The Gutenberg Bible owned by the Library of Congress. (Photo: Mark Pellegrini at Wikimedia Commons)
We are witnessing a transformative period—a distant kin to the advent of the Gutenberg printing press—that has profound consequences for civic and moral engagement. Print newspapers are going out of business. Baptist and other religious newspapers are following the same path. What will emerge is uncertain.
Recall that the Gutenberg printing press increased literacy, played an instrumental role in the Protestant Reformation and launched democratic change across Europe.
We are living in a similar power shift.
In the past few months, five newspaper corporations have filed for bankruptcy protection, including companies that own the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Orlando Sentinel, The Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News. Attempting to reduce costs and survive, The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press have cut home delivery to only three days a week. The Houston Chronicle has laid off 90 staff members in its newsroom. Seattle Post-Intelligencer has stopped publishing. The Tennessean in my driveway each morning is seemingly lighter and the news and opinion content is thinner.
EthicsDaily.com's contributing editor Brian Kaylor wrote in early March: "In 2007, total subscriptions to all state Southern Baptist newspapers in the nation dropped below one million for the first time in over 50 years. Total circulation is down from nearly two million in the late 1970s and down a quarter of a million in just the past decade. Additionally, several of the state papers have moved from a weekly publication schedule to printing biweekly or monthly."
We are witnessing at worst the disappearance and at best the diminishment of newspapers—secular and religious.
Some may wonder why that matters.
Paul Starr, professor of sociology and public affairs, wrote in the New Republic a piece titled, "Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a new era of corruption): Why American politics and society are about to be changed for the worse."
"One danger of reduced news coverage is to the integrity of government," wrote Starr, pointing out the corruption in countries with limited circulation of daily newspapers.
"More than any other medium, newspapers have been our eyes on the state, our check on private abuses, our civic alarm systems," he wrote.
Newspapers not only serve as a watchdog for the actions of governments and corporations, but they also keep us informed about scientific developments and cultural events with a fact-checking quality missing in other forms of information distribution, such as blogging. Newspapers have encouraged civic engagement through involvement in local elections and acts of kindness.
Much the same could be said, should be said, about Baptist newspapers, although over the past 25 years they have fled from the watchdog function to the spin cycle of denominational offices. State papers too rarely check potential denominational misdirection or church corruption.
If newspapers and Baptist state papers go out of business, what comes next?
"We're collectively living through 1500, when it's easier to see what's broken than what will replace it," Clay Shirky, a Web-guru, noted recently in a reference to the age of Gutenberg.
"When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won't break before new systems are in place," he wrote. "They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren't in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it."
Shirky wrote, "When we shift our attention from 'save newspapers' to 'save society', the imperative changes from 'preserve the current institutions' to 'do whatever works.' And what works today isn't the same as what used to work."
Now, what does this have to do with EthicsDaily.com?
When we decided some seven years ago to post fresh content every weekday on EthicsDaily.com, we did so because we thought people of faith deserved current information about contemporary issues through news stories, opinion pieces and movie reviews. After all, we were living in a 24/7 information society, even if Baptist leaders stuck with an outdated approach to information distribution—providing news and opinion only after cutting-edge relevance had dulled.
We also thought people of faith desired help in applying their faith in real time to daily issues or events, not hindsight help two weeks or a month after their Baptist state paper arrived.
EthicsDaily.com was never about saving Baptist state papers. It was always about serving people of faith.
We think that EthicsDaily.com has the right news, information and resource model to help the faithful navigate the profound turbulence through which we are traveling. We combine news stories from multiple sources, opinion columns, blog reflections, advocacy and sermon podcasts, daily video clips and movie reviews.
As secular and religious newspapers fade, EthicsDaily.com will continue to be one of the important sources that encourages and enables civic and moral engagement for people of faith.
We hope our readers agree. We hope you will become ethics evangelists, telling others the good news about EthicsDaily.com.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.