The Baptist Times, Britain’s longest-running weekly Free Church newspaper, is to cease publication of both print and digital editions at the end of this year, its directors have announced recently. Falling circulation and advertising revenue have been blamed. The paper will be ‘replaced’ by the new BT Online website which the Baptist Union of Great Britain will launch next spring.
The Baptist Times first appeared on 24 January 1855 under the name of The Freeman. Despite the abolition of newspaper stamp duty the same year, it was slow to establish itself, with an initial circulation of only 2,000 copies, perhaps due to the relative success of pan-Free Church newspapers such as The Nonconformist (established in 1841) and, later (from 1886), The British Weekly.
With effect from the issue of 24 February 1899 The Freeman changed its name to The Baptist Times and Freeman, shortened to The Baptist Times from 10 September 1925 onwards. By the latter date, it had also incorporated a rival denominational newspaper, The Baptist, published between 10 January 1873 and 29 September 1910.
Peak circulation of The Baptist Times is reported as 35,000, but numbers have fallen steadily over recent decades, in line with the declining fortunes of the newspaper industry more generally.
Circulation data in successive editions of the UK Christian Handbook reveal that sales of The Baptist Times held steady at 15,000 in the 1980s, then drifted downwards, to 13,000 in 1991, 12,000 in 1993, 11,000 in 1995, 10,000 in 1997, 9,000 in 2001, and 8,000 in 2006.
Current circulation of The Baptist Times is said to be only 5,000, albeit readership is estimated at several times this figure (although the 24,000 cited by Wikipedia is probably out of date).
The ageing of Baptist worshippers (by a mean of seven years between the 1979 and 2005 English church censuses) will partly account for the fall in circulation. Even though Baptists have held on to the younger age cohorts better than the Methodists and United Reformed Church, the young are not necessarily avid newspaper readers.
Combined subscribers and readers of The Baptist Times must clearly constitute a very small minority of the 135,000 members of the Baptist Union and of the unknown number of non-member attenders at Baptist churches.
This perhaps says something about the extent to which Baptists, and adherents of the Free Churches more generally, identify themselves as part of a national denomination, as opposed to a local place of worship.
With the demise of The Baptist Times, the mantle of the longest-running weekly Free Church newspaper passes to The Methodist Recorder, now celebrating its 150th anniversary (although it had a range of Methodist competitor titles until 1937).
The Methodist Recorder is currently claiming a weekly circulation of 22,000 copies and a readership of 100,000 (the latter equivalent to about two-fifths of the Church’s membership or rather less than one-fifth of all names on the community roll in 2010).
Another ‘Free Church’ which still publishes weekly newspapers is the Salvation Army, which boasts no fewer than three: The War Cry (with a circulation of 53,000), The Salvationist (20,000), and Kids Alive! (a comic, 20,000).
Britain Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends has published The Friend since 1843 (initially as a monthly, but weekly from 1892), but this is really a magazine. The interdenominational The British Weekly (latterly known as Christian Week) eventually closed in 1991, with its last-known circulation as 12,500.
The Church of England is covered by two weekly newspapers, Church Times (which sells 27,500 copies) and Church of England Newspaper (8,200). The Roman Catholics in England and Wales are served by The Universe (55,000), Catholic Times (26,500), The Tablet (22,100), and the Catholic Herald (22,000) with its sister title Scottish Catholic Observer (18,000).
Circulation figures in the preceding three paragraphs are taken from the table on p. 223 of the 2009/10 edition of the UK Christian Handbook, which also includes details for a range of less than weekly publications. Almost certainly, most circulations will have declined in the more than two years which have elapsed since this volume was printed.