Written by W. Evan Golder
September - October 2009
On Easter Monday in 1985, I strode down New York City's Madison Avenue, headed for the United Church of Christ's national offices. I had been called to be the first editor of its new newspaper. Waiting in my office was a 24-pound, "portable" Osborne computer, the size of a Singer sewing machine, equipped with a new device called a modem. Using it, I planned to transmit news instantly to our printer in Dallas.
||The Rev. J. Martin Bailey, who edited United Church Herald and A.D. Magaizine, and the Rev. W. Evan Golder, editor emeritus of United Church News, combined talents in 2007 to co-edit "UCC @ 50: our history, our future." Photo credit: Randy Varcho photo.|
Despite a history of excellent journalism since 1804 by the UCC and its predecessor bodies, for 22 months the UCC had not had a national publication. In July 1983, the magazine A.D., a joint publication of the UCC and the United Presbyterian Church, had ceased publication.
That same year Beverly J. Chain had succeeded the Rev. Everett C. Parker as director of the UCC Office of Communication.
Fill the communication gap
One of her first tasks was to fill this national communication gap. In her role as publisher, she envisioned a national newspaper containing Conference sections. We achieved this by printing the paper at UMR Communications, which could "wrap" the national edition around a Conference section. In its first issue in May 1985, United Church News had six "wraparound" Conferences on board. That number eventually grew to 31.
Like its predecessors, United Church News would be committed to editorial freedom and telling the truth. As its Statement of Purpose put it, "Its editorial policy will emphasize freedom with responsibility and demonstrate sensitivity to General Synod and to the diverse perspectives, groups and bodies that make up the United Church of Christ."
The name itself, United Church News, tells the story. Many names were proposed, among them Mayflower, Pilgrim, Messenger, and Agora. Finally a Conference Minister at this meeting blurted out, "Enough of this nonsense! If it's gonna be a newspaper and tell the news, then let's just call it United Church News."
Freedom of the press
Even so, there were those who hoped it would be more of a house organ than a newspaper, parroting the glad news of the UCC rather than the good news of the gospel.
Instead, from its inception, United Church News has endeavored to seek out the truth, encouraging fairness with accuracy, and offering a readable, reliable single news source for and about the United Church of Christ. Anything less, according to one reader, would be to turn United Church News into United Church Marshmallow.
The paper was barely a month old before its editorial policy was tested. The issue was the dismissal of 10 professional staff members by a major UCC executive. To our staff, this was news. The executive, on the other hand, argued that this was purely an in-house, administrative matter.
The issue was resolved when the Christian Century ran a story dubbing the firings the "Maundy Thursday Massacre." This presented a credibility crisis: If UCC members could read news about the UCC in other publications but not in their own newspaper, then why bother to read United Church News? We ran the story.
During its 24 years, readers came to expect United Church News to tell the truth, even when it was not pleasant. As one Conference Minister put it, "If I were being written about in newspapers all ... across the country, I would expect to read about it in United Church News. I wouldn't like it, it wouldn't make me happy, but I would expect it. And it would be appropriate."
Also important has been the paper's role in connecting UCC members. "It helps me feel I belong to the family," wrote one reader.
Ushering in electronic age
When the Rev. Arthur Cribbs became publisher, we intensified our effort to connect the parts of the UCC family, broadening our coverage of racial and ethnic persons, young and older persons, persons with disabilities, LGBT issues, and more conservative viewpoints.
When the Rev. Robert Chase succeeded Cribbs, he invoked far-reaching changes: all editions had the same large photo, good-news-story front page and the paper was free. Circulation tripled.
After 18 years as editor, I retired and was succeeded by the Rev. J. Bennett Guess. Five years later, Ben was followed by the Rev. Gregg Brekke. Now it's Gregg's task to take this publication into the electronic age. In the first edition, 223 issues ago, I wrote, United Church News "is here to help us stretch our vision, challenge our resources, air our differences, and unite our energy in the hope that the unexpected might happen and God's will might prevail."
Whether on a printed page or a computer monitor, a BlackBerry or a Kindle, I still expect that to be true.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.