The religious press faces unparalleled opportunities in a technological era
When Martin Luther evicted the Devil by casting an ink stand at the sinister invader, he established a remarkable precedent for religious journalism,” comments Carl F. H. Henry in Successful Church Publicity. How does the Protestant press fare in its battle against Satan in 1966? What has been happening in the decade since CHRISTIANITY TODAY entered the arena?
While there are many denominational publications, the number of independent Protestant magazines of wide influence is comparatively small. Among them are several journals of opinion.
In this category, CHRISTIANITY TODAY dominates the evangelical field and is a major force in the entire Christian world. Dale Francis, a Roman Catholic editor who regularly reads over one hundred Protestant magazines, comments: “CHRISTIANITY TODAY comes closer than any other general Protestant publication to representing the grassroots Protestant viewpoints.” The place of leadership this magazine has achieved is striking because it has been in existence for only ten years.
His, the magazine of the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, is a lively monthly that discusses controversial issues with candor and courage. For seven successive years it has won the Evangelical Press Association award as Youth Magazine of the Year. It does an excellent job of using artwork and text to catch the attention of students on the go. Many continue to read His after graduation, and thus its public extends well beyond the college years.
Eternity is characterized by its venturesome design and approach. Somewhat less specialized intellectually than CHRISTIANITY TODAY, it also appeals to a thoughtful evangelical readership.
Decision, the organ of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, is a phenomenon of circulation growth. Cutting across denominational lines, in hundreds of thousands of homes it has opened windows upon an evangelical world heretofore unknown to many who formerly read only the denominational press. With its wide readership and its popular presentation of evangelism and Christian living, Decision is a strong voice that will grow in intensity in the decade ahead.
The Christian Century has long been the voice of Protestant liberalism. According to Dr. Robert Root, who teaches religious Journalism at Syracuse University, a significant change in the magazine during the decade has been the sharp revision of its view of Roman Catholicism. “Ten years ago,” says Root, “the Christian Century had a negative point of view. This has changed to one of positive ecumenical friendliness toward Roman Catholicism.” Although its circulation is small, the Century continues to be on often-quoted thought leader. However, I believe it is less imaginative than in the past and seems to be grasping for issues.
Christianity and Crisis, though small in circulation, is influential beyond its size in reflecting a neo-orthodox and socially liberal point of view.
The Protestant press includes many other fine publications, scores of poor ones, and a wasteland of mediocrity. Let us now survey some specific aspects of these publications as seen over the past decade.
Ten years ago religious magazines were criticized for amateurishness of design resulting in drab grayness. Reading one’s denominational organ was viewed by many as an act of penance. In The Religious Press in America, Martin E. Marty suggests that a liturgy of a new order might ask: “And do you solemnly promise that you will faithfully and regularly read our church’s official paper?”—to which the response would be, “I do so solemnly promise, with the help of Almighty God.…”
But the decade has witnessed marked progress in the attractiveness of the Protestant press. There is more color. Paper, typography, printing, photography, and other technical aspects are strikingly improved. More offset printing has increased the use of pictures and encouraged better layout and artwork. Readability has been augmented by greater brevity, more white-space, and more subheads and other typographical devices.
An elder statesman of Christian journalism, Benjamin P. Browne, characterizes this progress over the past ten years as, “simply amazing … a new day.” But a periodical designer, Edmund C. Arnold, says: “The improvement in appearance has been only the inevitable outcome of the change of time. I don’t think that there has been enough, good enough, and studied enough change.… Spending money on talent to make sure copy is read is insurance, not extravagance.”
Employment of professional journalists and in-service technical training of staff personnel has increased. Marjorie Moore Armstrong, a former editor, whose husband is a senior editor of Reader’s Digest, comments: “Denominational weeklies and monthlies are being manned by younger, better trained men and women, chosen primarily for their aptitude for handling the written word and the published truth, rather than ‘superannuated preachers’ whom the denomination felt they could trust with the house organ or mouthpiece of the denomination.”
But the growing hospitality of Protestant magazines toward trained journalists is not without its negative side. Many feel it is dangerous for journalists who do not have theological training to be in positions where they judge the work of those who do.
Motive, World Vision, Leader, United Evangelical Action, Home Missions, Latin America Evangelist, the Baptist Message of Louisiana, and hundreds of other religious publications now look better, are more widely circulated, have more technically competent staffers, and use sophisticated machinery. But is the writing in Protestant periodicals any better?
Writers, both staff and free-lance, are better paid and have more opportunities for improving their skills than ten years ago. There has been a decline in printed sermons and an increase in timely articles prepared specifically for the reader. And today the reader, more often than in 1956, is visualized not so much as the man in the pulpit but as the man in the pew. However, almost none of the writing is yet addressed to the uncommitted nominal Christian—the man in the easy chair.
Roland E. Wolseley, professor of journalism and chairman of the magazine department at Syracuse University, feels that the Protestant press has made less progress in writing than in other aspects of its work.
How has the Protestant press handled the news? The decade has been news-filled: Viet Nam, the racial revolution, Castro, the Berlin wall, space exploration, new nations, presidential elections, the Vatican Council, the Congo, the Consultation on Church Union, the New English Bible, the “new morality,” the death-of-God theologians. The news has begged for interpretation in the light of Christian principles.
Though the Protestant press has not yet learned the key importance of timeliness, it handles the news much better today than in 1956. Many critics say the coverage is still too parochial. Yet Christian editors are criticized as much for “meddling in secular issues” as damned for “preoccupation with denominational affairs.”
Having limited space in which to carry out its specifically assigned tasks, the Christian press must assume that its readers have access to the mass news-media. However, it has a responsibility to inform its readers about the issues behind news.
News editors are doing a better job of going out after the news than they did ten years ago. But far too little responsibility is felt toward the reader’s right to know. There is still too much rewriting of press releases with no effort to dig for facts. Significant meetings and conventions are often neglected. The Presbyterian Journal and CHRISTIANITY TODAY are often the only Protestant magazines covering the General Board meetings of the National Council of Churches.
This leads us to the whole matter of content. No one can say whether the content of Christian journalism is improving without some such qualification as, “from my particular point of view.…” For a theologically liberal, sociologically oriented Northeasterner, a conservative Oklahoma magazine filled with articles on salvation, alcoholism, anxiety, divorce, and other person-centered subjects would be irrelevant. On the other hand, the reader of the Oklahoma magazine may feel that it meets his needs exactly.
Since 1960, when the pace of significant religious events accelerated, the editorial pages of Protestant magazines have been increasingly filled with healthful debate, objective self-criticism, and intense question-asking. This is a good trend unless followed to the extreme of all problems and no solutions. A periodical that stands for nothing may condition its readers to fall for anything.
The contents of a particular magazine must be judged within the context of its sponsors’ purpose. No denomination or special-interest group is so swamped with money that it can afford to siphon some away from missions and other important programs to subsidize criticism of its basic beliefs. This does not mean that there is no room for divergent opinion on current issues within the declared policy of the group. Nor does it mean that there can be no persuasive editorial leadership.
In reporting more of the thought and action of other religious bodies, the Protestant press has contributed to increased understanding. Consider, for example, the growing dialogue between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The Vatican Council was extensively discussed by Protestants, and Catholics now cover major Protestant meetings.
The Protestant press is giving more attention to expanding its editorial outreach. There is less general discussion of “safe” moral issues and more specific encounter with “dangerous” issues that have yet to be decided. There is also more pro-and-con discussion of social action, government encroachment on the private sector, and controversial theological views.
The death-of-God movement, catapulted into national prominence by the secular press, has helped editors see the need for more theological substance in what they give their readers. The secular press may even have dealt with some of the major theological struggles more effectively than the religious press. Perhaps editors are realizing their neglect in giving adequate attention to the Christian ideology.
A decade ago the Protestant press was almost monastic. Content seemed largely introspective. Dr. John J. Hurt, a former newsman who now edits the Christian Index, says: “Ten years ago most of the general circulation magazines appealed primarily to ministers although 90 per cent of the subscribers were laymen.” But now more of the content is slanted toward laymen. There is still much of the “house organ” in the Protestant press, but less than there was in 1956.
House organs tend to have little freedom, but what is the status of “freedom of the press” in Protestantism today? The management of nondenominational magazines, such as Christian Herald, Christian Life,CHRISTIANITY TODAY,Eternity, Christianity and Crisis, and the Christian Century has always had less potential pressure than the management of the denominational press. For example, a statement in Christianity and Crisis could make forty readers in Chicago boiling mad. They could retaliate only by canceling their subscriptions. But if a denominational organ should offend the same forty readers, and if one of them should be a key man in the power structure …! This possibility always haunts the denominational editors.
The executive secretary of the Associated Church Press, Alfred P. Klausler, compared the freedom of Protestant editors with that of their secular colleagues. Addressing a group of religious editors, he said: “You are freer because you have less binding commercial ties which might force you to compromise.”
A distinction must be drawn between the positions of independent and denominational editors. Speaking from the point of view of the denominational editor, Edwin H. Maynard of the Methodist Story said: “Editors are not independent entrepreneurs. I was not necessarily hired because of my viewpoints. The magazine is not in existence as my personal platform.”
Early in 1966 I studied significant factors in the circulation of denominational magazines. This study showed that the primary factor affecting circulation is the relationship of the periodical with a denomination. If this relationship is crucial, then the organ cannot speak out with an objective (much less a critical) voice. It is at this point that independent magazines serve a vital function.
In taking an overview of the Protestant press, one would think that its diversity is a distinct advantage. However, this is deceptive. Actually the average reader sees only a few publications. Thus the Protestant press is indeed an “invisible” press. Potential consumers have tunnel vision limiting their knowledge of periodicals other than those of their own denomination.
Protestant readers would benefit if they were all served as well as Southern Presbyterians. Presbyterian Survey is the official organ. It has a large circulation and presents the total denominational program. The Presbyterian Outlook, an independent, represents a liberal point of view. The right wing is represented by another independent, the Presbyterian Journal. With magazines speaking from three points of view, it is certain that all issues will be carefully scrutinized.
Texas Baptists, in order to divorce their state newspaper from the denominational hierarchy, long ago set up an independent board of directors for the Baptist Standard. When he feels it necessary, Editor E. S. James does not hestitate to take state denominational officials to task. The result is a religious paper of significant power.
Electronic data-processing has affected costs and circulation during the past decade. Decision’s phenomenal circulation increase (0 to 3,500,000 in five years) would have been impossible without computers. It cost Presbyterian Life, with its very large circulation, $120,000 to change its subscription system to meet ZIP Code requirements. The new electronic data-processing system will cost $100,000 a year more to operate than the old way. But there was no other, and definitely no less expensive, way to meet the Post Office standards. Members of the Southern Baptist Press Association have utilized their denomination’s computers. (In this decade, their twenty-nine publications were linked and also connected with other information sources by a teletype network.) This, then, has been a decade of mechanical progress for the Protestant press.
What has happened to circulation since 1956? In its first year (1956) CHRISTIANITY TODAY had 40,000 paid subscribers. Ten years later its paid subscriptions are over 152,000. Marked growth has been reported by scores of publications. On the other hand, many magazines have declined in circulation. Some of this loss may be good—if it reflects vitality. Popularity is fine if it means vital interest resulting in greater influence for good. But it can be bad, if it means a loss of bite in dealing with issues.
Accurate figures for total circulation of the Protestant press are not available. Although circulation has generally gone up since 1956, it probably has not kept pace with the population increase.
The years 1956–1966 have witnessed new magazines resulting from mergers. The union of the Congregational Christian and the Evangelical and Reformed churches led to the United Church Herald. Four Lutheran branches now publish the Lutheran, and the Unitarian Universalists have their Register-Leader. Together represents Methodism’s effort to have one great popular voice. Entirely new magazines, such as CHRISTIANITY TODAY,Decision, Renewal, Church Administration, Spirit, and the Christian Athlete have appeared.
The decade has seen an extension of the Protestant press abroad. Mission boards sponsor publications in the developing nations. Scholarships for national Christians to study journalism are increasing. Evangelical Literature Overseas, a joint effort of many evangelical mission boards, is stepping up its flow of literature abroad every year. Organizations like the David C. Cook Foundation, Lit-Lit, the American Bible Society, Wycliffe Bible Translators, and Laubach Literacy, Inc., are encouraging widespread use of easily read Christian literature in the developing nations.
Progress since 1956 must be measured by the purposes for which Protestant magazines exist. These cannot be measured by the purposes of Time, the Saturday Evening Post, or The New York Times. Yet comparisons in appearance are inevitable. The man who puts down his Atlantic to pick up the Christian Century will desert both if the articles fail to interest him.
In summary, I should say there has indeed been progress in the Protestant press in the past decade. It has kept abreast of the overall “progress” of our culture, but certainly not far ahead. The pace of progress must quicken, if the Protestant press is to be a significant voice. Here are five suggestions.
First. The various independent and denominational publications should find a more satisfactory way of wedding journalistic expertise with theological depth. Men with a sound theological background should be taught how to write. Summer writers’ workshops and conferences can help. Since journalism is a more limited field than theology, editors and potential editors with a theological education should be sent to journalism schools. More programs like the master’s degree sequence in religious journalism at Syracuse University could be established.
Second. There should be a consolidation of some periodicals. Bigness has many economies—and rising costs plague most Protestant publishers. As Marty says in The Religious Press in America, “There are too many saying too little of consequence to too few.”
Third. Denominational leaders should provide their constituency with opportunities to hear divergent opinions from an independent voice within the denomination. There is often as much difference within denominations as there is between them. If the denominational press is to communicate truth, there must be a provision for free expression of opinion, and readers must have material for making up their minds.
Fourth. The publications should establish a clearinghouse for religious news, a service that would be ecumenical and international. The problems of information storage, retrieval, and distribution are so great, the opportunities of the press so large, and the communication crisis so extensive that the Protestant press cannot expect to accelerate its progress without access to the latest techniques of gathering and disseminating news and other data to the whole Christian world. The clearinghouse should not only provide information to religious publications but also channel religious news to the “outside.”
Fifth. There should be a grand experiment in the form of a general magazine representing the Christian point of view—a magazine out on the newsstands aimed at mainstream America. Practical difficulties may make such a high-level project difficult. But if Christian leadership of top stature could enlist adequate financial resources and secure the aid of someone like Henry Luce (born of missionary parents) to plan the strategy, the result could be the twentieth century’s biggest boost to the communication of the Christian Gospel.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.