Christian Journalism's Finest Hour?: An Analysis of the Failure of the National Courier and Inspiration
Waters, Ken, Journalism History
When the biweekly tabloid National Courier debuted in 1975, one of its editors claimed that the publication represented "Christian journalism's finest hour."(1) An Associated Press report said the Courier was "a different kind of national newspaper, explicitly Christian in its perspective ... born of a conviction that religious values relate to all events of the world."(2) The Courier was staffed with trained journalists, many with mainstream press experience, who also professed to be Christians.(3) Their goal was to combine the best of journalistic news values with a Christian worldview to publish a nationally-respected publication with credibility and quotability at least equal to that of the Christian Science Monitor.(4) Despite its lofty intentions and backing from a successful Christian book publisher, the National Courier failed to attract enough subscribers to remain solvent, and it folded two years after its inaugural issue.(5) The paper lost so much money that publisher Dan Malachuk had eventually to declare bankruptcy.
A few months after the Courier folded, the quarterly magazine Inspiration debuted across the country. Inspiration was the product of Petersen Publishing, the well-respected publisher of specialty magazines such as Motor Trend, Teen, Photographic, and Hot Rod. Founding publisher Roger Elwood claimed the magazine would fill an overlooked niche in the marketplace: "The secular newsstand is a totally neglected mission field. There is no Christ-centered magazine available out there on the secular newsstand."(6) Like Malachuk, Elwood hoped that his creation would break through what religious critic Martin Marty had called the invisibility of the religious press on America's newsstands.(7) Inspiration aimed to take advantage of Petersen's access to 95,000 outlets across the country to "be more daring, to tackle subjects that heretofore had not been tackled and that hopefully needed tackling. Also, it should be interesting enough to attract nonbelievers who would buy it for its honesty."(8) Inspiration ceased publication after only four issues, the victim of lagging sales.
A close look at the editorial visions of the publications, and the significance of these visions within the rich history of Protestant publishing, provides an opportunity to explore this seemingly invisible but vibrant subset of American journalism. Nelson Burr notes: "Writings on the American religious press are far from numerous or satisfactory. To a great extent this field still awaits exploration by secular and church historians."(9) A study of the failure of these periodicals is also significant because since the 1970s there has not been another attempt to launch nationally circulated publications with similar editorial visions.(10) Why is this so? Did the publications die because of flawed planning and execution, or because of unique historical and religious circumstances that rendered their editorial concepts unworkable?(11) Finally, what might these failures tell us about the profession of journalism itself?
According to historian Charles Austin, "The Protestant press ... has a distinguished history paralleling the steady influence of Protestantism on the development of American society."(12) During the first half of the nineteenth century, weekly papers such as the Congregational Recorder in Boston and the Presbyterian Observer in New York mingled religious and general news, sermons, and commentary. The Christian Advocate and Journal, a Methodist weekly, claimed a circulation of some 25,000 and succeeded because "it was livelier than most of the competition."(13) Many of these papers were published by ordained clergy and subsidized by Protestant businessmen or a denominational mission society. Their editorial mission was to carry both religious news and "secular news and comment within a religious framework," and their editors used the newspapers as vehicles "to save men and make for them, and fit them for, a kingdom which had both religious and secular dimensions. …