Much to gain if periodicals merge

Nov 5, 2018 by and

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The future of Mennonite journalism is the talk of the church. The proposed merger of Mennonite World Review Inc. and The Mennonite Inc. has got people thinking about what might be gained or lost in a merger and what a Mennonite news media organization should look like in the 21st century.

At MWR we’ve received hundreds of responses to a survey we sent with our annual fund­raising letter a month ago. Mennonite Church USA, too, is collecting input, sending an email survey in October for MC USA constituents to complete.

Responding to MWR’s survey, people say they appreciate our independence and broad coverage of the Anabaptist world. These qualities are the core of MWR’s identity, readers say. Don’t lose them.

We won’t.

Along with support for a merger, we also hear some fear of loss. This is a natural reaction to the prospect of change. We’ve promised that a merged organization would be independent and inter-Mennonite, as MWR is today. But we can’t erase all fear of change.

That’s one side of the fear of loss. The other, voiced by some in MC USA, is that a denomination shouldn’t be without an official periodical.

On that point, it’s worth thinking about how a news media organization can serve the church well today, in print and online.

Many people don’t realize that The Mennonite Inc., a nonprofit program entity of MC USA, is already independent in the most important ways. It gets no financial support from MC USA. Denominational leaders have no authority over its content. In 2017 the editors changed the magazine’s tagline from “a forum for the voices of Mennonite Church USA” to “a forum for Mennonite voices.”

Thus, in several vital respects — editorially, financially and breadth of purpose — it would not be a radical change for The Mennonite to join with MWR to launch a new independent media organization.

While there are many excellent official periodicals, we believe the church press can best serve its readers from a vantage point outside the denominational structure. Independent coverage validates the credibility and importance of a denomination’s news. An independent church press supports the church in the same way that a free press supports a nation — by presenting a vision for the common good, helping the people stay engaged and informed, and holding leaders accountable with critique or praise.

Leaders’ relationship with a free church press may be uncomfortable at times. But it’s actually in their best interest, too. A denomination that turns its magazine into a one-way cheerleader (The Mennonite is not one of these) risks a loss of interest in the periodical and even in the denomination itself. We have seen it happen. By contrast, when an independent publication leads a few cheers for the institutional church, it really means something.

Though some will feel a loss if MC USA no longer claims a periodical exclusively as its own, the prospect of a wider impact promises a greater gain. In the wake of MC USA’s membership losses, MWR brings to the table readers from Lancaster Mennonite Conference and others who might avoid an MC USA magazine. An unaffiliated periodical is positioned to build a bridge to the Evana Network, the Mennonite Brethren and others. It also suits a post­denominational era, as loyalty to once-dominant institutions declines. A periodical with a wider reach would amplify MC USA’s voices, alongside others.

Within this Mennonite amalgam, MC USA members would find their denomination getting priority attention. A merged periodical would commit to serving its readers well by emphasizing news and voices of the denomination that most of them belong to. MWR already does this. A new periodical, pledging a supportive relationship with MC USA, would look different from The Mennonite and MWR, incorporating their best elements and adding new ones.

The merger proposal envisions an Anabaptist flagship publication all Mennonites can call their own. In a time of declining revenue for legacy media, the plan maximizes the potential for long-term survival and vitality. Both publications’ boards have given their support. We expect the decision-making process will be complete by March. The real risk of loss would be not to try something new.

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