By Jeff Brumley
The toxic denominational atmosphere that gave birth to Associated Baptist Press a quarter century ago is fading into the mists of history. However, its modern descendent — Baptist News Global — still faces daunting modern challenges.
Both the bested challenges of the past and the promises of the future were recognized during the 25th anniversary celebration of ABP Monday night in Nashville, Tenn. (For more photos of the event, click here.)
And neither past, present nor future difficulties were sugar-coated during the event held at Immanuel Baptist Church.
“Today, it’s not fundamentalism that threatens us, it’s apathy,” BNG board member and Baptist Standard Editor Marv Knox said.
Knox was one of several current and former BNG employees or board members who spoke during the event. He and current BNG News Editor Bob Allen participated in a panel discussion moderated by Editor in Chief Robert Dilday.
Both men shared that rapidly evolving economic and readership trends, coupled with an increased disinterest in religious institutions may spell financial hardships for BNG. That became the organization’s name in October 2014 following ABP’s merger with The Religious Herald in Virginia at the beginning of that year.
Declining loyalty to Baptist identity is another reality BNG faces, said Allen, a long-time staff member. Plus, the web-based news environment is hyper competitive and constantly shifting.
“We don’t have the buy-in and readership we could have,” Allen said.
But the courage, creativity and determination to meet those challenges are part of the organization’s DNA, Allen and other speakers said, bequeathed by Baptist journalists and others who stood up to fundamentalists during their conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.
A particularly poignant date is July 17, 1990, when the SBC’s Executive Committee terminated Dan Martin and Al Shackleford from their leadership roles at Baptist Press.
The men had run afoul of SBC leaders for publishing stories that gave voice to critics of conservatives along with their supporters.
For Allen, who was 34 and the editor of the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware newspaper at the time, it was a disturbing moment.
“Two journalists put moral duty ahead of job security and lost their jobs,” he told the audience of about 80 gathered at Immanuel Baptist. “Those were hard-earned careers and it was not easy finding another job.”
Knox worked at BP as features editor until six weeks before the firings, when he became editor of the Western Recorder in Kentucky. He and Martin, who was news editor, had worked for Shackleford, who was director, in Nashville.
“They made a series of principled decisions and they suffered very painfully for it,” Knox recalled. “They were standing for Baptist ideals and they paid the price for everybody.”
From that pain and shock also came anger — and growth. Shortly after Martin and Shackleford were sacked, incorporating documents were filed to launch a new Baptist news service.
“Anger is a great thing and it galvanized” many to spring into action, Knox said. “It led to the foundation of ABP.”
It’s also led ABP — and now BNG — to continually strive to stay current with web site and social media technology, all the while remembering those who sacrificed to make it possible.
“We have stayed true to our founding principles,” Allen said.
Engaging the world
The organization has also stayed true to its original vision, which was to provide an independent, objective voice for Baptists, said Greg Warner, the former associate editor of the Florida Baptist Witness and ABP’s first full-time employee.
Warner, who held the new service’s top editorial position for 17 years, participated with BNG board member Dan Lattimore and Natalie Aho, BNG’s interactive communication specialist, in a discussion about the organizations’ past, present and future. It was moderated by Kyle Reese, pastor at Hendricks Avenue Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., and current chairman of the BNG board.
Lattimore said Warner and other ABP staff members did far more than maintain the state of Baptist journalism where it had been at the time of conflict with conservatives in the SBC.
Instead, they were able “to push journalism to a higher level in Baptist life,” he said.
But there were challenges to that progress along the way, he said, including money.
“A struggle has been finding a financial model that will work,” Lattimore said. Moving to a donor-based model has been a solution to that challenge, he said.
Another hurdle was finding a replacement for Warner when he retired in 2008. That challenge was met with the hiring of David Wilkinson, the organization’s executive director and publisher.
But Aho said other challenges remain, most significantly journalism in a digital age.
“Journalism is figuring out what people are talking about and getting involved in those conversations,” she said.
While that may always have been journalism’s purpose, today there are so many places where those conversations are occurring, including the social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.
“It is no longer the gathering of the SBC in St. Louis that we need to engage, it’s the world … we can engage with,” Aho said.
Wilkinson concluded the evening soliciting from the audience the names of founders and influencers who made ABP possible. Many were offered, from R.G. Puckett, W.C. Fields and Ed Vick to Jack Brymer, Jim Newton and Orville Scott.
The program tied principles of freedom, independence and autonomy through interconnectedness, Wilkinson said, and these and other pioneers had made a free Baptist press possible.
And living and working through that era was fun, Knox added later.
“It was fun because we were telling one of the greatest religion stories of the 20th century,” he said.