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A look back at the 1980s

A look back at the 1980s

As WORLD celebrates its 2oth anniversary, here are some of my thoughts on some of WORLD's most memorable issues.

The first issue

"It's easy in launching a new magazine," I wrote in our first issue, "to be infected with triumphalism and a sense of self-importance. Most of your neighbors, you know, have never started a new magazine."

Having a new baby, or a grandbaby, is soul-shaping stuff. But most of your neighbors have done that. How many of them have started a new magazine? So I know we were way too smug when that first issue arrived back from the printer, in all its colorful glory. In fact, there were only two full-color photos, both on the cover. All the rest of the magazine was printed in black and white, except for a little splash of red on the back cover ad. My recollection is that the printing bill amounted to something like 53¢ per copy, even for a slim, mostly monochromatic, 16 pages. And those two cover photos? Both were of middle-aged, WASPish men. There was so much we hadn't yet learned about magazine publishing.

But our first issue was out. It included some two dozen news items, most of them very brief, but all originally written for WORLD. It included a serious stab at news analysis from a Christian perspective-including a skeptical piece on the Gramm-Rudman bill by R.C. Sproul. There was a full-page review of nine children's books. Volume 1, Number 1, by itself, by no means fulfilled all our promises to our future readers. But that was part of the point of a weekly; the next issue would be coming fairly soon.

Maybe too soon. We'd spent the previous year dreaming about that first issue, and the previous six months preparing it. Now we had only six days to complete Volume 1, Number 2.

Out of the wildnerness

The numbering system of periodicals doesn't necessarily tell the whole story. You finish the 40 issues planned for Volume 1 (we had anticipated dropping back to biweekly through the summer months) and move right on to Volume 2, right?

In the best of all worlds, yes. But after just 13 weeks in 1986, WORLD had come to an ignominious halt. All our resources-and they were modest-had been poured into creating our weekly product. Nothing was left. We needed to have by June of that year 10,000 paying subscribers as an indication that this project would fly. We had barely half that number, and perhaps half of them may have been family and friends.

Our board of directors ordered an end to the project, and half our little staff headed off to look for other jobs. As I reviewed where we might have gone wrong, I struggled to find anything we had done right.

For the next few months I moaned over the embarrassment of such public failure-and tried to find a way out of that wilderness. A year earlier, we had spent almost $20,000 to commission a Gallup survey, and those experts had assured us there was indeed a market out there for a magazine like WORLD. How had we missed that mark?

The answers we found were complex. But God had blessed us with a board of directors that was visionary and entrepreneurial. During the fall of 1986, they approved a plan by which WORLD would have a second chance. The magazine reappeared in April 1987, with virtually no staff and a drastically pared budget.

That was the beginning of Volume 2-which did indeed include 40 issues. They were printed on newsprint, and although those copies were often ugly, they allowed us to drop our per copy production costs to less than 10¢. Full-color photos, when we used them, were often out of register. We were content to see the ink on the paper, even as the ink our board wanted to see was black.

If we groped to produce up-to-the-minute news without the latest technology in that pre-laptop, pre-internet era, though, the magazine's weekly message proved unique. There was indeed nothing quite like WORLD out there-and the evangelical public seemed to sense it with their growing support. Circulation edged toward 10,000.

We had launched, even if fitfully. Now we had endured a storm, and God had fashioned our ark out of newsprint. That newsprint ark preserved the WORLD expedition for the next 73 issues.

The newsprint era

Those newsprint-era issues of WORLD were only 16-page editions-but every one of those 16 pages was tabloid sized and swallowed up galleys of copy. WORLD had a very small staff. Many were members of my own family, and not a single one of us had professional experience in traditional news journalism. Filling 16 pages every week with credible copy was a king-sized challenge.

So when Arthur H. Matthews, a grizzled, old-style journalist, agreed to my offer to become our senior editor, I was elated. His background in daily newspapering, then as head of the news department of Christianity Today, then leading the news division of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and finally serving as editor

of a denominational magazine-all that meant WORLD could legitimately claim to be fielding a knowledgeable and experienced staff.

Until his retirement seven years later, his byline appeared at the end of hundreds of well-crafted news stories in WORLD. During that era, he was the solid anchor of our news team, and the forerunner of other hardy pros who would similarly step forward in the years that followed.

Eternity conversion

Something significant was happening elsewhere in the publishing world that would profoundly affect WORLD's own future. Eternity magazine of Philadelphia had fallen on hard times. Eternity had enjoyed a reputation as one of the most thoughtful of all evangelical Christian periodicals. But its circulation, once over 35,000, had dwindled. Its publisher had tried several different approaches to reshape the magazine, but nothing had worked.

Now the question came to WORLD: Would we be interested in buying out Eternity magazine and its 22,741 subscribers?

The fit was good. Eternity had always stressed biblical fidelity-along with awareness of the world in which we find ourselves. If any group of people seemed like good candidates to become paying WORLD subscribers, the Eternity list was it. But WORLD had no resources for a buyout. What could come from such discussions?

Eternity, though, had 22,741 subscribers to whom it owed the balance of their unfulfilled subscriptions. A deal was struck. WORLD assumed the obligation for future issues (calculated at about $280,000) in exchange for the valuable list of names and addresses. Every Eternity subscriber received as many issues of WORLD as he or she was due from Eternity. Subscribers who didn't want WORLD were offered a cash refund, but fewer than 30 people asked for such a settlement.

The bonus for WORLD was substantial and profound. For the issue of Feb. 11, 1989 (close to our third birthday), circulation jumped from 10,000 to over 30,000. That increase allowed us to leave newsprint behind and go to a heatset press that could handle glossy paper. And that, in turn, opened doors to advertisers who had shunned our newsprint product.

In the end, more than 8,000 Eternity subscribers became WORLD loyalists-a conversion rate most marketers would drool over. The Eternity acquisition also added luster to WORLD's reputation as publishing newcomers took over the venerable magazine from Philadelphia. It was a second look that was so critical at that stage in the young magazine's life.

Three steel trap minds

You can occasionally tell something about a book by its cover. What magazine but WORLD would have decided-altogether legitimately-to put Woody Allen, Tom Landry, and John Calvin side by side on the same cover? If that doesn't get someone to look inside, what will?

"Three steel trap minds," that week's cover proclaimed under pictures of the three men. Three remarkable performers in very diverse fields who never let a detail get past them. Movie-making, pro-football coaching, and theology may typically get split up into separate periodicals for treatment by specialists. But not in WORLD, where the point is to explore the great biblical themes that hold life together, whatever calling you might be pursuing at any given time. "Allen sometimes seems to teeter on the edge of conversion . . . ," observed reviewer Doug LeBlanc in his look at the 1989 movie Crimes and Misdemeanors, "but he always has managed to return to the more familiar, and therefore more perversely comforting, world of disbelief."

"Try to imagine Tom Landry crying," noted Russ Pulliam in the treatment of a new biography. "It did happen-once anyway. That's part of this story of the former Dallas Cowboys coach and his contribution both to pro football and the kingdom of Jesus Christ."

"There is far more to Calvin than a tough-minded theologian," asserted Cal Beisner in still a third review that week. "He combined intellectual rigor and heart-felt tenderness, passion for the church and vision for society, high-minded soberness and light-hearted humor."

Where else, in the religious or secular press, would you look for a thoughtful and competent look in so many different directions? I've always looked at that cover, early as it was, with a sense of being able to say: We're doing it-and here is a wonderfully terse illustration of what we've got to keep on doing every single week.

A look back at the key issues from . . .

Joel Belz

Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD's founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.