Arkansas Baptist News released to state convention, no longer independent news outlet

Editor’s Note: Updated information added to “Funding” section Feb. 6, 9 a.m., and “Only four remain” section Feb. 12, 6:30 p.m.

The Arkansas Baptist News (ABN) recently dissolved its autonomous board of directors and became a convention-run publication, according to an Arkansas Baptist State Convention (ABSC) press release Feb. 4.

The ABN is the most recent of the traditional state Baptist newspapers, reportedly because of financial and other pressures, to make this move, leaving only four of its kind remaining. The Alabama Baptist (TAB) is one of those four and remains the largest circulated among them.

The Arkansas ministry, most often referred to as the ABN, began as a part of the ABSC Executive Board in 1901. In 1983 Arkansas Baptists created the ABN as a corporate agency to operate the news service, with the ABSC as the parent corporation, the press release reported.

The recent decision to dissolve the independent board and return operations of the publication to the state convention was made in response to a financial study conducted by outside accountants in 2019, the ABSC release stated.

Arkansas pastor Doug Hibbard, president of the ABN board of trustees prior to the board’s decision to dissolve, said, “The ABN has been restructured under the ABSC Executive Board, with the ABSC committed to continue this vital ministry of telling the story of Arkansas Baptists and keeping us informed about the cooperative ministry of Arkansas Baptists, Southern Baptists, and our network of churches and associations.”

Not all agree

Ron West, an ABN board member and member of Immanuel Baptist Church, Little Rock, voted against the decision to dissolve ABN. He said the move toward this end started more than three years prior with the 2018–2022 Cooperative Program (CP) budget allocation plan where ABN’s funding was reduced more than other entities in the ABSC’s decision to send more money to Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) causes. Convention messengers approved the five-year budget allocation in 2016.

“One reason I feel so strongly about this is it is a misuse of our support for the Cooperative Program,” he said. “I am an emeritus IMB missionary. For 30 years part of my salary was paid by CP funds sent from state conventions to the SBC. We strongly supported Lottie Moon (Christmas Offering) and the Cooperative Program but we always said do not reduce your support through the Cooperative Program to state and other SBC entities. We need all of us working together. The ABN is part of that team.”

Lyndon Finney, who was chairman of the board in 2016 when the first cuts were adopted, said the whole situation was handled “very unprofessionally.”

He said that in 2016, he and ABN editor Tim Yarbrough were brought before a committee, where Yarbrough was asked to present a futuristic plan. “Tim made his presentation, and we never heard another word,” said Finney, a member of Immanuel Baptist. “They never came back to him and said, ‘Here’s what we’re considering. How would that affect your operations?’”

Then a day or two before the committee’s vote, they were told what was happening with no option to change it, Finney said.

Funding decision approved by messengers

Greg Addison, ABSC associate executive director, said the funding reduction percentages were decided by a 10-member task force and approved by messengers to the 2016 convention. ABN did receive a larger reduction in funding than the other entities, he said, adding the convention’s mission board office gave up the first 1.05 percent of the overall 2.05 percent needed. From there, .5 percent was to come from the ABN and .5 percent from all other agencies and institutions combined.

The reason ABN received a larger decrease in funding, which equaled “$21,000 per year for a total of $105,000 over the five years,” was because of the changing landscape of disseminating information and how people communicate and because ABN had opportunities to find other revenue sources, Addison explained.

Total budget reductions for the other ABSC agencies and institutions at the end of the 2018–2022 period are reported by the ABSC to be $11,535 for the Children’s Homes, $6,775 for the Foundation, $5,025 for the convention’s camp and $81,665 for the schools.

But there remains confusion about the real amount ABN would have given up in funding over the five years if it had been allowed to continue.

Messengers voted for ABN to receive $290,736 in CP funds in 2016 (according to a June 4, 2015, ABN report), $277,521 in 2017 (according to a June 2, 2016, ABN report), $256,521 in 2018 (according to a June 1, 2017, ABN report), $235,521 in 2019 (according to a May 31, 2018, ABN report) and $214,521 in 2020 (according to a May 23, 2019, ABN report). 

The pattern proves the intention was a loss of an additional $21,000 each year during the five-year period, not a straight-up $21,000 per year for five years, West explained. From 2017 to 2018, the CP funding decreased $21,000 but the difference between 2017’s allocation and 2019’s amount is $42,000, he pointed out. And then the difference between 2017 and 2020 would have been $63,000, so if ABN had survived the full five years, then the total amount given up would have been $315,000 overall, rather than the $105,000 overall originally reported.

West said, “A worthy goal was set to increase giving to SBC causes by 2.05 percent. However, the formula to achieve this goal was presented in a way that hid the fact that the Arkansas Baptist Newsmagazine was being asked to take on a burden far out of proportion to other ABSC institutions.

“We were not told the actual numbers,” said West, who was not on the ABN board at that time and voted for the reduction because he said he did not fully understand the implications.

However, Addison said the total overall would have been the originally reported $105,000 and shared that if an institution or agency’s margin of viability is $21,000 on an annual basis, then there is cause for concern and that’s why the decision to go ahead and make the decision early in 2020 rather than waiting became a stewardship issue. Dissolving an institution or agency at the end of a calendar year, rather than waiting a few months into the next year, saves unnecessary expenses, he noted.

Also, Arkansas’ CP allocation budget percentages are reevaluated every five years, so the funding decision was not an attempt “to gut” an agency, Addison added.

But West said it was more than the reduction in CP funding that impacted the ABN.

“In 2019 the leadership of the ABSC announced they would cease buying advertisements in the magazine,” he said. “They were our major source of income for advertisements.”

When the trustees were told ABN could no longer afford to continue, West said that news “was disputed by some on the board who said we had not given our editor a chance to explore options such as fewer paper editions and more digital.”

Still, on Jan. 16, the ABN board voted 8-5 to close with two abstentions, West said. “This was all done without notifying the convention or the churches what was happening. It was not mentioned at our annual convention in October.”

Addison noted that the ABN board made the decision and the ABSC executive board unanimously affirmed the action Jan. 28. As the parent corporation of ABN, ABSC is now responsible for the assets, liabilities and personnel, he said. The details of what all of this looks like are still being worked out, but Addison said the concept of information and news being shared through the ABN channels is the goal.

“We are all in with the news service … we’ve just trying to figure out this landscape moving forward,” he noted. “We were doing cooperative missions education … and now we are stepping into the news service space.”

How Kentucky and Tennessee made the switch

One year ago, Kentucky’s nearly 200-year-old Western Recorder newspaper operations were merged with the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s in-house communications team. The biweekly newspaper ceased to exist after February 2019, but a monthly feature magazine produced by the convention communications staff now uses the Western Recorder name.

In Tennessee, the oversight is a little different. When Tennessee’s Baptist & Reflector (B&R) started being published by the Tennessee state convention around 2015, the convention staff agreed to leave it as a biweekly newspaper and provides editorial freedom to longtime editor Lonnie Wilkey.

“This arrangement has proven to be effective,” Wilkey said. “Though the paper is under the Communications Team, the director of communications (Chris Turner) and the president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board (Randy C. Davis) both believe in the need for a newspaper and allow editorial freedom.”

Turner said Wilkey and the rest of his team work together to make sure readers still have the Baptist paper they want.

“We believe finding a mutually beneficial solution is one of the reasons the readership of our print edition has mostly held steady,” Turner said.

But West said he doesn’t have confidence that this kind of setup will work for Arkansas. Free reporting, he said, will “disappear.”

Finney agreed. “Should something controversial come up, you won’t hear both sides of the story — you’ll hear a one-sided slant,” he said. “It’s just a sad, tragic day among Baptists in Arkansas.”

Only four remain

While the makeup of most state convention-related news outlets now find their structure guided by their state’s mission board leaders, Baptists in Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana are sticking behind a free press concept for their news outlets. The Baptist Standard of Texas also falls in the category of autonomous in regard to how it is structured and how it operates in partnership with the state convention, but it no longer provides a print newspaper so it is a little different from the other four in that regard.

Will Hall, editor of the Louisiana Baptist Message, said for his paper, “In regard of this nature of our journalism ministry, the governance we enjoy works — we have freedom and access as well as accountability.”

Seth Brown, executive editor of North Carolina’s Biblical Recorder, said news outlets “that operate with a measure of independence … are becoming increasingly rare.”

His newspaper, which has its own board approved by the state convention each year, receives some CP funding but also relies on subscriptions, advertising and donations. TAB, Baptist Message and South Carolina’s Baptist Courier operate with similar models.

Brown said he can see pros and cons to both the convention-run setup and the independent agency situation. He noted two dynamics that matter to him in that conversation — purpose and funding.

“A Baptist state news outlet that operates independently or semi-independently from its state convention enjoys some editorial freedom — a high value in the eyes of any journalist,” Brown said, noting that, when used properly, this kind of freedom can be good for the health of the SBC ecosystem.

But, he notes, funding can affect that balance in both directions. If a news outlet has full funding from its state convention, it may run the risk of becoming lax in its journalism. If it has to fund itself completely, it may chase the stories that bring income, even if they aren’t the best use of space.

With that in mind, he sees his publication’s hybrid structure as being the most effective model.

Hybrid structure ‘a positive’

TAB’s board of directors chairman and vice chairman agreed.

Rob Jackson, chairman of TAB’s board of directors, said, “An autonomous board ensures TAB is unbiased while we work synergistically with all our state partners.”

And vice chairman Gary Fenton said, “The Alabama Baptist has the best of both worlds. The autonomous board allows the state paper to be free from any denominational control, but our great cooperative relationship with the Alabama Baptist Convention provides us the opportunity to give Baptists news from the denomination.”

Jennifer Davis Rash, TAB’s president and editor-in-chief, said the hybrid structure will allow TAB to successfully navigate the current changing trends in the communications industry as a whole.

“We have morphed into a media group rather than just being print or online,” she said. “We are trying to cover all the bases with our content so that there’s something for everyone, regardless of how you prefer to get your news and information.

“We also work closely with all of our state convention partners and ministries and have a solid relationship with Alabama Baptist churches,” she said. “The people know us personally and understand our calling to serve in this area. They know our hearts and the importance of credible news and information from an unbiased source as well as the need to have access to trusted resources for personal growth and discipleship.”

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