×
ABP celebrates 20 years marked by growing pains
Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press
July 20, 2010

ABP celebrates 20 years marked by growing pains

ABP celebrates 20 years marked by growing pains
Bob Allen, Associated Baptist Press
July 20, 2010

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — July 17

marked the 20th birthday of Associated Baptist Press (ABP), an independent news

service created by and for Baptists interested in a free press during a

tumultuous time within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).

On July 17, 1990, the SBC

Executive Committee voted in a closed session to fire the two top editors of

Baptist Press. The committee chairman said it was because members believed BP’s

coverage was biased against conservatives who, over the course of a decade, had

gained majorities on most of the convention’s boards of trustees. Those boards

included the Executive Committee itself.

ABP photo

A birthday cake celebrating the news service’s 20th anniversary at a reception during the recent CBF General Assembly in Charlotte.

Upon learning he had lost

his job as BP’s news editor, Dan Martin, 51, told a crowd of about 200

supporters at the Executive Committee headquarters in Nashville, Tenn., that

leaders of the denomination wanted to replace the journalists at the convention’s

official news service with “their own minister of information.”

“They want someone who will

be a ‘spin doctor,’ who’s going to put the spin on stories the way they want

them,” Martin predicted.

R.G. Puckett, editor of

Biblical Recorder, news journal of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina,

called it “a day to live in Baptist infamy.” He wrote about it on its

anniversary every year until his retirement in 1998.

“Never in my many years in

Baptist life have I witnessed something so un-Christian and non-Baptistic,”

Puckett recalled.

Jeff Mobley, a Nashville

attorney and member of the city’s First Baptist Church, followed the firings with announcement of the

formation of Associated Baptist Press, a new autonomous news service to

be ”guided by the highest tenet of professional journalism and the

standard of Christian ethics.”

Mobley, who at the time had

been practicing law for fewer than 10 years, said he was asked out of the blue

to help a new Baptist entity that needed to be incorporated in Tennessee. He

met with a small group of Baptist state newspaper editors and others who had

set into motion weeks earlier the idea for an alternative Baptist news service.

“I can’t tell you why, but

they decided that I would read the Declaration of Independence on behalf of the

organization there in the auditorium of the Executive Committee building,” said

Mobley, who joined ABP’s founding board of directors as legal counsel and was

elected as chair in 1994.

Editors defend ‘free

religious press’

The Southern Baptist Press

Association, an organization of Baptists newspapers in state conventions

affiliated with the SBC that 44 years earlier had been instrumental in

establishing Baptist Press, immediately endorsed the concept.

A month before, at the

Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in New Orleans, Martin and his boss,

Baptist Press director Al Shackleford, were told their services would no longer

be required. The men were advised to resign quietly — with severance benefits —

or be fired. They chose to announce the threat June 26, 1990, in an article in

Baptist Press.

The Executive Committee

announced a special called meeting — the first in a quarter-century — to “consider

the termination” of the editors. The state-paper editors convened an emergency

meeting July 6-7 in Dallas, where they adopted a resolution decrying the

attempt “to suppress a free religious press.”

Later a smaller group met

informally to discuss the need for an alternative to Baptist Press. Bob Terry,

at the time editor of Missouri’s Word & Way and now at the Alabama Baptist,

secured Floyd Craig, who owned a communications and marketing business with his

wife, Anne, to begin producing Associated Baptist Press issues beginning that

fall.

Craig said he was interested

because of his longtime friendship with and admiration of W.C. Fields. Long the

director of Baptist Press, Fields built a reputation of excellence for the

Southern Baptist news service among secular journalists — establishing BP as

the nation’s best denominational news agency in modeling openness, integrity

and professional journalism.

“It really was a no-brainer

for us to deal with ABP,” Craig recalled. “It was a moment that the integrity

of BP was destroyed after years.”

A news service is born

The inaugural issue, dated

Sept. 26, 1990, announced that the first issue of ABP was being sent to about

50 outlets — mostly by fax. Craig, a veteran communicator who had worked for

the SBC Christian Life Commission from 1967 to 1979 and for the governor of

North Carolina before moving back to Nashville to start his own business,

selected Martin as interim news director.

“For 10 years I have had the

best journalism job in the Southern Baptist Convention,” Martin said after

being fired from Baptist Press July 17. “Even if I had known the outcome, I

would have come, because it has been a wonderful ride.”

The emotional high was

short-lived. By December Craig wrote directors reporting that the results of

his fund-raising efforts fell short of the amount he had billed them for hourly

fees. That set off a discussion that eventually ended ABP’s relationship with

Craig and Associates.

“Several of the board

members felt the bills we submitted were excessive,” said Anne Craig, who

worked alongside her husband as ABP’s copy editor.

“Nobody believes you when

you say it took ‘X hours’ to do so-and-so,” Floyd Craig added.

Directors began looking for

a full-time executive editor. They removed “interim” from Martin’s news

director title, leading him to believe he was being considered for the job.

Even though he had violated

their gag order, the Executive Committee still gave Martin six months of

severance pay. It was about to run out, so Martin needed a job. After being

told he had been too political and vocal in the SBC controversy to be editor,

Martin wrote a letter to directors describing the experience as more painful

than his firing the previous summer from Baptist Press.

The Warner years

The board turned to Greg

Warner, electing the 36-year-old associate editor of the Florida Baptist

Witness and award-winning writer as ABP’s first full-time employee, effective

May 1, 1991.

“I am excited about the

future of ABP with a journalist such as Greg Warner on board,” Charles Overby,

the news organization’s founding board chair, said at the time. “I am impressed

by his ability and attitude.”

Under Warner, ABP achieved

financial stability, expanded staff and earned a good reputation among secular

journalists following the SBC controversy, one of the top religion stories of

the 1990s.

Warner left the job in 2008, when chronic back problems forced

him into disability retirement at age 53. Last fall the organization honored Warner by naming him the first recipient of a

lifetime-achievement award established in his name.

Changing times, changing

audience

“ABP’s board of directors

has tried over the past 10 years to find the appropriate outlet for its

objective news coverage of Baptists,” said Dan Lattimore, the current chair of

the ABP board. “The state Baptist papers had been the initial users of our

content. However, most state Baptist papers have become controlled by

fundamentalists of their conventions. It has become a much-less-viable outlet

for ABP.”

Desiring to expand a reader

base beyond its original audience of Baptist and secular newspapers, ABP

launched FaithWorks, a lifestyle magazine aimed at young Christians in 1998.

While “a good quality product,”

Lattimore said ABP lacked the resources to market and distribute the magazine

widely enough to make it financially feasible. Directors suspended its publication in 2004.

Present and future

In 2007 Associated Baptist

Press entered into a strategic

partnership with three historic Baptist state newspapers in an initiative

called New Voice Media. Currently the partners — ABP, the Baptist Standard of Texas,

Religious Herald of Virginia and Word & Way of Missouri — share a web site

design and infrastructure and collaborate on news coverage.

Long-term goals include a state-of-the-art multi-media platform

including Web, print and other media — an “online gathering place for historic

and progressive Baptists and other global Christians to share ideas.”

“With the increasing use of

electronic media by our constituents, we feel this will provide the best outlet

for the future,” Lattimore said.

In 2008 ABP hired David Wilkinson, a veteran Baptist communicator of

30 years, as executive director, separating the administration and day-to-day

news operation that had been combined in Warner’s job.

Looking back

Floyd Craig said his

original vision for ABP was that it would be a much larger and more influential

organization than it has become, on par with Baptist Press during the W.C.

Fields era as the news service of record for the secular press. With so many

secular newspapers downsizing or eliminating their own religion reporting,

however, Craig said a reputable Baptist news service is needed as much today as

ever.

“I guess the story is sort

of the day the world came tumbling down and they fired (the Baptist Press

editors), there were people who rose up and did the right thing and carried on,”

said Anne Craig. “That was the intent.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Allen is

senior writer for Associated Baptist Press.)