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.
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.
Enthusiastic as they may have been, however, there simply weren't enough of them. Three months into the effort, WORLD was going every week to about 5,000 loyalists-about one-fourth or one-fifth of the number we needed by that time. And we were penniless. We had a venture, but no capitalists to go with it, and therefore no way to continue. Our board pulled the plug on continued publication, and we sat dazed for the next few weeks wondering what lay ahead. We wrote our 5,000 subscribers, begging them to be patient and not to ask yet for refunds. My recollection is that fewer than 50 of those great people asked for their money back.
That gave us time to think and ponder our future. With big vision, but still no resources, the board decided to end the 44-year run of The Presbyterian Journal and to devote all organizational energies to the worldview tasks of our children's publications, the book club for children-and now WORLD magazine as well. Corporate by-laws were changed to note a new commitment to an educational rather than an ecclesiastical task-a vision focused on the importance of a biblical worldview for all of life. Non-Presbyterians were elected for the first time to the board. So were women.
WORLD was resurrected in March 1987, and the Journal's subscribers became part of the WORLD family. The next few years found the organization in a survival mode-but still characterized more by a cheerful pioneering spirit than any foreboding that the end might be near. In fact, the end was always only a week or two away. But that fact kept folks' trust focused on God Himself rather than on any ingenious human plans.
Indeed, nothing short of God's sovereign oversight could have preserved a fledgling magazine like WORLD over the next few frantic years. Included in God's plans were a few surprises that significantly affected the outcome:
Early growth came slowly. After three years, WORLD still had fewer than 12,000 subscribers. But then one of the best Christian magazines in America, Eternity, went out of business. WORLD inherited Eternity's 20,000 subscribers, more than doubling our circulation. That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a transfusion without which WORLD probably would have died an early death.
I got a postcard sometime in 1989 from a journalism professor in Texas. "I've seen a copy of your magazine," he wrote, "and I like it. I hope we can meet sometime soon." We did meet the following year, and at my request, Marvin Olasky joined our board of directors. In 1993, he came to Asheville for six weeks to tutor our young but growing staff. He did that again in 1994, and I asked him to join WORLD as editor. His vision, his bright mind, his hard work and incredible productivity, his loyalty, his feistiness-all these God used both to preserve and to enlarge our outreach.
The process by which any magazine comes together is complex, involving dozens of creative people. To take on that challenge every week, with tight deadlines, multiplies the complexity. To do it with all those creative people scattered around the world raises the ante even further. The 1990s brought two remarkable entities to address those complexities. Without the Internet and e-mail, with their ability to fling ideas and pictures and paintings and keystrokes around the world at will, WORLD would not have made it.
Nor would the effort have been sustained without Nickolas Eicher, our managing editor in St. Louis, Mo. His appreciation of cyberspace is matched by his zeal for a well-crafted headline, his insistence on a biblically faithful perspective, and the loving oil he pours almost every day on creaky personal relationships. A few other magazines (mostly monthlies and quarterlies) get published in cyberspace, but I know of no other weeklies produced the way WORLD gets created every seven days.
"You're fishing in ponds that are too small," Jay Munro told me early in 1994. His experience was in real estate, but his marketing savvy was dead-on for what we were doing in publishing. "You need to go to bigger markets," he insisted. So he suggested advertising on the Rush Limbaugh show. It was a costly foray-but incredibly productive. The phone rang 1,700 times after our first 60-second spot ran. After 30 such spots, we had doubled our circulation. We eventually parted ways with Rush Limbaugh, but we never forgot the importance of fishing in bigger ponds.
"It looks as good as any of the secular magazines," people tell me regularly. And then someone adds: "No, it looks better." From the beginning, WORLD worked hard to look better than typical Christian publications. Designer David Freeland came in 1995, and took that insistence to new levels of excellence.
Publishing may be an art, but it's also a discipline. It takes inspired people to do a good job of marketing and ad sales-but even more, it takes people who keep good records, who follow through, and who pay attention to details whether they love those details or not. That was true of Kathy Cook, who managed WORLD's first sustained marketing growth before handing the reins to Matt Worthington. And it's true of Jennifer Graham, who heads the magazine's ad sales team, which has doubled ad sales revenue over the last couple of years to a total of $2 million in the current fiscal period.
Sound financial management rarely springs from the same fountain spewing forth the sort of creative package you see in WORLD each week. But WORLD has found such accountability in CFO Eric Zetterholm, Comptroller George Berry, and their good team. Records of what's happened are trustworthy, and projections into the future can be counted on.
Similar accountability for the whole organization lies with a loyal-and talented-board of directors. Strictly volunteers, these men and women meet three times a year to provide the balance wheel that even a gifted staff cannot give itself. At WORLD magazine and God's World Publications Inc., nobody serves on both the board and the staff at the same time; that, we believe, eliminates a troubling conflict of interest present in too many organizations. But several board members, including WORLD's publisher John Prentis, have graduated from the board to serve on the operating team. That's a telling snapshot, I think, of the level of their involvement and commitment. Board chairman Robert Singleton gets the respect, I hope, that a chairman should get-but he's welcomed to staff discussions about particular problems as if he were part of the operational team.
Does that leave out people who have played integral roles, and ignore events that were crucial? Of course it does. There are, for example, those who have given and lent us money along the way. Over 15 years, it took more than $2.5 million in gifts to bring WORLD to the place where it now balances its own budget and operates in the black. But without those people, that dream would have gone unfulfilled.
There were also people who prayed, and still pray, for the faithfulness of this magazine's vision-that WORLD will not grow too professional, too polished, or too sophisticated to remember its first love. Those praying people may be the most crucial members of WORLD's whole team.
Just two of us-executive assistant June McGraw and I-have been part of the WORLD staff since the beginning. Along the way, we've greeted a host of newcomers and said a few sad goodbyes to some, including WORLD pioneers like Arthur Matthews, Stephen Lutz, and Nat Belz, who have moved on to other assignments. If there are as many changes in the next 15 years as there have been in WORLD's first 15, neither of us expects to recognize what we helped start. That, I think we both agree, is considerably more exciting than trying to do everything by design.