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.
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,”
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
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
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
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
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
“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
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.
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
“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.)