in their state.
“And we often look to them to provide helpful on-the-ground coverage, whether the story involves a natural disaster, an annual state meeting or a real-world example of outreach ministry in their area. Together, we look to give Southern Baptists a broader view of what is going on in SBC life,” Hendricks said.
Boyd and Blume both speculated that the future of state papers could include a resurgence of print editions.
“About half of all readers still prefer to hold the printed piece in their hands,” Blume wrote, “and the shift toward the print seems to be gaining popularity. Take note that magazines are still very popular. Also, note that neither LifeWay nor Barnes & Noble have closed their bookstores.”
Additionally, Boyd said, in the future state papers will continue to communicate the mission and vision of state conventions.
“As long as state conventions and Baptists within those conventions have a need for communication,” Boyd said, “I think there’s a future for the state paper in one form or another.”
— With reporting by Baptist Press senior editor Art Toalston. David Roach is chief national correspondent for BP, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.