By Chip Hutcheson, KPA Past President and Past President of the Kentucky Baptist Convention
A Business Times story last March accurately was headlined “Newspaper industry faces evolution, not extinction.” That fact-based opinion is certainly mirrored by action taken last week by the Western Recorder board of trustees. Your Western Recorder is not going away — but it is changing. And I believe the changes will benefit readers, advertisers and the churches of the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
For quite some time, the newspaper’s staff and trustees have wrestled with many of the same dilemmas that face the secular newspaper industry in a mushrooming digital era. Declining print readership, problems of getting the newspaper delivered to readers in a timely fashion, and finding a way to offer digital access without devaluing your core product were all factors that resulted in the Western Recorder joining forces with the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s Communications Department and transitioning the tabloid newspaper into a glossy magazine product that will be produced monthly.
Why do this, and why now?
The financial viability of the Western Recorder has concerned trustees for several years, but especially in the past year. We wondered how long the newspaper could continue on its path as readership declined, with the spinoff being that lower subscriber totals meant that advertisers would not be as likely to place ads in the paper.
We believe a major factor in the drop in subscribers can be attributed to delivery problems. It has not been uncommon for some in-state subscribers to receive their paper one to two weeks late. The delivery problems weren’t all in the same area — one time it might be a problem in central Kentucky, another time in western Kentucky and the next time in eastern Kentucky. Frustration over untimely delivery was often cited as a cause for people not renewing subscriptions.
Because of the drop in revenues, staffing levels were reduced over the years. In recent times the paper had only two full-time employees. That put the paper in a perilous position — an illness or an accident that would have taken editor Todd Deaton out of the office for any sustained period of time would have jeopardized the paper meeting its production schedule.
This past spring, a Western Recorder subcommittee began meeting with representatives from the Administrative Committee to determine if merging the Western Recorder into KBC Communications would be feasible. It was obvious there were duplication of efforts — there were times that the newspaper and Kentucky Today would work on the same stories. Joining forces would eliminate that, and free up time to develop and write stories that previously there was not time to do.
Not only would combining under one umbrella result in better utilization of resources, it would provide backup for the thin-staffed newspaper. In the end, it seemed to me that merging was a more efficient use of Cooperative Program dollars.
Deaton, who has been the Western Recorder editor for 10 years, was asked to continue as editor of the magazine. However, an opportunity unexpectedly opened up in the past month for him to return to his home state of South Carolina to be managing editor of the state Baptist newspaper there. He accepted that position, with a side benefit that he will be in close proximity to his elderly parents. While we will miss Todd’s expertise and dedication to Kentucky Baptists, we are excited about his future and what his talents will mean for South Carolina Baptists and the kingdom.
The decision to move from an agency of the KBC to being in the Communications Department was not an easy one for trustees. Nor was it easy for us in 2014 to move from a weekly schedule to printing every other week, but it was necessary to cut expenses. Now, keeping the Western Recorder financially viable, we believe that combining with KBC Communications is necessary to preserve a printed product.
When readers receive their March issue, it will not be a tabloid newspaper, but instead a glossy magazine. It will be published once a month, enabling the staff to produce more in-depth stories that are not as time-sensitive as what one would expect in a newspaper.
The magazine approach is something Western Recorder trustees have been mulling for some time. Deaton had developed a prototype of a magazine in early 2018 that he shared with trustees — but because of the merger talks it was decided to table any substantial move to change the paper’s format.
While these are substantial changes, the trustees are encouraged that the March issue will still bear the name of Western Recorder. That’s a name Kentucky Baptists have looked to for more than a century to deliver news of what the Lord is doing in this great state. We are pleased that the legacy is evolving, and that it is not extinct.
For several years, the board has toyed with the idea of changing the name. It’s correctly been observed that “western” in the title doesn’t resonate with people from other parts of the state. Yet trustees did not proceed with making a name change.
With the changes that commence in March, it seems appropriate to keep the name for the time being. However, I believe that somewhere down the road there should be consideration of a name change to more accurately reflect what the Western Recorder means to all Kentucky Baptists. But for the time being, our trustees are glad to see the Western Recorder name still being on the printed product.
I’m encouraged that this partnership between the Western Recorder and KBC Communications will be understood as a way for the printed product to evolve rather than become extinct. I have ink in my veins — holding a printed product, be it a newspaper or magazine, is preferable to me rather than reading from a computer screen. In my 41 years as a newspaper publisher, I saw sweeping and dramatic changes in the industry. This is a significant change for the Western Recorder, but one that is should bode well in our mission of proclaiming the gospel of Christ and encouraging churches to fulfill the Great Commission.