The Evangelical Press Association welcomed its new president last week during its annual convention, held this year in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Lamar Keener, publisher of the largest Christian newspaper chain in the United States, spoke to The Christian Post on Friday – the day he officially began his EPA presidency – on the changing face of Christian media.
The following are excerpts from the interview.
CP: For our readers, can you give a brief introduction about yourself and your experience in the media industry?
Keener: My name is Lamar Keener and my wife is Theresa and she is very much a part of this because we own our own business. In 1988, we took over a small Christian penny-saver type publication in San Diego and from that we built a network of Christian publications in southern California in the early 90s and eventually we branched out even beyond that.
So we have been doing that for 18 years and currently we own five newspapers that are branded Christian Examiner – four in southern California and one in northwest Washington state in Seattle area. We also own the Minnesota Christian Chronicle; so six papers all together.
Total circulation per month (we publish monthly) is about 190,000 copies.
CP: How did you enter into the newspaper business?
Keener: It really happened by accident but for Christians I guess it's not really by accident but by providence. I was in college administration and that was my career. I was working in San Diego at a Christian college and for various reasons I left that job. Just before I left it I needed extra income so I started desktop publishing – this was in 1987 when Macintosh was brand new and desktop publishing was a new thing.
So we went to put an ad in this little Christian newspaper. When I called to put an ad in, the guy said that he needed someone to do that; so that newspaper was my first client. The ad never worked and I never got anything from it. A year later we bought that newspaper.
CP: Why did you want to buy a newspaper?
Keener: To make a living. I'm just being honest with you. We were doing the layout for this guy and he also had a Christian directory so he had me sell a few ads and I soon figured out that I could earn more money selling ads than I could designing brochures, newsletters and logos for other companies. By that time we had a lot of freelance work but it was still hard – we only have so many hours in a week.
CP: Since you've been in the business for quite some time, what are some of the changes you have observed in mainstream media in terms of coverage of religion over the past decades?
Keener: It seems like the 1980s is when religion really came to the forefront in secular news media and probably the majority through Jerry Falwell – that was where a lot came out in the political arena. In the late '80s of course you have the sad, negative experience with the televangelists – again bringing religion in the secular media to the forefront but in a very negative way. Hopefully that has gone away – [though] now, of course, another incident just happened a few months ago right here in Colorado Springs where we are at. Those things happen because we are human.
So religion has played a role in the secular media but in a sense it hasn't changed much because in many ways we still have a bad shade.
We think there is a role for an alternative Christian press just so we can make sure that we are getting something out there that better reflects who we are. It is very difficult for the secular media to understand who we are as evangelicals and to represent us in print.
CP: Do you feel that we are being represented more in the secular media?
Keener: I don't think I can answer that fairly. Years ago, the Dallas ABC brought on Peggy Waymeyer – an evangelical hired by ABC to represent religion. And she did a great job, but after a few years they took it away. So on one hand, they open up to it and then they closed the door again, so I don't know if I've seen a lot of change over the years that is more favorable, but I don't know if it is worst either.
It's like a wave – it ebbs and flows.
CP: Now on the flip side, what changes in Christian media have you noticed over the course of your career and how do you think they have affected secular media?
Keener: I think Christian media has gotten more savvy. You know I heard a couple of comments here about the technology workshops that they are too elementary. We are with it – we are using technology and we know how to build web pages. We don't need to be taught how to build web pages but rather to do it better and how to get more traffic. So I think the changes I have seen even through EPA publications is that we are getting more savvy and more skilled and we are using every bit of technology and knowledge we can get to do our jobs better.
When you look at all these publications over here, there are a whole lot of good ones. There are some not-so-great ones but they have their niche and they do their thing and they keep coming.
CP: How has the changes in the Christian media affected secular media?
Keener: Well maybe through the internet even a small publication like ours can have an internet presence and some of our things get picked up. USA Today, we get calls from them from time to time for quotes for things they are doing for who we are. So I think the secular media does look to us sometimes for some of that information and I think they can also see that we are doing our own quality stuff and they need to recognize us.
CP: What are some of the goals you have as the new EPA president?
Keener: I would really like to be in tune with concerns of members as to what we can help them with. I remember when I ran for this a couple of years ago and being on the board before …. It is fairly typical that whenever you make a speech you get up and say all these big ideas you have and it is sort of like once you get elected you don't really worry about it. [laughs]
Well you find out that it has already been tried. [laughs] But to listen to the members for what we can help with … I always want to know where we can improve.
I have been coming here [to the EPA Convention] for 18 years and I love it. I really like coming but I'm always thinking what we can do better. It is a membership of volunteers and everyone here is a volunteer in what we do and hopefully we can keep making things better.
One of the things that we will probably work on for the next couple of years is revamping the website. I won't really get into that so much but our director will. We need to update that and look for more members, get more people. I know what it has meant to us, the camaraderie that we have.
The Minnesota Christian Chronicle, one of the newspaper brands owned by Keener, was awarded newspaper of the year at the 2007 Evangelical Press Association Convention.