North Carolina pastor Tim Rogers recently counseled fellow Southern Baptist Convention pastors to decline comment to non-SBC publications. He did so in he context of an internecine debate over an SBC-funded pastor’s conference. Rogers wrote:
Dr. Vance Pitman has responded to various questions and concerns raised by Southern Baptist Pastors regarding the upcoming Southern Baptist Pastor’s Conference (SBPC) in Phoenix, Arizona. You can see various questions and concerns here here and here. The medium Brother Pitman chooses to give his response is the Associated Baptist Press (ABP), the
newsagency started by disgruntled former Southern Baptist because the Executive Committee (EC) terminated Baptist Press (BP) editors. This newsagency is controlled and maintained by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) the group that would not affirm the inerrancy of Scripture and splintered from the Southern Baptist Convention to form their own Fellowshipdenomination. You can read the ABP article which contains Brother Pitman’s interview here.
Rogers goes on to give explicit advice about how SBC pastors should handle calls from reporters who do not work for SBC publications:
Once he found out the reporter was out side of the SBC the proper way to respond would have been to politely dismiss the call with a promise to get back.
Thus he advises putting non-SBC reporters off with a fib.
Odd. And the specific reporter to whom
Pittman Rogers refers in this case is Norman Jameson, clearly identified at the conclusion of the ABP article as “former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.”
The North Carolina Biblical Recorder is a Southern Baptist newspaper, which like its peers is declining toward oblivion.
The Louisiana Baptist Message’s new pay-to-read Web site apparently skidded on launch. They have rolled out a lurid red, top-heavy, new Web design which combines mostly subscriber-only content, some of which is free elsewhere, with incomplete sections (Plan of Salvation, Focus, Image Archive, Links of Interest).
A Southern Baptist official state newspaper with an empty Salvation section?
It is too early to draw lasting conclusions, but the early returns are not encouraging, for them.
We greeted as suicidal their announcement last year of pay-wall plans. And they’re not disappointing us. The Missouri Word & Way saw a slight decline (-8.18%) in Web traffic while the North Carolina Biblical Recorder saw a sharp increase (+160.7%) during the period of sharp Louisiana Baptist Message decline(-55.9%). The yearly change percentages are +428.77% for Word & Way, +105.84% for the Biblical Recorder and -19.02% for the Baptist Message.
The Baptist Message changes also disrupted existing links to its earlier content. For example, their redesign broke the links to a Louisiana Baptist Messenger Editor Kelly Boggs editorial in CounterFactual Kelly Boggs.
The combined effects of putting up a pay wall, redesign/launch errors and uninspiring content are likely to keep the Baptist Message in the Web readership basement. Or below. Where their print circulation, and that of the other Baptist state newspapers, was already going.
For this redesign and broken launch, however, they may deserve a nomination to Web Pages That Suck.
We will follow their experiment with flagging interest.
Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. writes that the Episcopal Church is making a major transition from a print-primary presence to publishing primarily through electronic media:
In part, this shift recognizes the financial and ecological burdens of producing a monthly newspaper that is mailed to subscribers. In part, this shift recognizes what is happening all around us, as information sharing becomes far more rapid and immediate than the capabilities of print media.
. . .
Former printing partners (dioceses or congregations) now have the ability to tailor their publication to a far greater degree than the old system allowed. A new quarterly print publication will offer more opportunity for reflection and in-depth conversation than is possible in a daily or even monthly publication.
Lynette Wilson, who was a staff writer for Episcopal Life, has been promoted to editor/writer of The Episcopal Church’s new quarterly publication, which debuts this year.
Final decisions are being made diocese by diocese. For example:
- The Episcopal Diocese of Kentucky has transitioned from a monthly newspaper to an “E-newsletter and a new quarterly magazine” and “is considering other media resources that make communications instantaneous and available 24/7 such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube and podcasting to determine which of these may best help the diocese and its churches tell our stories.”
- Episcopal Diocese of Chicago has transitioned from a bimonthly to a quarterly publication complemented by an e-newsletter and other resources.
- The Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts has a twice yearly print publication, a monthly e-newsletter and a monthly bulletin for clergy and parish and diocesan leaders
- The Episcopal Diocese of Michigan has eliminated print publication of The Record altogether in favor of an email publication called The Record Weekly, complemented by the Web site.
It depends, as with other publications. The American Press Institute and ITZBelden surveyed 2,400 U.S. newspaper executives. Only 51% think pay walls will work and they have clear ideas about how many paying online subscribers [.pdf] (presentation slides [.pdf]) to expect:
Respondents report a wide range of online subscription charges (from $1 to $27.50 a month), yet they report surprisingly uniform levels of uptake on subscriptions, typically 1 percent to 3 percent of print circulation — regardless of price.
Even these survey results may be overly optimistic because, as Nieman Lab observes, “ITZ Publishing consults for Steve Brill’s pay-for-news firm Journalism Online, which just touted the results as an ‘API study’ without noting its business interest.”
The study certainly does not suggest that that small Baptist publications can readily benefit from throwing pay walls between Web users and content with which those users are already be underinspired.
Indeed, another recent survey found that just 5% of online users are willing to pay for content. Whereas “74 per cent of those surveyed said if their favourite news service started charging to access content online they would switch to a free alternative.”
For nonprofit publications which actually have special value to their readers, there is a half-step which has potential. The Texas Baptist Standard is almost trying it now and has some generalized, high-visibility support of the sort required to make the strategy work. Their E3 product offers enhanced content at a low price and could conceivably be promoted out of its doldrums. Buried in the marketing points for E3, there is already one example the kind of pitch which befits a nonprofit news product:
Gratitude: Online news is free to you, but not free to produce. An E3 subscription expresses user-supported gratitude for the value of online news.
Marketing an enhanced version of a news product to users as a way for them to support the good work, is a legitimate strategy. If the product is in the view of readers, good enough. Simply put, we believe the for-profit freemium model can be fruitfully adapted to nonprofit solicitation strategies.
By putting up a pay wall. They have announced “it is very likely” that once their ongoing Web redesign “is complete that a subscription will be required to access all of the Baptist Message’s print content online.”
Available public figures suggest that Web users are disinterested in the publication’s content and as a result will not pay for it online. The Baptist Message has an Alexa Traffic Rank of 4,551,727 (lower numnbers are better), a Google PageRank of 4 (higher numbers are better). Page views per user and time on site per user suggest a site that is already unread by most visitors. Likewise, the persistent absence of advertising from the Message online implies that advertisers have concluded that it has no worthwhile Web audience to which to hawk their wares.
Subscription prices are a mere $14.00 a year, but the Web has plenty of examples of small payment publications that failed. The Message is already on life support and dying by degrees. It was budgeted a $426,800 subsidy for 2004 by the Louisiana Baptist Convention. Declining circulation and rising costs drove it from weekly to biweekly in 2009, and into a printed-on-paper partnership to deliver the state convention’s promotional magazine, LBClive.
There appear to be no Southern Baptist exceptions to the record of pay-wall failure. The state Baptist publication of Texas – the Texas Baptist Standard (Alexa Traffic Rank: 282,514; Google PageRank: 5) – launched an $8-a-year online multimedia product called “E3″ during the first quarter of this year. And E3’s Facebook group activity suggests that it has crashed and awaits burning.
Success would be denoted by thousands of Facebook group members and a plethora active discussions.
E3 was foredoomed by lack of user interest, as we warned at launch. Most Baptist Standard Web visitors hit one page and leave (80% bounce rate). They tarry long enough to perhaps read that page and increasingly look at only one page. Repackaging and more heavily promoting content whose Web traffic demonstrates little marketplace appeal is a waste of money. We’ll dig a hole in our product graveyard for E3 (no charge).
The arc of on-paper Baptist state newspaper circulation has been one of inexorable decline toward disappearance, for decades (see graph below).
It is sad to see another state Southern Baptist publication propose a step which is if implemented destined to reduce the remains of their Web presence to ashes, thus accelerating their overall decline.
After some discussion of Alexa, we used Compete to generate a nice interactive graph of unique users visiting the Web sites of three state Baptist publications — the Lousiana Baptist Message, the Missouri Word & Way and the N.C. Biblical Recorder.
If the underlying numbers are even within throwing range of correct, none of them should consider charging for access to their online content. Least of all the Baptist Message (to the best of our knowledge the only one of the three which is considering a pay wall). According to Compete, it attracted just under 15 unique visitors a day in October — appropriate to a good personal blog, not a publication with full-time staff, and probably several thousand times less than the visits they need to pair with compelling content before considering a pay wall.
Rising costs and declining revenue have driven the 1.2-million-member United Church of Christ to end its newsprint publication in September, replacing it with a portfolio which includes an expanded Web news portal, email publications and a MyUCC social networking community.
The United Church News tied last year for third place in the Associated Church Press competition for best national or international religion newspaper in North America. Distributed for free to UCC members since 2001, it had a reported 2008 circulation of 206,000 and was said to be the nation’s largest denominational newspaper.
In a move toward “citizen journalism,” registered MyUCC users can create their own blogs and group discussions, upload images and video and otherwise “contribute their own body of unfiltered content, opinions, reflections and creative work,” said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, the UCC’s director of communications.
Plans are being developed to meet an expressed congregational need for a printed “identity publication” in the Spring of 2010. Guess described it as a twice-yearly, paid-subscription, “oversized, full-color, coffee-table publication of 80-to-100 pages.”
Created in 1985 to succeed A.D. Magazine and the United Church Herald, the United Church News published 10 editions per year until 2005. Then, as a result of financial pressure, the number was cut to six.
Another edition is to be printed in June and the final newsprint edition is to be published in September, when it joins the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Witness, the Wyoming Catholic Register and other print-on-paper publications whose archive is complete.
Which Baptist state newspaper will follow the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Witness into oblivion?
The Utah/Idaho Southern Baptist Convention announced in February that the tabloid-sized paper would end publication. There was mention of looking “at alternative ways to communicate the stories of our churches and associations and state convention,” but as of this writing the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Witness has not been replaced with a Web news or other service.
It published 10 issues a year for perhaps 1,300 subscribers: not a viable market. The announcement said, “There have been numerous approaches to try to increase the number of subscriptions and make it cost-effective over the years.”
All of those efforts failed, as have the circulation-building efforts of Baptist state publications as a group. The arc of Baptist state association newspaper publication circulation decline is inexorable.
Falling revenue has, as with other recession-plagued religious organizations — whether ministries, seminaries or nondenominational enterprises — forced staff and other cutbacks on the ecclesiastical press.
Lacking the heavy marketplace pressure which has driven mainstream publications, the ecclesiastical press has on the whole adapted even less well to the rise of the Web than its for-profit kinfolk. The Christian Science Monitor’s shift from print to a Web-based strategy, with a high-quality Web product to support it, is the shining exception.
Among the less well-known, some which were once technological leaders have reversed field to give up, for example, an early adopter advantage in social-networking distribution via twitter. Similarly, the Texas Baptist Standard recently announced an online subscription strategy — paid access to a visual analog of the print newspaper, with online bells and whistles. Yet online experiments with paid subscriptions have produced no general information winners.
Baptist state convention newspapers in general may have a very limited future. The big Texas Baptist Standard, for example, persuades the average visitor to spend barely enough time on the site (just over a minute and half per visitor) to peruse the index page or perhaps read part of an online story. Repackaging or more heavily promoting content whose Web traffic already demonstrates little marketplace appeal may not be a path to survival, no matter what kind of digital presentation is used.
Update re Baptist Standard
Although significantly more is involved than a simple conversion, even with bells and whistles added, it is still a page-flipping solution behind a pay wall.
A low pay wall of merely $8 per year, BTW.
Unfortunately, the Web already has plenty of small-payment publication solutions that failed.