The world of print is more challenging now than ever.
The printed product — newspapers or magazines — have survived so many challenges in bygone days, ranging from a depression, world wars, the advent of radio and then television which were incorrectly forecast to be the doom of print. But the financial realities of 2020 have been devastating to print products, including the Western Recorder.
It was with deep regret that we announced last month the Western Recorder would cease publishing a monthly magazine after the March issue. Its legacy will continue as an annual magazine that will serve as a book of reports for the KBC annual meeting. Yet we'll miss the monthly routine of producing a magazine which had specific goals — focusing strictly on how the Lord was working in Kentucky, and at the same time having stories that were not told anywhere else.
In my mind, those two distinctives were crucial to the survival of the Western Recorder after it ceased being an independent agency and moved into KBC Communications in March 2019. No more reprints of stories that were available in other publications or websites, no Baptist Press stories that were interesting but had no obvious connection to Kentucky. We focused on a specific theme each month and labored to search out stories that fit into each theme. Our co-workers in the KBC building, as well as agencies and institutions, were invaluable in providing content geared toward those themes.
For quite some time, the Western Recorder had dwindling income from both subscriptions and advertising.
I was shocked when I talked with members of various Kentucky Baptist churches who knew little to nothing about the Western Recorder. Let's be blunt — some liberal editorials decades ago led to subscription cancellations. Along came the internet and many printed products were dealt a stinging blow by websites that offered content at no charge.
Several years ago the Western Recorder embarked on an innovative way to attract subscribers by offering to print a church's newsletter on the back page of an issue. The back page program meant churches didn't have to produce and mail a newsletter. That was done by the Western Recorder, saving churches time and money. The Western Recorder benefitted because a church would subscribe for all its members, yielding gains of hundreds of subscriptions, depending on church size.
As time passed, that program ran into a major snag. Delivery problems were common. No matter what was done, it seemed as though the U.S. Postal Service could not maintain consistent, timely delivery.
In 2015, the WR went from printing every week to every other week, resulting in a few churches cutting out the back page program.
But in 2019 with the move to a monthly magazine, we lost about 4,400 subscriptions by not being able to continue the back page program. This drop told us that most of those 4,400 were primarily getting the paper to read their church newsletter, but didn't find much interest in the rest of the publication.
We've worked diligently contacting churches to ask them about subscribing to the new concept of a magazine. Many did, but we lost hundreds of subscriptions from the back page program and were replacing them with 10, 20 or 30 subscriptions at a time.
The delivery problem didn't go away. Some readers report receiving the magazine days after it is mailed. But in some areas it takes two to three weeks — or more — for the magazine to arrive. That's not helpful in retaining subscribers. That problem is not unique to us — all publications we are aware of face the same struggle.
In spite of the obstacles, we were consistently adding several hundred subscriptions a month. Then it came to a screeching halt with the pandemic, which was the nail in the WR coffin. When churches went to virtual services, some churches stopped their subscriptions because they couldn't distribute them. When in-person services resumed, many churches didn't want to risk a COVID-19 spread, so they didn't hand out bulletins nor any other printed material, including the Western Recorder.
Advertising was affected. Many of our regular advertisers have suffered financial loss, so they had no choice but to trim expenses, including advertising. While The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Clear Creek Baptist Bible College have maintained a consistent presence on our pages, other advertising has been sporadic. Most said, "Call us when the pandemic is over."
The good news is that Kentucky Today, the online news product of the KBC, will now feature an expanded lineup of writers. Many of those who write for the Western Recorder will now submit stories to Kentucky Today, which will provide a larger readership base. Moving content out of print and onto the internet is a strategy several states already use.
Next month we'll talk a little more about plans moving forward — but for now, please accept my sincere gratitude for your support of the Western Recorder.
Chip Hutcheson is interim managing editor of the Western Recorder, the monthly magazine of the Kentucky Baptist Convention. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.