American evangelicals have always been innovators in communication technology. Dating at least to the early decades of the Republic, we formed parachurch organizations to leverage business strategies and resources and capitalize on the latest forms of technology in an effort to spread the good news.1 The ministry orientation of these organizations gave them access to revenue streams not available to commercial publications in the form of charitable donations and also freed them from tyranny of a profit motive, enabling them to operate on more slender margins than their for-profit competitors. Such a focus allowed them to achieve considerable success in saturating the market with their message, despite some times facing limited access to mainstream distribution networks.
Still, the nonprofit model does not completely insulate evangelical media efforts from the economic realities of the broader media environment, as illustrated by the 2016 decision by Christianity Today2 to cease publication of Books & Culture. The announcement of that closure was met by widespread lament by commentators concerned with fostering rigorous engagement with intellectual culture from a distinctly evangelical worldview, some of whom suggested that this was a dire sign of the state of evangelical intellectual endeavor at large.3 That singular decision, however, is better understood in the context of both the history of evangelical media innovation and the realities of the current economic and technological environment for publishing. This article explores that history and current reality, with particular attention to Books & Culture and its parent company, Christianity Today, to glean possibilities for new innovations by which the conversations of evangelicals concerned with the life of the mind might be carried forward into the future.
A Tradition of Innovation
David Paul Nord extensively documents the critical role played by evangelical benevolent associations in pioneering American mass media.4 Organizations such as the American Bible Society (ABS), the American Tract Society, and the American Sunday School Union, driven by a zeal to make the gospel available to every household in the country, were early adopters of new communication technologies, including stereotype printing, steam-powered presses, and domestic machine papermaking.5 By taking advantage of the economies of scale made available by these technological innovations, ABS, in particular, drove its unit price so low that for-profit publishers were unable to compete on price. To differentiate their products, commercial publishers turned to value-added features such as illustrations and commentary to justify their higher price points.6 This phenomenon was a natural precursor to the plethora of specialty Bibles now available from Bible publishers.
American evangelical print culture included a prolific assortment of magazines from the earliest days. One of the first periodicals printed in the American colonies was Christian History, which appeared in Boston in the 1740s.7 In the century before 1830, the number of Christian periodicals published in the colonies and then the United States numbered nearly 600.8 After the Civil War, religious journals nearly doubled from about 350 in print in 1865 to more than 650 in 1885.9 Although not all religious periodicals were evangelical or even Protestant, the majority of publications represented the majority faith traditions in the country, meaning evangelicalism was well represented among religious periodicals. Publications ranged in scope and audience from scholarly journals aimed at the learned clergy to general-interest publications for lay audiences. According to chroniclers of religious publications Fackler and Lippy, “for much of the nineteenth century [religious titles] outnumbered strictly secular magazines, newspapers, and cognate periodicals.”10
In the twentieth century, the pattern of evangelicals adopting new communication technologies continued, as evangelists first embraced radio and then television to broadcast their message.11 Even as they expanded into new media, evangelicals did not abandon print, especially when striving to present their positions as intellectually respectable options to a skeptical society. For example, the project that became The Fundamentals was originally conceived as a monthly magazine that would be sent to English-speaking church leaders globally before being recast as a series of booklets.12 Two generations later, Billy Graham and Carl F. H. Henry launched Christianity Today with a similar vision: to articulate an irenic presentation of evangelical convictions in order to win over liberal clergy to the evangelical cause.13
Throughout its more than 60 years of existence, and especially during the leadership of Harold Myra (president and CEO 1976–2007), Christianity Today continued the pattern of innovation in media, offering resources in a variety of formats and responding nimbly to market research to offer products that were appealing to audiences and financially sustainable. It was an early provider of online content in the 1990s, partnering with America Online, then building its own presence on the world wide web. Although a tabloid-style book review journal might have seemed a little old fashioned even in 1995 when Books & Culture launched, the diversified stable of publications operating under the Christianity Today umbrella was part of what made possible a new publication whose time had come.
The Present Media Environment
The print periodical industry as a whole is in a state of upheaval. In certain respects, this is nothing new. The same new media technologies that evangelicals so willingly embraced for more than a century (radio, television, internet, and so on) have at every turn presented competition to print publications on both elements that are essential for the success of their business model: consumer attention (and ultimately subscriptions) and advertising share.14 At the same time, new forms of media, such as recorded music and computers, presented opportunities to create corresponding print magazines in both the mainstream market (Rolling Stone, PC Magazine) and the Christian market (CCM, Christian Computing). General-interest magazines, such as Life and Look, never quite recovered from the encroachment of television as the new dominant general-entertainment medium, but niche publications flourished, even as the Internet age began.15
Although new forms of media did not destroy the market for print,16 print publishing was not a financially secure endeavor even in the pre-Internet days. Christianity Today depended on subsidies from J. Howard Pew and other donors for its first two decades.17 After instituting sweeping changes that put the magazine on a self-sustaining path for the first time in its history and launching a sister publication, Leadership Journal, that operated in the black from the first issue, Myra warned the board in 1984 that we are fighting large odds against survival … the advertising base is limited, and religious magazines generally operate in the red. … We cannot emphasize too strongly that survival is not probable in this kind of setting unless we have enormous discipline and the very finest and wisest energies applied at all levels of the organization.18
External factors, such as the cost of paper and postage and the vagaries of the interests of both readers and advertisers, meant the fiscal security of print publications was never a sure thing.
The early years of consumer commercial Internet access did not pose an immediate existential threat to the magazine industry, even though, like every media innovation before, it presented new competition for readers’ attention and advertisers’ dollars. Slow and unreliable dial-up connections, limited market penetration, and a shortage of quality content on the early world wide web—not to mention the fact that reading off a page was more comfortable and convenient than reading off a computer screen—meant that magazine readers demonstrated no big rush to give up their print periodicals when home Internet service became widely available. Indeed, at the same time, home Internet usage was experiencing exponential growth, a record number of new print magazine titles were launched in 1998 at 1,076.19
One enduring legacy of the first decade of consumer commercial Internet access was the evolution of an ad-supported content model that conditioned consumers to expect that online content should be delivered free of charge (beyond monthly access fees paid to the Internet service provider).20 Most print periodicals used a dual income stream that draws revenue from both advertisers and consumers. Once online readers grew used to “free” content, they proved resistant to any business model that asked them to contribute financially for the things they read online. This made it difficult for print magazines to develop a viable financial strategy for providing content online, as ad rates were generally insufficient to cover costs and readers were unwilling to pay.
In 2007 everything changed. Although Internet usage was steadily trend ing up among American adults (from 52 percent in 2000 to 74 percent in 2007 to 88 percent in 2016),21 until 2007, readers of online content were generally either tethered to their computers or compelled to print material for offline reading. In 2007, Apple released the first iPhone and Amazon released the Kindle eReader. These devices and their competitors ushered in an era of mobile access to digital content that changed consumer patterns of media consumption more than home Internet access had. Consumers’ willingness to pay for content on mobile devices in the form of smartphone apps and eBooks suggested the move to mobile might present new opportunities for magazine publishers to monetize digital content. However, most experiments with subscription-based eZines/digizines foundered. Christianity Today’s entry into the market, The Behemoth, outlasted many peer publications but was folded into the parent magazine in September 2016 after a two-year run.22
That year, 2007, also saw the subprime mortgage crisis that triggered the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression, with devastating effects on an industry already operating on thin margins and dependent on the discretionary spending of advertisers and consumers to pay for its operating costs. The years 2007–2009 saw widespread magazine closures, with 643 publications shuttering in 2007, 613 in 2008, and 428 in 2009.23 Several Christianity Today titles were caught up in that wave of closures, including Ignite Your Faith (formerly Campus Life), Marriage Partnership, Today’s Christian Woman, and Christian History (subsequently relaunched by Christian History Institute). The original move, beginning in 1980, to expand Christianity Today’s publishing menu from a single flagship journal to a “family” of magazines had been a strategy to provide more stability for the ministry by dispersing overhead expenses across several publications.24 Now market pressures were forcing the ministry back in the other direction of fewer titles in the hopes of keeping core products sustainable.
Books & Culture survived the purge of 2007–2009, even celebrating its own longevity with a fifteenth-anniversary cover (September/October 2010) that noted how it had outlasted several notable secular peer publications and asked “Scandal? What Scandal?” However, this was not a sign that the publication was financially self-sustaining. So-called “thought-leader” magazines virtually never produced a self-sustaining revenue stream in the United States through advertising and subscriptions alone even when the industry had fewer competitors for readers’ attention. With the exception of the profitable New York Review of Books, journals of opinion and review need patrons or endowments to survive in the long term.25 Books & Culture received some significant external funding over the years, including start-up funds from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Likewise, more than $500,000 in grants from Baylor University and Indiana Wesleyan University were received.26 However, those funds, and even the impressive reader-led Twitter drive that staved off closure in 2013,27 were not sufficient to keep the publication going in the long run. Decreasing revenue from other publications made it less and less sustainable for the parent ministry to subsidize Books & Culture. Institutions of Christian higher education, which are in many ways natural partners for the publication, were experiencing their own financial difficulties, leaving them without resources to invest elsewhere, and major philanthropic organizations, whether or not they style themselves as “venture philanthropists,” tend to prefer investing in new projects over providing operating funds for existing ones. The combination of these factors made finding funding for continuing the publication a difficult task indeed.
The fact that Christianity Today continued publishing Books & Culture for so long “even in the wake of too much red ink”28 illustrates how closely the publication was identified with the core mission of the ministry. When Myra began expanding the family of publications under the Christianity Today banner, he declared that “our main concern was to make Christianity Today, the flagship publication, fully effective in the three basic areas: editorial, circulation, advertising. Anything which would drain off energies from the prime task was unthinkable.”29 The organization was never shy about pulling the plug on underperforming properties or redesigning them to reach a wider audience.
The fact that Books & Culture outlasted so many other publications in Christianity Today’s “family” is an indication that the ministry’s publishing decisions were not driven solely by immediate financial considerations. After making the controversial decision to pivot Christianity Today from an intellectual journal aimed primarily at pastors to a general-interest periodical for evangelical laity, Myra described Books & Culture as filling the role of a thought-leader journal that the flagship magazine had originally played.30 The publications closed in 2016—Books & Culture, Leadership Journal, and The Behemoth—were three of the publications most closely aligned with the spirit of the flagship magazine Christianity Today, and the surviving publication bears the stamp of those publications that have ended a separate publishing existence.
Has the time come to give up on print as a viable medium for conveying thoughtful engagement with culture? Despite the admitted economic challenges of that industry, there are indications that a wholesale shift to digital may not be the only possibility for magazines of the future. After the dramatic losses of print publications in 2007–2009, the industry turned a corner. Beginning in 2010, the number of closures per year dropped below 200, and sometimes under 100, with annual net gains in the number of titles being published as more magazines were launched than shuttered.31 Although emerging titles tend to address increasingly niche audiences compared to the magazines that disappeared, and the long-term prospects of these new titles are of course untested, these trends suggest the print magazine industry is stabilizing in a post-recession market.
Developments in the market for books also indicate the ongoing viability of print. After an initial spike in eBook purchases, recent surveys indicate that print books remain more popular with readers than eBooks,32 and college students in particular overwhelmingly express a preference for print.33 Magazines that provide booklike content—serious, long-form writing rather than ephemeral distractions still have a place in the print ecosystem. Those who would consider launching new print publications will require exceptional creativity, discipline, and clear eyed vision in order to survive (just as Myra called for in 1984), but the fact that hundreds of print magazines continue to enter the marketplace each year testifies that the era of the print magazine is not yet past. The ongoing print existence of publications such as Comment, The Other Journal, Image, and The Englewood Review of Books continue the project of Christian intellectual engagement with culture that Books & Culture represented.
Although it is too soon to abandon print, it is undeniable that mobile digital media offers new possibilities for communication and collaboration among evangelical thought leaders and their audiences. Much of the kind of conversation Books & Culture fostered has moved online, hosted by digital publications such as Christ and Pop Culture, online platforms such as Patheos, and a growing number of podcasts following the lead of Mars Hill Audio Journal. Of course, publishing on a digital platform does not by itself solve the problem of financial sustainability. It reduces, but does not eliminate, overhead costs, so it remains necessary to find funding models that can provide the means to continue to create and share the discussions readers find valuable. Membership programs and ecommerce integration are models gaining traction with some online content providers, which may provide more financial possibilities to add to more traditional approaches such as standard advertising, subscriptions, and donation appeals to build the necessary financial support to cover publication costs. Drawing on the expertise of “entrepreneurial theologians” such as Timothy Dalrymple34 and John Dyer35 can help cultivate both the technological and business innovations to sustain quality content in digital media contexts.
Christian institutions of higher education are also well positioned to support the publication of thoughtful-yet-accessible writing that engages and inspires the life of the evangelical mind, even if they are not in a position to make substantial ongoing financial grants to help sustain external publications. A growing number of schools host digital institutional repositories to preserve and showcase their faculty and students’ scholarly work. These same platforms can be used to publish works of public intellectual output for informed lay audiences. If universities and seminaries understand it as part of their missions to contribute to the wider public discourse and not just the education of their own students, they should incentivize service in editing and publishing such materials (either in their own house organs or other publications) by making clear that such work counts toward promotion and tenure. By making technological infrastructure and the expertise of staff and faculty available to support the dissemination of Christian critical engagement with culture, universities and seminaries can contribute to this vital project in ways other than with cash.
In the wake of Books & Culture, there remain abundant outlets for thoughtful Christian criticism and public scholarship, both in Christian publications (print and digital) and the mainstream press. John Schmalzbauer barely scratched the surface of respected venues that give voice to evangelical public intellectuals when he wrote, “Readers looking for evangelical voices in the mainstream media should turn to Harper’s, Slate, the New York Times Magazine, and the New Republic.”36 One of the great challenges of the new media environment is discoverability—with good-quality content spread around the Internet, interspersed with so much noise and fake news, coming across pieces that will be a delight to read and provide edifying new perspectives becomes increasingly difficult. Perhaps rather than looking for a new publication to rise from the ashes of Books & Culture, as Books & Culture itself came into being following the discontinuation of The Reformed Journal,37 its devotees would be better served by the development of digital clearinghouses—means to find the things worth reading across a variety of publications and platforms. Savvy deployment of digital platforms and social media can spread the reach of the evangelical intellectual conversation. Attention to the ever-shifting locus of the digital public square is a necessary part of a strategy for effective communication in a disaggregated digital age.
A media ecosystem marked by technological and economic change calls for communication strategies that are innovative, flexible, and multipronged. Fortunately for evangelicals intent on supporting the life of the mind, the evangelical movement has a strong tradition of embracing and developing new communication technologies even as it continues to invest in traditional media that support its message. As the magazine industry continues to respond to emerging technologies and consumer behaviors, neither unwavering commitment to well-known formats nor headlong embrace of the latest trends will guarantee survival and success. Tight financial margins and the periodic necessity of discontinuing well-regarded properties or strategies need not be cause for dismay but, rather, inspiration to experiment. Thoughtful adaptation to changing circumstances can provide new opportunities to nurture evangelical thought and reach a wider audience.
Cite this article
- David Paul Nord, The Evangelical Origins of Mass Media in America, 1815–1835, vol. 88, Journalism Monographs (Columbia, SC: Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, 1984); Peter J. Wosh, Spreading the Word: The Bible Business in Nineteenth- Century America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1994); Paul C. Gutjahr, An American Bible: A History of the Good Book in the United States: 1777–1880 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999); David Paul Nord, Faith in Reading: Religious Publishing and the Birth of Mass Media in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); John Fea, The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
- Throughout this article, Christianity Today in italics refers to the flagship magazine, Christianity Today in roman text refers to the parent company (headquartered in Carol Stream, IL) that publishes that magazine and other resources.
- Alan Jacobs, “John Wilson and Books & Culture,” Snakes and Ladders (blog), October 11, 2016, http://blog.ayjay.org/john-wilson-and-books-culture/; Mark Coddington, “What Books & Culture Meant,” Medium (blog), October 15, 2016, https://medium.com/@markcoddington/ what-books-culture-meant-af9f93fab6e7; Matthew Loftus, “After Books & Culture: 9 Ways to Share the Cost of Cultural Engagement,” Christ and Pop Culture (blog), October 20, 2016, https://christandpopculture.com/books-culture-9-ways-share-cost-cultural-engagement/; John Schmalzbauer, “The Life and Death of Evangelicalism’s Little Magazine,” Comment (January 12, 2017), https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/5009/the-life-and-death-ofevangelicalisms- little-magazine/.
- Nord, Faith in Reading; Nord, Evangelical Origins of Mass Media.
- Nord, Evangelical Origins of Mass Media, 13–17.
- Gutjahr, An American Bible, 36–37.
- Charles H. Lippy, Religious Periodicals of the United States: Academic and Scholarly Journals, Historical Guides to the World’s Periodicals and Newspapers (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), xi.
- Ken Waters, “Pursuing New Periodicals in Print and Online,” in Understanding Evangelical Media: The Changing Face of Christian Communication, eds. Quentin J. Schultze and Robert Woods (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), 80.
- Frank Luther Mott, A History of American Magazines, 1741–1930, 5 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958) 3:66.
- Mark Fackler and Charles H. Lippy, eds., Popular Religious Magazines of the United States, Historical Guides to the World’s Periodicals and Newspapers (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995), xi.
- Mark Ward, “Air of the King: Evangelicals and Radio,” in Evangelical Christians and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel, ed. Robert Woods, 3 vols. (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2013), 1:101–18; Quentin J. Schultze, “Evangelicals and the Power of Television,” in Evangelical Christians and Popular Culture: Pop Goes the Gospel, ed. Robert Woods, 1:119–42.
- Timothy E. W. Gloege, Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017), 168.
- Phyllis E. Alsdurf, “The Founding of Christianity Today Magazine and the Construction of an American Evangelical Identity,” Journal of Religious and Theological Information 9.1/2 (2010): 27–28.
- Quint Randle, “A Historical Overview of the Effects of New Mass Media: Introductions in Magazine Publishing during the Twentieth Century,” First Monday 6.9 (September 3, 2001), https://doi.org/10.5210/fm.v6i9.885.
- Douglas A. Sweeney, “Christianity Today,” in Popular Religious Magazines of the United States, eds. Mark Fackler and Charles H. Lippy (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995), 146.
- Harold Myra, Report to the Board, January 25, 1984, cited in Phyllis Elaine Alsdurf, “Christianity Today Magazine and Late Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism” (University of Minnesota, 2004), 281.
- Randle, “A Historical Overview.”
- Ethan Zuckerman, “The Internet’s Original Sin,” The Atlantic, August 14, 2014, https:// www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/08/advertising-is-the-internets-originalsin/ 376041/.
- Pew Research Center, “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, January 12, 2017, http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/.
- Ted Olsen, “Editor’s Note,” The Behemoth 55 (August 18, 2016), http://www.christianitytoday. com/behemoth/2016/issue-55-august-18-2016/editors-note.html.
- Vanessa Voltolina, “Believe It or Not, Fewer Magazines Folding in 2009,” Folio (October 13, 2009), http://www.foliomag.com/magazine-foldings-track-match-last-year-s-totals/; Michael Rondon, “Magazine Closures Double in 2014,” Folio (December 16, 2014), http:// www.foliomag.com/magazine-growth-slows-2014/.
- Stephen Board, “Moving the World with Magazines: A Survey of Evangelical Periodicals,” in American Evangelicals and the Mass Media: Perspectives on the Relationship between American Evangelicals and the Mass Media, ed. Quentin J. Schultze (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 131.
- Mark Hulsether, Building a Protestant Left: Christianity and Crisis Magazine, 1941–1993 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 231−32; Morgan Lee and Mark Galli, “Should Evangelical Intellectuals Despair ‘Books and Culture’s’ Demise?” Quick to Listen (podcast), October 20, 2016, https://soundcloud.com/christianitytoday/october-20-2016.
- Lee and Galli, “Should Evangelical Intellectuals Despair?” Jerry Pattengale, co-editor of this volume, was directly involved in Indiana Wesleyan University’s assistance, serving as assistant provost during that time. (David Wright was provost and now is president.) He also served on a long-standing committee Harold Smith (CEO of Christianity Today) organized to solicit funds to sustain Books & Culture. Other members included Nathan Hatch, who led the last major charge—raising an additional $250,000 through a last appeal. Throughout this intense effort, Christianity Today was subsidizing the thought magazine and exerted considerable funds and efforts to sustain this “gem,” as Mr. Smith often noted. The B&C Development Board was made up of Nathan Hatch (as co-chair with Harold Smith), Mark Noll, Richard Mouw, Shirley Mullen, David Skeel, and Jerry Pattengale.
- Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Books & Culture Survives Financial Crisis,” Christian Century (September 9, 2013), https://www.christiancentury.org/article/2013-09/christianity-todays- books-culture-survives-chopping-block.
- Harold B. Smith, “Note to Our Readers,” Books & Culture (December 2016), http://www. booksandculture.com/articles/2016/novdec/note-to-our-readers.html.
- Harold Myra, “A Message from the Publisher,” Leadership 1.1 (Winter 1980): 138.
- Myra, Report to Board, June 21, 1995, cited by Alsdurf, “Christianity Today Magazine.”
- Rondon, “Magazine Closures Double in 2014.”
- Andrew Perrin, “Book Reading 2016,” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, September 1, 2016, http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/09/01/book-reading-2016/.
- Alice Robb, “92 Percent of College Students Prefer Reading Print Books to E-Readers,” New Republic (January 14, 2015), https://newrepublic.com/article/120765/naomi-baronswords- onscreen-fate-reading-digital-world.
- Timothy Dalrymple, “Theological Vocation and the Marketplace,” Journal of Markets and Morality 18.2 (Fall 2015): 409–417.
- John Dyer, Don’t Eat the Fruit (blog), http://donteatthefruit.com/.
- Schmalzbauer, “The Life and Death of Evangelicalism’s Little Magazine.”