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Digital Era Endangers Newspapers, Including Baptist State Papers

As more Americans log online to retrieve their news and information, newspapers across the country, which have seen years of declining subscriptions, are exploring new ways of capturing online readers and making a profit. Baptist state newspapers and other religious publications are not only impacted by this trend, but might be more vulnerable than most mainstream newspapers.

 

“The Internet certainly affects how people keep track of news and information of all types,” wrote Bill Webb, editor of the Word&Way in Missouri, in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com. “Printed periodicals like newspapers are still preferred by a lot of people who weren’t necessarily born with a digital mouse in hand. Another generation can’t imagine why anyone would pay to receive a newspaper when the Internet offers almost immediate access to information for free.”

The generational differences in Internet usage are often called part of the “digital divide.” However, research demonstrates that this divide concerning the Internet is diminishing. As Karen Juneau of the University of Southern Mississippi argued about the “digital divide” in the Encyclopedia of Information Technology Curriculum Integration, the “economic and technological segmentation is no longer a significant concern except in developing countries.”

As that digital divide diminishes and more consumers turn to online sources for information, traditional print publications continue to struggle to stay afloat or are going under. Last October, the century-old Christian Science Monitor announced it would be discontinuing its daily publication to move to an online publication with a weekly magazine. The move came as a result of the newspaper, which has garnered seven Pulitzer Prizes, experiencing several years of declining subscriptions and multi-million dollar losses.

Other newspapers that have similarly announced they will be moving to an online-only format include The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., and the Kansas City Kansan. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver ceased publication completely in February after nearly 150 years. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is expected to print its last issue this week – the week of March 15 – after 146 years of publication. Additionally, some newspapers have cut sections or even dropped an entire day from their publication schedules.

 

Many newspapers nationwide have announced salary cuts and layoffs, totaling an estimated 15,000 lost newspaper jobs in 2008. Significant newspapers experiencing serious problems include the Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.

 

Similar woes have hit Christian publications as well. In September, Christianity Today International announced it was ceasing publication for its quarterly magazine Christian History & Biography after 26 years, although the publication’s Web site continues to post new articles.

 

In November, Focus on the Family announced it was moving three magazines aimed at teenagers—Brio, Brio Beyond and Breakaway—to an online-only format. It also reported that they were moving Plugged In, an entertainment review guide, to an online-only format and reducing the number of issues for its public policy magazine Citizen.

 

Baptist state newspapers may soon feel the digital woes as well. In February, it was announced that the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Witness, a publication of the Utah Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, would cease publication. A letter explaining the decision said that the convention’s board was considering “alternative ways to communicate the stories of our churches and associations and state convention” and that staff were “working on a new convention Web site … to help in communicating our stories and resources to you.” The news section of the site has not yet launched.

 

As online news sources—especially ones covering Baptist news—continue to expand coverage and grow in popularity, more state Baptist newspapers could suffer the fate of the Witness. State Baptist newspapers could see additional shortfalls if postal rates continue to increase, if the U.S. Postal Service cuts its service to five days a week, and if economic problems lead to subscription cancellations. Lagging contributions to the Cooperative Program will also result in less income for state papers.

 

“The Internet has to get in line behind rising print and mail costs, reader apathy, Baptist conflict and declining church income—all factors impacting and challenging state Baptist newspapers, their readership and their support,” wrote Webb, whose Word&Way has seen significant declines in circulation over the past few decades.

 

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.

 

Webb believes that printed versions of the Baptist state newspapers will continue, but admitted that in order to survive they will “have to be willing to remake themselves in strategic ways.” In particular, he pointed to the need to utilize both print and online media.

 

“Most state newspaper editors have acknowledged that they are less in the newspaper business and more in the business of communicating to constituents,” Webb explained. “Rather than make an either-or decision, they have embraced a both-and approach. They continue to print newspapers but also maintain Web sites and circulate electronic newsletters by email.”

 

The next few years could bring radical changes as the digital divide continues to dissipate and new technologies emerge. State Baptist newspapers will have to consider these changes and some may go the way of the Christian Science Monitor, the Rocky Mountain News or the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Witness.

 

Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.