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Publishing ... by design

WORLD turns 15 this month. What began as a grand experiment on paper in March of 1986 is now 125,000 subscribers strong. Next month, Lord willing, we begin our 16th year of publishing. Over the next several pages, we'll celebrate our past ... take a closer look ahead ... and discuss some of the behind-the-scenes events that brought us-under God's sovereign oversight-to this place.

Issue: "Casualty of 'peace'," March 24, 2001

Oh I'd love, at this late date, to claim WORLD magazine as my boyhood dream. I'd love to tell you of a journalistic vision through my early adult years that simply wouldn't die. I wish I could document for you how feverishly loyal I was to that dream.

But this is a magazine that specializes in reporting-and one of our fact-checkers might catch up with me if I spin the story that way.

For the reality is that WORLD magazine rather stumbled into existence in 1986. From a human point of view, there was no grand design, no business plan, and no master strategy. WORLD's launch in March of that year was quiet and low-key-and less than three months later, things got much quieter indeed.

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But I'm getting ahead of my story. You really need to be introduced to WORLD's cast of characters. It includes a few who never heard of the magazine.

First among them is a man I never met, but wish very much I had. He was L. Nelson Bell, father-in-law to Billy Graham but very much a fellow of heroic proportions in his own right. In the early 1940s, with the clouds of a world war gathering on the horizon, Dr. Bell returned from his work as a medical missionary in China to his family home in Asheville, N.C. But as he settled into his medical practice in that mountain city, he encountered still another huge conflict. Theological liberalism was threatening the very Presbyterian denomination that had sent him out as a missionary.

So the doctor-missionary (who had once played semi-professional baseball and still loved the sport) decided also to become a journalist. With an area minister, Henry Dendy, he founded a new magazine called The Southern Presbyterian Journal to challenge the assumptions and activities of the liberals and to return the denomination to its biblical moorings. By the end of the decade, the Journal had become a weekly. In the 1950s, the Journal was more and more widely read-even beyond Presbyterianism-for its reporting on the church scene and its analysis of ecumenical liberalism. While Dr. Bell continued to write a popular weekly column for the Journal called "The Layman and His Church," he took some of what he was learning about magazine publishing and played a lead role in the formation of Christianity Today.

In the end, however, the denomination that was at the focus of the Journal's coverage was not rescued from the leadership of theological liberals. By 1973, a number of members of that church-including Journal editor G. Aiken Taylor-withdrew to form the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Yet, ironically, the development ultimately left The Presbyterian Journal without a solid constituency. Circulation dropped through the rest of the 1970s from a one-time high of 44,000 to about 20,000 as the decade ended.

Meanwhile, by 1981, the board that published The Presbyterian Journal had taken on a new assignment. A series of current events papers for children, patterned after the long-popular Weekly Reader, was introduced and marketed among the rapidly growing Christian school movement in the United States. In just two years, the circulation of this new publication (and the dollar volume it generated) had already doubled the circulation and dollar volume of the parent magazine.

Recognizing God's blessing on this new nondenominational venture, the board changed its corporate name to God's World Publications Inc. Four additional graded editions were added to the lineup, and-as thousands of homeschoolers also began subscribing-weekly circulation passed 200,000.

Then came the inevitable but still unexpected question. Enthusiastic parents asked us regularly: "We like this. We read this with our kids. When are you going to do something like this for adults?"

It really had not been part of our plan. Our hands were full doing what we were doing for children. In fact, that same year (1986) we also launched the God's World Book Club, a service providing quality books and other materials for schools and families. God's World Book Club has now grown to be our biggest division, with a volume of $8 million this year.

But we heard the call of these parents and took their challenge seriously. We commissioned the Gallup Organization to do a market study and answer the question, "Can a weekly newsmagazine from a Christian point of view make a go of it?" The Gallup folks looked hard, and gave us a green light.

WORLD's first 13 issues surprised readers with their polish, with their frequency (we didn't miss a deadline), with a certain professionalism-and with their thinness. Folks liked the idea behind the effort, and we began to hear our work described as a sort of "Christian version of Time." But it was hard to disguise the fact that it took about eight copies of WORLD to equal the heft of just one copy of Time. Still, early readers were enthusiastic about the concept.


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