Religious Herald trustees OK ABP merger

Beginning next year, the historic Virginia Baptist newspaper will move to a magazine format co-branded and co-marketed with Associated Baptist Press.

By Bob Allen

Trustees of the Religious Herald, a news journal with historic ties to Virginia Baptists, voted unanimously Oct. 7 to merge with Associated Baptist Press, creating a new print and online media platform aimed at enhancing the mission and heritage of both organizations.

ABP Executive David Wilkinson called it “truly a historic moment for the Baptist family.”

“This merger is good news for everyone who believes that a free press is essential to the health and vitality of the Baptist witness to the gospel,” Wilkinson said in a statement. “It offers a way to preserve and perpetuate the rich legacy of an influential, 185-year-old newspaper while also strengthening our capacity to provide timely, compelling content for and about Baptist Christians through multiple media platforms.”

Herald editor Jim White emphasized that the Religious Herald “is not going away” but instead “simply morphing into a form more in keeping with the needs of the times.”

“As we looked to the future, greater collaboration appeared to be essential, so we simply took the next logical step and merged,” White said. “The end result, for Baptists in Virginia and the Mid-Atlantic states, will be an organization that is even better equipped to provide news and information to our constituents.”

Beginning in 2014, the Religious Herald, published since 1828, will move to a magazine format co-branded and co-marketed with ABPnews, the flagship website of the independent national news service formed amid the Southern Baptist Convention fundamentalist/moderate controversy in 1990.

jim whiteA new staffing plan includes two current Religious Herald employees. Two other employees — White and customer care director Marty Garber — have accepted severance packages.

White, Religious Herald editor since 2004, said he chose to step down voluntarily as an indication of how strongly be believes the merger is the right course of action.

“The new organization we have formed needs to use its personnel dollars to achieve maximum impact in reporting events in Virginia, the Mid-Atlantic and beyond,” White said in a statement. “It was obvious from the beginning that we needed to direct personnel resources to young writers who are also technologically savvy rather than pay two executive-level salaries.”

Current ABP staff will get new job descriptions. David Wilkinson, ABP executive director since 2008, continues in his role as chief executive officer, overseeing all aspects of the organization’s work including direct responsibilities for administration and fundraising.

Religious Herald Managing Editor Robert Dilday becomes editor in chief. Bob Allen, ABPnews managing editor, will be news editor. Jeff Brumley continues as assistant editor, and a new entry-level staff writer position will be added.

Lindsay Bergstrom, who handles a variety of tasks for ABP under the title director of operations, will narrow her focus as director of creative services. She is trained as a graphic artist and worked 11 years at the Florida Baptist Witness before moving to ABP in 1999.

Barbara Francis, currently advertising manager and bookkeeper for the Religious Herald, will function as business services manager. Natalie Aho, who contracts with ABP as interactive communications specialist, will receive additional hours.

The magazine, yet to be named, will be published bi-monthly. It will be 16-24 pages and printed in full color. It will be sent free to all donors, partner churches and organizations, and will also provide a new communication tool to introduce ABP to readers unfamiliar with the website.

The marketing plan calls for an initial press run of 5,000 copies, and for full costs for printing, design and distribution to be raised by paid advertising.

It will be more than “the best of the web” from the two previous months, according to a content strategy plan, but will include “issue-driven” and “person-focused” articles to move readers from the “what” of daily news and commentary to the “so-what” implications for individual Christians, churches and the wider Baptist community.

The merger comes at a time when many historic newspapers, including religious ones, are falling on hard times. The Baptist Times, published in Great Britain for 156 years, ceased publication in 2011 due to declining denominational support.

More recently, the United Methodist Reporter, with origins in pre-Civil War newspapers in Texas that at one time produced nearly 300 separate editions with tailored content for churches and ministry partners, ceased operations May 31 after finding no viable plan for reversing financial losses.

The structure anticipates possible future expansion into other regions. The Herald and ABP already share content with Baptist papers in Missouri and Texas through a New Voice Media partnership formed in 2006.

David Wilkinson“This agreement has emerged from a shared commitment to be Baptist in heritage, ecumenical in spirit and global in reach,” Wilkinson said. “It lays the groundwork for future conversations with other potential partners both within and beyond Baptist life in America.”

Another goal is to combine and streamline fundraising, particularly in areas like Virginia and North Carolina where various Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ministry partners often wind up going to the same donors.

“From the outset we have been determined to find ways to better serve our respective constituencies by collaborating rather than competing for readers and resources,” Wilkinson said.

“This merger agreement reflects our best efforts to be faithful stewards of the missions and financial resources of these two news organizations,” Wilkinson said. “It builds on our strengths while consolidating and streamlining core operations, eliminating duplications, and achieving economies of scale. At the same time it prepares and positions us to embrace the challenges of a rapidly changing environment in Baptist life and in religious journalism.”

The merger combines both organizations into a single legal entity, Associated Baptist Press, Inc. The original plan was to create a new, separate 501(c)3 corporation, but that changed when the merger task team looked at the time, expense and possible hurdles in applying for IRS approval as a tax-exempt charity.

ABP directors approved the merger Sept. 30.

A transitional governing body composed of members of both existing boards will begin functioning Jan. 1. An eight-member team also composed of members of both boards will begin work on a permanent governing board structure, to be adopted by the transitional board. Associated Baptist Press currently has 21 board members, and the Religious Herald has 24 trustees.

-- Robert Dilday contributed to this report.