Adventist publishing: When the church praises it, it’s a ministry. When the church critiques it, it’s a business.
Of course, it’s both. And it needs wholesale reinvention.
Here’s the short version: After years of financial struggle, the Seventh-day Adventist church is considering closing the offices of one of its two North American publishing houses, the Review and Herald Publishing Association (RHPA). According to the restructuring plan, oversight for the Pacific Press Publishing Association (PPPA) will be transferred to the church’s North American Division, and it will be the sole church publisher in North America. The 165-year-old brand name “Review and Herald” will be retained as publisher of a few publications now overseen by the General Conference at its headquarters, but the RHPA will otherwise cease to effectively exist, no longer an independent content producer.
The proposed restructuring, to be voted on June 17, 2014, spurs a torrent of questions, but answers, context, and details have been few.
The issues inherent to Adventist publishing are much the same as other struggling areas of the church: An insular system that has failed to fully adapt to a changing world, focused on a shrinking market, that too often merely promotes people from within a narrow system instead of seeking out the most fitting talent. In North America, the publishing houses are served by Adventist Book Centers (ABCs) that are primarily hidden away on school campuses or at conference headquarters, where any non-church member is unlikely to venture, and church members are far less likely to visit than in decades past.
In 1983, under the management of Harold Otis, the Review and Herald moved from cramped space next to the church’s world headquarters to a new building in Hagerstown, Maryland. Having consolidated with the church’s Nashville publisher, Southern Publishing Association, the Review and Herald’s new building covered six acres, much of it devoted to a printing facility. By the early 1980s, the broader publishing industry had already moved on from individual companies owning their own presses, and many argued that the church should have kept all three publishing entities separate, while merging their printing facilities.
In 1984, the Pacific Press moved from Mountain View, California to Nampa, Idaho, just outside of Boise, an area with a much lower cost of living. Its new building covered four acres, and, like the Review and Herald, much of it was devoted to a printing facility.
Between 1980 and 1990, the North American Division gradually became a separate entity from the General Conference, like the church’s other twelve divisions. (It had previously been just a part of the General Conference, in a situation perhaps analogous to the District of Columbia in the U.S., which elects a mayor but has no governor and no voting representatives in Congress.) The two North American publishing houses, however, remained under the oversight of the General Conference.
Harold Otis was succeeded by John Wilkens, a church treasurer and accountant, and Bob Kinney, a long-time RHPA manager. When Kinney retired, in 1996, the board replaced him with the former president of the church’s Euro-Asia Division, Ted N.C. Wilson. Wilson had no background in publishing or business. Facing such issues as declining periodical subscriptions and literature evangelism sales, Wilson worked to eliminate unprofitable elements, increase local community awareness, and deepen the spiritual tone of the company.
In 2000 Wilson went on to serve as a General Conference vice president — and is today president of the world church. The board then elected Robert Smith, a former Review and Herald employee then serving as North American Division publishing director. For the next decade, Smith presided over growing indebtedness and few tangible successes in either product development or marketing initiatives. Meanwhile, at a time when dramatic industry shifts demanded bold action and innovation, attempts to expand services and reach new customers often met denominational resistance. For example, for several years in the 2000s the Review operated a call center that reached many who might never visit an Adventist Book Center. The call center spurred increased sales, both for the house and the ABCs, who now had more people in their territory who knew what they sold. But the ABCs, under North American Division policy regulations, perceived the call center as competition and fought it until the Review shut it down.
In 2010, the Review and Herald board dismissed Smith and elected Mark Thomas, then its vice president of graphics. Thomas inherited a financial shortfall of $2.4 million. Under Thomas, the Review reorganized, cutting staff (including 38 at once), reducing redundancy, and selling nonessential assets to cover debt and fund new initiatives. The company worked hard to stay ahead of the curve, but cutting so many talented people meant fewer hands developing creative new projects, updating webpages, expanding ministries, and a thousand other details that ensure a company thrives.
In 2013 a commission formed to consider a merger between the Review and Pacific Press abruptly ended its work, citing “differing perspectives as to the interpretation” of Ellen White statements about consolidation of publishing entities. Adventist church co-founder Ellen White (1827-1915), whose counsel the church considers divinely inspired, opposed the proposed consolidation of the Review and Pacific Press in her day on two major principles. The first was what she called “kingly power,” when all elements of a ministry are centered in one place. She wrote such statements as “At times it has been urged that the interests of the cause would be furthered by a consolidation of our publishing houses, bringing them virtually under one management. But this, the Lord has shown, should not be. It is not His plan to centralize power in the hands of a few persons or to bring one institution under the control of another” (Publishing Ministry, p. 144).
The second principle was that centralization stifles innovation, while fostering intellectual and spiritual stagnation. White believed that multiple teams and multiple viewpoints were far more effective — and healthier for the church’s spiritual vitality — than a single bureaucratic entity. Such diversity, she noted, was right there in the Bible. “Why do we need,” she wrote, “a Matthew, a Mark, a John, a Paul, and all the writers who have borne testimony in regard to the life and ministry of the Savior? . . . It is because the minds of men differ. Not all comprehend things in exactly the same way” (Counsels to Parents, Teachers, and Students, p. 432). Writing regarding the Review and PPPA, she emphasized that each institution should preserve “its own individuality. A nearer relation than this will tend to the injury of both.” (For more on this, see my article “The Minds of Men Differ: Adventism and the Temptation of Consolidation.”)
The church had a striking case study in the veracity of White’s counsel when, in 1984, it merged two of its outreach journals, These Times (published by the Review) and Signs of the Times (published by Pacific Press). Leadership predicted they’d reach twice as many people at half the cost, but instead, within a year the merged version of Signs had fewer subscribers than either had enjoyed on its own. These Times had reached a loyal audience with a distinct editorial flavor, and the mashup of the two magazines’ styles had pleased neither magazine’s readers.
In mid-2013, the Review and Herald bottom line was looking solid — until a “perfect storm” of events hit, further exposing the underlying weakness of the old system. Several Adventist Book Centers closed (having previously been managed by Pacific Press), causing a sharp drop in orders. The Southern Union dissolved its Home Health Education Service literature evangelism program, closing another outlet for sales. Meanwhile, the literature evangelism program the Reveiw and Herald managed for about a dozen conferences had experienced weak sales in 2013. In early 2014, the RHPA prepared to reduce staffing further.
A press release April 25, 2014 announced that the General Conference and North American Division were examining “available options other than merger.” It described a “restructuring” proposal “to maintain two publishing entities, one attached to the General Conference and the other attached to the North American Division. The unit attached to the General Conference would not operate printing and production facilities. Instead, the printing and production needs of this house would be entrusted to the North American Division’s publishing house.”
The restructuring plan voted May 12, 2014, by the boards of both the Review and Pacific Press, however, goes far beyond simply consolidating printing work and reassigning oversight — it shuts down the Review and Herald Publishing Association outright, transferring its physical assets to the North American Division, while maintaining it in name only. In order to keep the name alive, literature previously produced at the General Conference will be printed under the Review and Herald name, but the company will cease to exist as a creative entity.
As reported by Adventist Today, the restructuring proposal justifies its dismissal of Ellen White’s counsel against consolidation by noting that there are now 63 Adventist publishing houses worldwide compared to just two when she first addressed the issue. Considering that likely less than one percent of North American Adventists has any contact with foreign publications, the argument appears, at best, ill-conceived. To many observers, it seems an attempt to get around a literal interpretation of White’s message while ignoring the underlying message and meaning — and ignores the fact that many of those other publishers were founded in White’s lifetime, including ones in Australia, Britain, the Phillippines, Sweden, China, Norway, and elsewhere.
What happens next is up to the constituent bodies of the two publishing houses. Let’s look at how we got to this point.
1. Church rationale for consolidation has repeatedly emphasized the negative impact of industry changes, particularly the “digital revolution,” yet many publishers are seeing unprecedented sales as they innovate and capitalize on new ways to reach customers. As of 2012, the majority of the 3 billion books (about 85% of which are still printed on paper) sold each year in North America are sold online. The age group that purchases the most books, online or elsewhere? Readers age 18-29, with over a quarter of all sales (27%). In stark contrast, young adult buyers make up a tiny portion of the Adventist market. Adventist publishers aren’t faltering because people are buying fewer books or consuming less media; they’re struggling because they’ve failed to connect with so many potential customers.
Today, the median age of a North American Adventist is 56. To survive and accomplish its mission the church needs to retain and engage young people. Books and other media are a key way to reach them, but the church barely puts forward the effort. Imagine the impact on both ministry and business if, for instance, the church invested in an editorial body focused on reaching ages 18-35.
2. You can’t shrink your way to success. From the Review’s 1980 merger with Southern Publishing to repeated efforts at “right-sizing,” cutting its losses hasn’t benefited Adventist publishing in the past, and there’s no reason to believe anything will be different this time. Instead, Adventist publishing needs to utterly reinvent itself, from its management structure to product development. That reality never seems to be discussed, only the bottom line. If the Review and Herald were restructured, from its workspace to its workflow, to address today’s publishing realities and opportunities, this story could have a quite different ending.
3. The emphasis on publishing as a business instead of a ministry has convinced the church that publishing houses must pay their own way or be shut down, unlike other ministries supported by church funds. In Testimonies to the Church, vol. 4, p. 464, Ellen White wrote that churches, schools, and publishing houses “should be sustained by tithes and liberal offerings”, but it has been many decades since that was true of North American publishing houses. While good stewardship is critical, the church does not place the same standards of self-sustainability on other areas of media ministry. Take, for example, the Hope Channel, the church’s international satellite network. Launched as a single English-language channel in 2003, it’s grown to 23 channels worldwide today. A non-commercial enterprise, The Hope Channel plays no advertising, and is thus wholly sustained by church funds and donations.
The church’s investment in its flagship magazine, the Adventist Review, demonstrates its ability to sustain a media ministry when desired. In his memoir Embrace the Impossible, former Adventist Review editor William Johnsson describes the many years he spent working to reverse the magazine’s declining circulation, a symptom of both demographic and cultural change. At the behest of church leadership, he eventually oversaw the creation of a monthly special edition for international distribution, Adventist World, now distributed free of charge in the millions of copies. Among media ventures, the 2014 world church budget appropriates $5.5 million for Adventist World, $4.9 million for The Hope Channel, and $2.4 million for Adventist World Radio.
4. Even so, the church does not have a strong business and management tradition. It has done little to develop new generations of publishing management and editorial personnel, but instead tends to promote people from within a narrow system, fostering a self-referential business culture. This has compounded the problem of failing to keep up with market trends (although those trends have been cited as rationale for restructuring).
5. The restructuring plan does nothing to address marketing and distribution problems. The Review and Herald consistently publishes an excellent set of books. Trouble is, the average church member, let alone a customer outside the church, has little knowledge of what the church publishes or how to find it. Customers, especially young people, are eager to buy products that intrigue them and meet their needs, but the church must first reach them.
A major aspect of that challenge is that it’s expensive to open up a market for a product. In past decades literature evangelists and ABCs provided built-in markets for Adventist literature, but that’s less and less true today. People assume that if a publisher prints a good product customers will find it, but it’s difficult today to even inform Adventists about the church’s books and magazines. Church sales reps frequently hear the words “I didn’t know we had this.” Many Adventists ask why church publishers don’t sell and advertise more beyond church doors, outside the ABCs, but generating awareness of a new product may require investment equal to that of developing the product, especially when targeting a previously unreached market. The Review had some mainstream success with its Christmas in My Heart series because the storybooks came to be featured on the Focus on the Family radio broadcast. But just getting the market’s attention requires a significant investment of time and resources.
6. The church claims that publishing is important, but seemingly has little idea what that means. The perception persists that church publishing primarily consists of printing doctrinal material to be handed out. In reality, effective literature must be crafted to meet people’s needs. That takes research, finding authors with the right skills and background, and presenting it in an appealing package and format.
Today that format may not be just the written word, but include web video and interactive elements as well. A May 16, 2014 Entertainment Weekly article, titled “Television’s New Frontier,” proclaims, “Think the New York Times is a newspaper? No way, it’s a TV network. Think Yahoo and AOL are sites where you (used to) check your email? Don’t be silly: They’re TV networks too!” Today’s audiences expect to be engaged on multiple levels. For the Adventist church, that should mean more partnerships between, and investments in, different methods of ministry.
7. The restructuring plan still ignores the real problems and unmet opportunities. The church has spent the past 35 years failing to develop and carry through on new media, or reach a broader market either inside or outside the church. Beyond the website adventistbookcenter.com (the name of which is probably at least one word too long), neither the Review nor Pacific Press has had significant success reaching new markets and customers. When the RHPA cannibalized Southern Publishing, it did not use the reprieve gained to make the necessary changes in marketing and product development to survive in a changing world. The Review gained customers formerly served by Southern Publishing, which provided a temporary shot in the arm, but it was ultimately just more pieces of a shrinking pie. As the old system shrank, the church made few attempts to expand into new areas, even as the internet provided previously unimagined opportunities to reach customers outside the church — opportunities of which secular corporations have taken great advantage.
8. The North American Division has an opportunity to develop new material to reach new customers, but it can’t just focus on retaining what’s currently profitable. Without radical new endeavors, the remaining profitable products will likely fade away in a few years as well.
In the late 1800s, when Ellen White discouraged consolidation, Americans could be easily categorized as Protestant, Catholic, and other. Today, not only is that simple matrix decades out of date, but continued immigration has made America home to people of many more distinct backgrounds and worldviews. In a fractured society where traditional spirituality is increasingly disregarded, a wide variety of approaches and independent minds is more vital than ever, yet the church still seeks a one-size-fits-all solution.
So what could we do differently, to sustain and build up Adventist publishing in a way that’s both cost-effective and honors the principles Ellen White laid out?
1. Cut the overhead. Empower individual entities. The restructuring proposal consolidates the church’s printing in one facility. That’s fair: It didn’t make sense 30 years ago to build separate printing facilities for multiple publishing houses, and it makes even less sense now. Today, a publication that once required a dozen staffers to produce can be written, edited, and designed in a single office. With a reduced need for office space, and with such a broader audience than when it started, now is the time to expand the church’s editorial operations, not reduce them. The church should keep the Review and Herald not just as a brand name, but as a creative publisher — and be ready to spin off new artistic entities as the Spirit leads.
2. Partner with the church. The church has relied on its publishing houses to print literature for its evangelistic campaigns and to communicate to members, but has failed to partner with its houses to develop new forms of artistic witness. The church should set aside a few million dollars every year to assist publishers in developing and marketing new endeavors. Let creative teams develop proposals for groundbreaking new projects, and pitch their ideas, ensuring the money is awarded to well-conceived projects with strong potential for building new audiences.
3. Partner with church members. As Kickstarter and gofundme web fundraising campaigns have demonstrated, people are eager to invest in projects they believe in, and the fundraising effort builds awareness of a product as it’s developed. The church should bring its ideas and ambitions before its people.
4. Innovate, innovate, innovate. Perhaps quoting nineteenth century African-American leader Frederick Douglass, Ellen White admonished the church’s writers and editors to “agitate, agitate, agitate.” A century later, the old methods aren’t working, and haven’t for many years. Today’s publishers reach audiences on multiple platforms. The “Record Keeper” web series, a dynamic video interpretation of Adventism’s “great controversy” theme, its release now suspended by the General Conference, garnered over 23,000 “Likes” on its Facebook page based on just a pilot episode and trailer. That’s a striking figure for a church-produced web series, and speaks to a vast untapped audience, particularly the young adults so critical to the church’s future. If it and similar endeavors ever receive support, that bodes well for the future of Adventist media.
5. Consider every option for creative synergy, and don’t let any resource go to waste. In 2009 the Adventist church spent $5 million to construct a new building for the Hope Channel at its Silver Spring, Maryland world headquarters. The 3,000 feet of additional studio space was desperately needed (its previous office/studio was just a few hundred square feet), yet just over an hour’s drive away, tens of thousands of square feet lay underutilized in the Review and Herald building, having been built for a much more labor-intensive publishing production process. Over the past 20 years, the online seller Amazon.com has developed into a tv network streaming its own scripted programming. With the right vision, the same could be true of the Review and Herald.
The Adventist church now has an opportunity to hold both publishing houses accountable, challenging them to reach an ever more diverse and God-starved society. The truth is, neither publishing house has come close to achieving its mission of taking the Adventist message to the broader world. But the proposed consolidation would be bad for the church, as it robs it of intellectual and creative vitality; bad for the North American Division, as it robs it of resources; and ultimately, bad for the remaining publishing house, as it further calcifies its voice.
Tompaul Wheeler is the author of Things They Never Taught Me and GodSpace, and the director of the documentary Leap of Faith: The Ultimate Workout Story. He is working on a Master of Fine Arts in Film and Creative Media at Lipscomb University. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Images: Notable covers of Review products.