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Louisiana Baptist Leader Seeks Direct Control Over State Newspaper

The Louisiana Baptist Convention’s new executive director has asked trustees of the Baptist Message to consider returning the newspaper, which has operated under a separate board since 1963, to direct control of the convention’s 98-member executive board.

According to an article in the paper’s April 13 issue, LBC Executive Director David Hankins met two hours with newspaper trustees at a called meeting the week before.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
Hankins, former executive vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee elected as the state convention’s new leader last October, proposed folding the paper into a new communications division to provide “a uniform, comprehensive, coordinated, intentional, efficient and effective communication plan” for Louisiana Baptists.
 
Hankins, who was a pastor in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Louisiana 11 years before joining the SBC Executive Committee staff in 1996, cited declining circulation and the impending retirement of Baptist Message Editor Lynn Clayton at the end of the year as rationale for discussing a new communication strategy.
 
Under Hankins’ plan, the division would be supervised by an editor-in-chief answerable to the executive director. The editor-in-chief would employ communications specialists in a variety of areas, including print, Internet, marketing, media and promotion.
 
Hankins said the system would be more efficient and effective than relying on a weekly newspaper that follows a separate chain of command. “This is a different world,” Hankins is quoted as saying, adding later that, “I think print media is in trouble.”
 
Asked about the potential loss of editorial freedom under a separate board, Hankins reportedly said promotion of God’s kingdom, and not freedom of the press, is the goal of a Baptist newspaper. While that standard for selection of content would continue, “It just comes down to who is making the decision regarding news reporting,” he said.
 
Hankins reportedly told trustees he has no plans to lead the convention to fight the board’s decision should they reject his proposal, but he could not guarantee he would push for the continued level of convention funding if the paper remains as it is.
 
Trustees of the paper said they would discuss the matter at their scheduled meeting in May and in the meantime would gather more information regarding the proposal.
 
Meanwhile, Baptist leaders in Missouri are discussing whether to remove The Pathway, official news journal of the Missouri Baptist Convention, from under direct control of their executive director and allowing the editor to report directly to a work group of the state Executive Board.
 
Roy Dameron, an Executive Board member from Jefferson City, Mo., e-mailed members of The Pathway work group suggesting that keeping the newspaper under control of the executive director “is not an appropriate working relationship and is not conducive to adequate journalistic reporting.”
 
While members of the newspaper work group responded they were interested in discussing Dameron’s proposal, state convention president Mitchell Jackson, pastor of Miner Baptist Church in Sikeston, Mo., expressed “real reservations” about the idea.
 
“I believe [The Pathway] has become a great newspaper and has journalistic integrity already,” Jackson wrote. “Yet we must not forget that The Pathway’s primary purpose is not journalistic integrity; it is to serve the MBC and leaders of the MBC as a vehicle of communication with our churches and members. I believe to take it out of the control of the executive director would be like taking control away from a pastor of his own church’s newsletter.”
 
In a follow-up, Dameron said the Baptist state paper should be a news journal and is not like a church newsletter written and edited by the executive director. “The MBC is not a church and The Pathway is not a church newsletter,” he said. “Putting The Pathway under the Executive Board is not ‘like taking control away from a pastor of his own church newsletter.'”
 
Jackson also noted that journalistic integrity “was the excuse” the former MBC paper, Word & Way, used when it moved to a self-perpetuating trustee board. The convention responded by removing the paper from the budget, throwing it out of the convention headquarters building, filing a lawsuit to have control of trustee selection returned to the state convention and starting The Pathway, first as an Internet and later replacement print publication.
 
“It was also the excuse they (Word & Way) used when they were not supportive of MBC plans and leadership,” Jackson said. “I don’t believe that our convention is ready for that kind of change with the current lawsuit still pending.”
 
Dameron said he is not against MBC Executive Director David Clippard, but cited “the Baysinger debacle” as evidence that something is wrong with the current system.
 
The reference was to Bob Baysinger, former managing editor of The Pathway, whom Clippard fired last October for insubordination. Baysinger reportedly wrote a story about sale of the Jefferson City Baptist Building for construction of a new jail, not knowing that Clippard had promised county officials to keep the contract quiet, allowing them to negotiate with other property owners.
 
A local activist said the arrangement violated Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Voters eventually rejected a proposed sales tax to finance construction, voiding the $2.75 million purchase of the Baptist property, which was contingent on voters approving the referendum.
 
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
 
Previous related stories:
State Convention Exec Fires Managing Editor
Lawyer Says Missouri Baptist Building Sale Deal Broke Sunshine Law
Critic Alleges Conspiracy to Hide Details of Missouri Baptist Building Sale
Fired Baptist Journalist Feels Vindicated by Voter Rejection of Sales Tax