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The Widamans in their rural Pleasant Hill family room. Photo by Connor Cades Ruckman.

Publishing lessons of the past pave way for promising future

The Widamans reflect on 29 years of publishing.

In the early 1990s, Dwight Widaman had never run a business, sold an ad or even owned a computer. He had something far more important, however – a God-sized dream.

“I was in church one Sunday in April of 1991 and saw a headline that Kansas City Christian newspaper was for sale,” he said. “Something just leapt in my heart. It combined my passions for current events, having something of my own and working for myself. I talked to my pastor and a church elder who was a banker. We prayed about it for several weeks. We agreed that I should buy it.”

Steve Hewitt, publisher of Christian Computing magazine, had started Kansas City Christian in 1990 after seeing a similar newspaper in the Twin Cities. He found that trying to produce two publications was stretching his resources too thin and decided to sell Kansas City Christian. Fifteen people expressed interest before he made his decision.

“One of the best decisions I ever made was to sell the newspaper to Dwight Widaman,” Hewitt said. “He had the talents and the time to make the newspaper something the city needed and deserved. Over the years, I have followed the newspaper’s growth and have always been proud that I had a small part in at least birthing it.”

After 29 years and more than 350 print issues with 4,913,200 copies of the paper distributed, Metro Voice is converting to a weekly digital newsletter with greatly expanded website. “A majority of people now get their information from digital devices,” said Anita Widaman, Dwight’s wife and business partner. “If we are going to reach the next generation and be part of informing them and getting them involved, this is where we need to be.”

However, the Widamans emphasize, only the delivery method is changing. The commitment to the local Christian community that readers have come to trust will remain constant.

“We always saw ourselves as a newspaper for the entire Christian community,” Dwight said. “If Christians can agree on the big things of orthodox Christianity– what binds us together, we can agree to disagree on the little things that tend to creep in and keep us apart. We never let the paper be a platform for any one particular pastor or church. We focus on issues that people can agree on while remaining true to our biblical, conservative values.”

In the beginning

Dwight faced a steep learning curve when he left a 9-to-5 job in marketing to become a self-employed publisher.

“I didn’t have any business experience at all,” he said. “I knew how to put ads together and handle marketing, but in terms of sales, I had no experience. Bob Baldwin, who attended my church, had office space and let me use his desktop computer and printer at night.”

Dwight published his first edition, with a circulation of 6,000, in June 1991. He kept the name, Kansas City Christian, and motto (A Voice for Our Times) for the first several years. He and Anita got married in 1993, and the following year he changed the name to Metro Voice (to reflect a city-wide scope), with the motto “Be Informed, Get Involved, Engage Your Faith”. Although Anita didn’t start working full time for the paper until 1995, she quickly found that being married to a newspaper publisher meant a few adjustments.

“We used to drive to meet writers to pick up stories on 5 1/4 inch floppy disks, and we had to physically paste up the paper using a wax machine,” she said. “Later, it would take an entire afternoon to download an ad on a dial-up modem. When we were first married, Dwight would get phone calls at 11 or 12 at night from people who assumed he still was single. I had to groom him to turn off the business at 5 p.m. but as most small business owners understand, you are never ‘off’ work”

Dwight traveled to India in January 2005 to cover a Chrisitian agency providing aid after the tsunami. Dwight stood on the top of the relief truck to capture this photo of desperate survivors reaching for nutrition packets.

The Widamans have always operated Metro Voice as a hybrid of a ministry and a business, or a Dwight calls it, “a no-profit for-profit”. They experimented with a two additional publications, the Lee’s Summit Tribune and the Noland Road Shopper, as tent-making endeavors to support Metro Voice. They eventually sold the Tribune to the Olathe Daily News, which in turn was purchased by the Kansas City Star. They later launched a Metro Voice sister publication in Topeka, which continues to operate under Lee Hartman–its former managing editor.

Hannah Widaman, then 12, joined Anita in representing Metro Voice at a community-wide event that honored Christian ministries across the metro.

While still in high school, Emma and Anita traveled to Washington DC to meet friends for the Annual National March for Life. Pictured: Elise Johnson and Emma.

The newspaper has always been a family affair. The Widamans’ daughters, Hannah and Emma, grew up in the business. In fact, planning for their education led to the founding of the paper’s popular education fair, now in its 20th year.

“A lady once called from Blue Springs and said that 13 years earlier, she had attended the fair with her children as they were entering school and chose a private Christian school,” Dwight said. “Now she was back with her oldest son looking for a Christian college. It was encouraging that we were able to provide a resource for her during two seasons in her family’s life.”

 

Tackling tough issues

Nowhere is the line between ministry and business harder to walk than in deciding what issues to cover and how to cover them. Dwight clearly realized the power of the press, for good or bad, while covering the pro-life Summer of Mercy in Wichita in 1991.

“I got there early in the media parking lot and a CNN crew pulled up next to me,” he said. “They were unloading, and one of the employees said, `let’s go cover these nuts’. That was their intention. It wasn’t to cover a pro-life event honestly; it was to put them in worst light possible.

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver, then mayor of Kansas City, was confronted by an angry black community during a meeting at Paseo Baptist church. Pictured with Pastor Charles Briscoe, Cleaver was pointing at Dwight and photographer Christopher T. Murphy to be removed from the meeting.

“So 27 years ago, I saw a definite media bias against Christians and conservative values. Fake news has been around for a long time. That’s why it’s important to have a Christian news source in the community, whether print or digital, where you know there is no anti-Christian bias.”

He put that belief into action when he published a graphic story about partial-birth abortion in both the Metro Voice and the Tribune in the mid-90s. “Dwight published photos and wrote in depth about what it was,” Anita said, “Our salesperson cautioned, ‘it will destroy you’, but we published it anyhow. We had to take a stand.”

Pictured with Dick Bott, left, Dwight covered the Summer of Mercy which brought national attention to the pro-life movement in Wichita.

“We lost a few churches who felt the image was too disturbing for their congregations,” Anita remembers. “The truth is very often disturbing but it must not be ignored.”

Faith and politics can be a volatile mix, even in the Christian community.

“In the earlier years, our paper was more political during the height of the culture wars,” Dwight said. “But as our nation has become more post-Christian in its outlook, we’ve turned more to the persecuted church. The American church isn’t the end-all, be-all of Christianity. Some of the most vibrant Christianity you find today is in the Third World. They are under severe persecution, yet are more committed to their faith than many Americans who have become complacent in their lifestyles.”

Being all things to all people is not an option. “Some churches found us too conservative,” he said, “and some found us too liberal because we include movie reviews.”

Anita served two years on the board of the organization that brought the Day of Remembrance to Kansas City. The event honors Holocaust victims and included a morning of education followed by a march and evening program which the Widamans emceed.

The Widamans have made it a priority to serve all of the local Christian community – north and south of the river, east and west of Troost Avenue, and on both sides of the state line.

“One issue that has always been important to us is the divide between black and white Christians,” Dwight said. “We always felt a responsibility to bridge that divide by covering concerns in the black community. It is important to give them a voice and consider them equal partners in the faith.

“One issue where we were prescient of future issues was in 1994. We ran a cover story about Ron Freeman and had a contemporary artistic portrait of him as a proud, strong black man with an African motif tie. They story was about how conservative African-Americans were changing the face of the Republican party. That was important, because the party was going through a change and we were going through the culture wars. Some of the issues we were talking about 25 years ago calling the Christian community to action have been realized in public policy.”

 

Secrets to success

Countless newspapers across the nation – both Christian and secular – have fallen by the wayside in the past three decades. By Dwight’s count, four other Christian newspapers have attempted to start up and publish in the Kansas City market since the 1990s but failed after less than a year. In 2018 Metro Voice became the oldest independent Christian newspaper in North America.

The Widamans credit much of their success to tireless volunteers, loyal advertisers and the many churches and businesses that distribute Metro Voice.

  • Volunteers. A few volunteers came over from Kansas City Christian, while many others have joined over the years. “When we first got engaged, the volunteers would get together monthly at Connie Blunt’s house and all bring food for a potluck,” Anita said. “I would go there and enjoy the discussions. There was such a give and take of ideas about what stories to run and where we could do the most good.”
  • Advertisers. “Our longest-running supporter since the beginning is Bott Radio Network, Dwight said. “They have been in pretty much every issue since we started. We also have many longtime supporters, such as Bill Lewis with Lewis Living Trust, Beacon Bible Bookstore, Greater Pentecostal Temple in KCK, Alan Jones CPA, and Eugene Anderson Dental. Many of them advertise out of a heart connection and see it as a ministry. One hundred percent of our regular advertisers have chosen to stay with us in our new digital venture. Instead of a one-dimensional print ad, we can now promote them across multiple platforms and provide new opportunities to connect them with readers.”
  • Churches. “Our strength has always been the small- to medium-sized churches,” he said. “Those pastors are much more involved in their communities on a personal level than pastors of large churches. I can walk into their church and visit with the pastor.”

The Metro Voice was honored with an Award of Excellence and named newspaper of the year in 2017. Pictured left to right: Lamar Keener, Executive Director of the Evangelical Press Association, Dwight and Anita and Mark Winz, president of EPA.

Years of hard work culminated in recognition by the Evangelical Press Association (EPA) at last year’s national convention.

“It’s just been Anita and me plus a few helpers putting together the paper, with no big corporation or denomination behind us,” Dwight said. “We’ve plowed everything we’ve made back into the paper. Every year I would get a little sad, because as a member of the EPA, we would always submit our three samples for the newspaper of the year award. For many of those years, we would compete with denominational papers with large budgets and millions of members. And then there’s us working out of our basement office.

“In 2017, we submitted our entry and won newspaper of the year, called the award of excellence, and selected not by Christians in the industry but by secular people looking at the paper objectively. We were so shocked when our name was called.. It was emotional to go up and accept that award after 28 years of producing the paper.”

Brave new world

Though the Widamans launched metrovoicenews.com way back in 1998, the conversion to an exclusively digital-only format was inevitable, the paper’s founder said.  “All print publications have had to make a move from paper to digital,” Hewitt said. “This has little to do with the price of paper and more to do with the fact that we have moved from the mass media age to the personal communication age.

“Publications, articles, editorials and opinions all need to be presented in an electronic format, which allows the reader to feel a greater connection to the source, as well as provide them a way to provide feedback and opinion. Also, if a user is impressed by an article, it is easier to share with friends and family, greatly increasing the distribution of the information.”

Dwight agreed.

“We knew that the print run would end at some point,” he said. “The Lord was working in the background. Our paper has never been more influential than it is today. I look at our website and see stories that have regularly gotten 11,000 views online. Some stories have been read by 50,000 or 60,000 people. We are transitioning from a print publication to a digital publication at the height of our influence, where we can do the most good.”

The website is now the number one Christian site in the Kansas City area.

Readers who opt in by signing up HERE or on Facebook will receive free weekly electronic newsletters.

“Each newsletter will have 10 or 15 breaking stories,” Dwight said. “People can click on those that interest them, which will take them to our website. We are not limited to 24 pages of newsprint. We have an unlimited amount of space, and we can cover late-breaking news and really become a daily news source.”

Anita in Petra, Jordan.

Anita looks forward to the opportunity to shine a brighter spotlight on all of the good things that are happening in the local Christian community.

“I hope readers here in the Kansas City region know that we are a trusted source of information,” she said. “God has given different gifts to people. We see the different areas where Christians have come to serve their fellow man, and as a community we need to encourage those areas. There are so many opportunities for people to serve and engage their faith. If people would step out and do it, we could make a difference.”

Dwight hopes to build on a lesson that God recently reinforced in his life.

“My 92-year-old mom passed away a few weeks ago,” he said. “When she was a child and then as a young woman in the 1940s and 50s, she attended a community church in her rural hometown of just 130 residents. Each Sunday, a pastor representing a different denomination would take the pulpit. It’s the same for Anita’s country church where she grew up.

“When I saw the photos and articles about the church that my mom placed in a scrapbook, it made me realize that today most lack that sense of community. We want Metro Voice to continue to be that shared community across denominational lines.”

Dwight and Anita embrace the digital future and encourage their readers to do the same. They are convinced the best is yet to come for Metro Voice. “The print version of the newspaper is only a tool,” Dwight said. “We’re moving on, giving up one tool and taking on another tool to continue what we are doing.”

– By Alan Goforth