Bob Dylan famously declared, “The times they are a-changin’.” In the world of journalism that sure feels spot on. Nearly every week another story hits about some publication going out of print or even out of business. And nearly every week it seems there’s also another attack on press freedom rights.
Earlier this month, Baptist leaders in Arkansas announced the state Southern Baptist newspaper, the Arkansas Baptist News, would dissolve its autonomous board of directors and become an in-house publication of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. ABN, which started in 1901, had operated as a separate agency with trustees elected by the convention. The new governance will remove any remaining independence — a move that’s also occurred in other states in recent years. Tim Yarbrough, ABN editor since 2011, will lose his position in the transition, and the paper may stop printing.
The move in Arkansas means only four Southern Baptist state conventions still have newspapers functioning as a separate corporation (with trustees elected by the respective convention): Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina. One former state convention newspaper, Word&Way, is now a fully independent publication as it had been at its founding.
Adding to the loss of press freedom among Baptists is the reduction in Baptist publications. Prior to the Arkansas news, at least 13 state or regional Baptist news publications stopped printing in the last seven years. A couple of those went out of business completely, and many others still printing have reduced how frequently they publish.
Similar trends exist in other denominations and even among the secular press. In just the last few years we’ve seen the death of several newspapers more than a century old, including the Cincinnati Post, Rocky Mountain News (in Denver), Tampa Tribune, and Tucson Citizen (Arizona’s oldest newspaper). The news is even worse in rural America. Overall, one-fifth of newspapers in the country have ceased printing since 2004. That a loss of more than 1,800 newspapers. One-third of those were in rural communities where many served as the only local news source. That means there are now nearly 200 counties in America that do not have a local newspaper, creating “news deserts.”
Studies show that a lack of local news sources leads to greater political polarization and people being more susceptible to fake or inaccurate sites online. Studies even show that a dearth of local news can lead to greater government corruption and worse corporate pollution since the press watchdogs no longer exist. We end up with more gossip about famous people and less information about things that actually impact the lives of everyday people. And when religious publications go out of business, it means our worldview of the news is increasingly shaped by those secular sources.
But here’s the kicker: Despite the rapid death of the press in the U.S., most Americans think local media is doing well, even as few pay for it. A 2019 survey by Pew found that 71 percent of Americans think the local news media do well financially. Ironically, that same poll found only 14 percent said they actually paid for local news in the past year by subscribing, donating or becoming a member.
If we don’t invest in our press, we will lose it and the freedoms that it protects. And then we might wake up to a reality like the one Joni Mitchell lamented: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” And why does that happen? She answers in the chorus: “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.”
So, don’t let that happen to Word&Way. In an age when Baptist news is becoming merely convention public relations, we need an independent publication with the freedom to tell the truth. In an age when partisanship trumps principles, we need a faithful publication committed to the Truth (and the Life, Word, and Way).
We live in a time of much change and turmoil. And that means we must be even more diligent in preserving what matters to us before it’s too late. Join the fight as a protector of an independent press for free and faithful Baptists. When you support Word&Way, you help tell stories that need to be told. When you support Word&Way, you help tell real news that leads people back to the Good News.