Appeared in the THE ALABAMA BAPTIST on JUNE 11–12, 2019
Factual reporting, resources for real-life issues, good news about Baptists are a few reasons
By Margaret Colson, Executive director, Association of State Baptist Publications
In an era of subjective news and social media frenzy, where do Southern Baptists turn for a trustworthy source of information? For almost 200 years, amid significant societal and technological change, the answer has been the state Baptist paper.
State Baptist papers have been the go-to source for trustworthy information and inspiration since Georgia’s The Christian Index was established as the first Baptist state paper in 1822. At least nine other state papers were founded in the 1800s; 21 papers in the 1900s; and three papers in the 2000s, according to the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention Annual.
“Originally independent of the state conventions, state papers provided a forum for Baptist voices and kept people informed about their denomination. The philosophy embraced by state paper editors was to ‘tell the truth and trust the people,’” said David Williams, editor of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist for 22 years.
‘Attention to good news’
“While still interested in making sure the people are informed about the inner workings of their state and national conventions, papers today generally give a lot of attention to good news about how Baptists are spreading the gospel and sharing the love of Jesus Christ,” said Williams, who also serves as the 2019–2020 president of Association of State Baptist Publications (ASBP).
Jennifer Davis Rash, editor-in-chief of The Alabama Baptist (TAB) since January 2019, explained the shifts in state Baptist papers she has observed in her close to 25 years working at TAB.
“State Baptist newspapers today have a variety of different approaches. Some follow a more corporate communications or public relations style for state convention life while others maintain a hard news, watchdog approach for Baptists in general.
“Many fall somewhere in between by maintaining proper separation when reporting news stories, but also helping promote the opportunities available to Baptists locally, statewide, nationally and around the world,” said Rash, who serves as president-elect of ASBP.
Today, even as in years past, state Baptist papers are as unique as their readers yet they share a common vital goal.
No matter what approach a state paper may take or how the content is distributed, “State Baptist newspapers share a common goal of being a trustworthy source for Southern Baptists,” said Rash.
The earliest state paper editors in the 1800s and even a large part of the 1900s could not begin to conceive of today’s technology-driven world or the skyrocketing costs of printing and mailing state papers. Those two realities have led to creative solutions by state papers.
At the end of 2015, The Christian Index, which had provided a print publication to its readers for more than 190 years, turned off the printing press and turned on the computer to become a digital-only publication.
Today the Index distributes a twice-weekly digital newsletter, publishes continually on its website and actively posts social media updates, according to editor Scott Barkley.
Tennessee’s Baptist and Reflector, founded in 1835, has shifted its focus in the past 20 years away from mostly Southern Baptist news — which is widely available instantaneously — to primarily Tennessee Baptist news, said Lonnie Wilkey, editor of the Baptist and Reflector.
“We have had to change as technology has changed,” he said.
The Baptist and Reflector also has published “in-depth stories and columns on issues such as pastoral burnout, depression, domestic violence, abortion, sexual abuse prevention, church security and more.
These are all real-life problems that our churches face on a daily basis,” Wilkey said.
To remain relevant today and into the future state papers must “find their niche and meet the needs of that niche,” Wilkey explained.
‘More needed than ever’
Shawn Hendricks, Baptist Press editor and former staff member of North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder, said, “State papers now, more than ever, have to deliver more in-depth, interesting content and details that readers can’t find everywhere else. The articles have to be more compelling and newsy than ever.”
State papers are “more needed than ever. Without them social media banter and debate will become the news providers,” Hendricks said.
“More and more, facts and solid reporting will be replaced with rumor and speculation. That would be bad news for all of us.”
Association of State Baptist Publications ‘the tie that binds’
Established in 1895 as the Southern Baptist Press Association, today’s Association of State Baptist Publications (ASBP) is the “tie that binds,” said Lonnie Wilkey, editor of Tennessee’s Baptist and Reflector.
“The ASBP provides a forum for editors and staff of papers to bond, share ideas and hopefully develop methods and strategies to help our papers not only survive but thrive in the future,” he said.
“More importantly the camaraderie and fellowship renew my spirit and desire to continue telling the stories of our churches and Baptists in Tennessee.”
David Williams, editor of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist and 2019–2020 ASBP president, added, “The greatest benefit … comes through the relationships … that go far beyond our meetings. It is wonderful to be able to consider as friends all the editors and staff of Baptist state papers across the nation. When I have a problem or need I know that I can get help from any number of these colleagues.”
Network for growth
In her role as editor-in-chief of The Alabama Baptist and ASBP president-elect, Jennifer Davis Rash said, “The ASBP provides a place for all of us in state Baptist publication ministries to work together as we explore the latest opportunities to communicate with and connect Baptists.” (TAB)