Vibrant, but Invisible: A Study of Contemporary Religious Periodicals

Article excerpt

Religious publications have along and varied history in the United States. The publications are among the first magazines to appear in the United States, and their content helped shape the early Republic's literacy, morals, and political events. But during the past 150 years, their influence has lessened. Although some 3,000 religious publications exist today, most report small circulation levels. Critics contend that many religious magazines are more focused on doctrinal battles than presenting news and information for the general public. To further study this invisible but vibrant segment of magazine publishing, the researcher surveyed editors of publications holding membership in either the Associated Church Press or the Evangelical Press Association. The survey is used to construct a picture of the editorial foci, audiences, funding models, and future opportunities awaiting the Protestant press. This is the first step toward integrating the religious press into existing theories of specialty magazine publishing. The paper concludes with suggestions for further research.

The first specialized periodicals in America were religious. Today some 3,000 religious publications arrive in the mailboxes of American readers. Scholars note that since the eighteenth century, "popular periodicals have been a major means of promoting personal religious commitment and of nurturing individual piety while advancing causes of denominations, new religious movements, and agencies calling for social reform."' Two press associations for Protestant magazines boast a membership of some 400 publications, which is still less than one-quarter of the total of religious publications in America. These associations claim that their publications reach some forty-seven million annual readers.2 The magazines include Billy Graham's Decision, James Dobson's Focus on the Family, and the Methodist devotional publication, The Upper Room, all of which reach more than a million readers monthly. Yet many more are small-circulation, highly specialized magazines like Open Hands, a 3,200-- circulation quarterly for those "seeking to be in ministry with lesbian, bisexual and gay persons."3 Most religious publications are owned by denominations and religiously motivated social-service organizations. These publications receive all or a portion of their funding from their owner. Few rely strictly on the traditional consumer magazine model, deriving their support from circulation and advertising revenues.

Despite their numbers, religious publications are seemingly invisible in the culture at large. Thus, there has not been a groundswell of academic research in this area. In his landmark book, Magazine-Made America, Abrahamson noted that the rise of specialized publications in the 1960s particularly benefited established magazine genres such as religious periodicals, but he doesn't elaborate by citing recent research.4 Fackler and Lippy edited a collection of historical essays on religious publications, but the volume is meant as an encyclopedia more than a collection of research that points to theory building. Others have dealt with various aspects of religious journalism's history and practices.5 Little research has focused on the contemporary religious publishing situation, and most recent efforts are commentaries rather than research findings.6 Aside from the historical studies of the religious press, recent scholarship paints a picture of publications that serve narrow public relations interests, featuring poorly written stories and design.

This research sheds more light on this paradox of vibrant but seemingly invisible activity through a survey of editors whose publications are members of the Associated Church Press and the Evangelical Press Association. The survey asks religious editors to answer questions that may help us better understand the content and readership of these publications, their financial support, organizational pressures on editorial freedom, and their future as a specialized magazine genre. …