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story.lead_photo.caption Editions of Arkansas United Methodist are shown from 1899, 1931 and 2017. After a 138-year history as a print newspaper that pastors were at one time responsible for selling subscriptions to, the publication has been re-imagined as the all-digital magazine The Arkansas United Methodist: Living Our Faith, which debuted Friday. - Photo by Francisca Jones

It has been 30 years since Holly Grove native Jane Dennis took over as editor of Arkansas United Methodist, but her memory of discovering a computer tucked away in a closet at the denomination's office in Little Rock is still vivid.

Dennis spent about a week during January 1988 learning the ropes from Georgia Daily, the newspaper's editor since 1983 who had been the first woman and first layperson to hold the post. The state conference had bought an early Apple model for producing the publication, Dennis said, but the computer was still in its box and Daily was busy at her electric typewriter.

"[Georgia] had just kind of refused to use it," Dennis said of the computer. "It was there, but she was comfortable with the way she produced [the newspaper]. So it was a gradual learning process to learn to produce the newspaper."

Arkansas United Methodist -- which has shared the denomination's news, features, opinions and announcements statewide for the past 138 years -- has discontinued its print publication. The conference has debuted an all-digital magazine in its place, but its readers and editors fondly remember the newspaper's place in the minds, hands and hearts of United Methodists throughout the state.

The decision to stop printing Arkansas United Methodist was announced in June at the church's Arkansas Conference in Hot Springs. The last print issue was released in July, and the first edition of the denomination's new magazine, The Arkansas United Methodist: Living Our Faith, was released Friday.

The release comes a week after the debut of the Arkansas Conference's revamped website, arumc.org.

Amy Ezell, the Arkansas Conference’s communications director, said the decision to go digital had been in the works and was implemented after Dennis completed a six-month contract stint as interim editor in July.

The paper saw circulation numbers as high as 50,000 in past decades, Ezell said, but the most recent figures include a number of paid subscribers that hovered around 200 in a denomination that numbers more than 127,000 statewide. The print run -- for which costs had continued to climb -- also included an additional 7,000 papers allocated to pastors and churches around the state, with the number of copies varying with the size of a church's congregation.

Caleb Hennington, a Hamburg native with journalism, digital layout and content marketing experience, will be the magazine's digital content editor, according to the print newspaper's last edition.

"He is able to offer the content experience for what we are going for in trying to reach multiple audiences," Ezell said.

The newspaper was founded in 1880 by the Rev. John Boswell as Arkansas Methodist and was a revived, expanded version of the Messenger, a Methodist newspaper Boswell had produced for a time in Morrilton, noted Nancy Britton in the book Two Centuries of Methodism in Arkansas, 1800-2000. The denomination adopted Arkansas United Methodist at its annual general conference three years later, and by 1887 the newspaper had a circulation of 8,200.

It was sold several times and continued under the leadership of conference-appointed clergy as it tackled issues of the day and depended upon ministers of the denomination to sell subscriptions, which at the newspaper's beginning were $2 a year.

The newspaper was renamed again after the Methodist and Evangelical United Brethren churches consolidated and became one denomination at the faith's General Conference in 1968, and became the Arkansas United Methodist paper as it is known today.

According to Dennis, there are pastors and denomination members who remember that "when it arrived at their homes, it was equal to the morning the [Arkansas] Democrat or the [Arkansas] Gazette arriv[ing] at their homes. ... The Arkansas United Methodist historically was a newspaper that covered all kinds of news. It focused on churches, but it wasn't limited to that."

Efforts to preserve editions of the newspaper and other denominational publications have been underway for nearly two decades, according to Marcia Crossman, an archivist for the past 15 years at Methodist-affiliated Hendrix College's Olin C. Bailey Library in Conway, home of the Winfred D. Polk Conference Archives.

Ezell, a Blytheville native who grew up with Arkansas United Methodist, said the denomination will honor the current paid subscriptions and create a monthly print run of around 200 copies, which Crossman said served as a good buffer for those already reading the publication. The conference will not accept new paid print subscriptions.

Photo by Francisca Jones
Bound by year and with string, print copies of Arkansas United Methodist dating to 1884 remain at Hendrix College’s Olin C. Bailey Library in Conway.

NAN Religion on 08/04/2018

Print Headline: Methodist newspaper goes digital; Arkansas United Methodist ceases print edition in July

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