By Jeff Brumley
Legendary Baptist writer and editor Walker Knight has been retired from full-time journalism for years now. But he’s kept a close eye on the industry he left in the 1990s.
From his longtime home in Decatur, Ga., Walker, who turns 90 on Feb. 6, has been observing how denominational battles, market forces, readership trends and the internet age have pushed Baptist media into sometimes sad, sometimes exciting directions.
“It’s a … challenging and demanding time for Baptist journalism,” Knight said. “We are in a very creative time and a very difficult time.”
Declines in denominational loyalty have helped degrade readership, forcing some organizations to innovate. The departure of moderates from the Southern Baptist Convention also changed the marketplace for the largest segment of Baptist media in America, he said.
Knight said the Jan. 1 merger of Associated Baptist Press and Religious Herald is both creative and clue for other news organizations to emulate.
Another model is Mercer University’s Center for Collaborative Journalism, which the historically Baptist liberal arts school launched in 2012 with a $5.6 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
The center brings together Mercer journalism students with reporters, editors and photographers from local print and broadcast media outlets to provide news coverage.
“Something new is going to come out of this,” Knight said of the ABPnews/Herald and Mercer collaborative journalism ventures. “We have to find the best means for getting the message out.”
Knight is familiar with challenging times in journalism and especially in Baptist media. The native Kentuckian attended Baylor University where, shortly after World War Two, he felt a calling into the ministry – religious journalism, specifically.
He detailed his calling and career in his 2013 memoirs titled From Zion to Atlanta.
He had his chance to fulfil that calling with The Baptist Standard followed by a 23-year stint as editor of Home Missions magazine, which was published by the Southern Baptist Convention Home Mission Board.
Knight bucked his SBC overseers by leading coverage of civil rights, race relations, the sexual revolution and other controversial topics.
Before that, Baptist journalism consisted of state papers edited mostly by pastors interested in opinion instead of news, he said. Coverage of the SBC conventions “was more like minutes of a meeting than it was about stories and photographs.”
That began to change partly when W.C. Fields set up a media-style press room at the conventions.
“I’ve had secular reporters tell me our press room was one of the best they had gone to in the nation,” Knight said.
In 1983 he launched SBC Today, which eventually became Baptists Today. He was its editor until 1988 and served as publisher and then interim editor until 1997.
“We were influential in changing the direction of Baptist journalism,” Knight said of he and others of his generation.
But many of those advances have melted away since the theological divisions that roiled through the SBC.
“Baptist Press has become a house organ,” he said. “It was partly to counter that that I started SBC Today.”
The internet has also eaten away at Baptist journalism just as it has the secular media, Knight said. It’s why he sees merger and collaborative efforts as likely keys to the survival of a Baptist press.
“It’s going to have to be something new like that.”