Christianity Today’s Books & Culture survives the chopping block

NEW YORK (RNS) Print publications across the board are struggling to find a financial formula to help them survive — or praying for a deep-pocketed savior to rescue them the way Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is doing with The Washington Post.

Religious publications are also feeling the pinch, and the latest evidence was a dire warning from the Christian literary magazine Books & Culture that it could shut down in 2014 if it didn’t reach its $250,000 fundraising goal on Monday (Sept. 9).

The magazine survived the chopping block, receiving just above the amount needed to continue in 2014. The publication has pledges of $110,000 a year until 2018.

John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture magazine (Photo by Jennifer McGuire) Show caption

John Wilson, editor of Books and Culture magazine (Photo by Jennifer McGuire)

Since June, the bimonthly publication has been trying to raise $250,000, which it says it needs to cover operating costs for 2014. Last week, John Wilson, Books & Culture‘s sole editor, tweeted that the next issue would be the last if he didn’t come up with about half of the amount.

“Anyone who has been following the publishing world at all in the last decade or more is aware of the tremendous pressures that there are,” Wilson said.

Books & Culture started in 1995 under the umbrella organization of Christianity Today, which publishes the magazine founded by Billy Graham as well as many other print and online media aimed at evangelicals and the wider public.

Since it started, Books & Culture has been hailed for showcasing high-quality essays by top-shelf writers, and for providing evidence of robust evangelical engagement with philosophy, the arts and other cultural and intellectual pursuits.

Like many intellectual magazines and journals, Books & Culture has a small but passionate readership. The magazine publishes articles on a wide range of cultural categories, including science and poetry and fiction, and on subjects ranging from human waste disposal to Amish romance novels. Its editorial board and contributing editors have included Notre Dame history professor Mark Noll, Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch and Duke Divinity School professor Lauren Winner.

A one-year subscription of six issues costs a new Books & Culture subscriber about $30.

In the past, Books & Culture, which has about 9,000 subscribers and costs $550,000 to $570,000 per year to publish, has been able to sustain itself through advertising and subscriptions, along with nearly equal contributions from its parent organization and outside funders. Those funders include the Pew Charitable Trusts, Baylor University and Indiana Wesleyan University.

But Christianity Today has sustained serious financial setbacks in recent years. In 2009, it closed four publications and laid off about a quarter of its staff.

Over the course of Books & Culture‘s 18-year lifespan, Christianity Today has contributed between $1 million and $2 million to keep the magazine afloat, a subsidy the organization decided it could no longer afford. With about $11.4 million in revenue, Christianity Today ran a $1.2 million deficit in 2012, according to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

As it sought help from the general public this time around, Christianity Today still seeks a long-term solution, not a stopgap on the way to an inevitable demise.

“Some will wonder, is this (fundraising appeal) going to be an every other month event? The answer is no,” said Harold Smith, Christianity Today‘s president and CEO.

Smith said about a dozen Christian schools have pledged financial support to help stabilize the magazine. “This is a unique situation. Right now we see this as a critical juncture. We cannot continue in a deficit situation.”

Books & Culture cover photo courtesy Jennifer McGuire

The September/October 2010 issue included a timeline of its cover that started with Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, a book that drew wide notice for critiquing evangelicals’ alleged lack of intellectual curiosity and learning. The timeline also shows the death of nonreligious publications — and the survival of Books & Culture. “Scandal? What scandal?” the headline asks.

Religiously oriented publications across the board are struggling alongside their secular counterparts.

Since the death of the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus in 2009, the ecumenical journal First Things has had to work very hard to find enough support to keep going, said its editor R.R. Reno.

“It’s very difficult to sustain a publication devoted to serious ideas,” Reno said.

He noted that  the major political journals in America are subsidized. Some have beneficent owners, like The Weekly Standard and The New Republic, while others live on donations and have related foundations, such as The Nation and National Review.

“Religious journals of ideas have the same business model, such as it is — try to lose as little money as possible and make the difference in donations.”

Image, a journal about faith and art, launched an emergency campaign to raise funds after one of its vendors stopped paying them. Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image, says that the magazine has raised nearly $35,000, beyond its $25,000 goal, which will likely cover the financial loss.

But he said the future will still be problematic if Christians do not take greater care to cultivate the life of the mind.

“I believe that the religious culture of North America is playing a role in the current financial challenges faced by serious Christian journals and magazines,” Wolfe said. “A further twist on this story is that Christian philanthropists—particularly successful business people—often equate mass popularity with cultural importance and value.”

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