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American Journalism Review
Jesus Christ, Editor  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   December 1992

Jesus Christ, Editor   

Adapted from

By David Wallechinsky
     


On Tuesday, March 13, 1900, Jesus of Nazareth became a newspaper editor.
He chose the Topeka Capital as his medium and minister Charles Sheldon as his deputy. Nearly a century later, with Christmas approaching, the tale seems worth retelling.
In 1897, Sheldon's book, "In His Steps, or What Would Jesus Do?" became a bestseller. One chapter described a fictional editor who edited his newspaper as Jesus might have. From the pulpit, Sheldon argued that any publication shaped with such decency and goodwill would see its circulation soar.
Three years later, Capital Publisher Frederick Popenoe invited Sheldon to give his theory a shot. The newsroom staff protested that the pastor would make their product unreadable, but Editor J.K. Hudson agreed to let Sheldon take over for five days.
Sheldon immediately reduced detailed reports about scandals and crime to briefs. Theatrical news was axed. Editorials were moved to the front page, signed and followed with a rebuttal. A famine in India ignored or downplayed by most of the American press was headlined with an appeal to readers that brought in more than $1 million. The Sunday paper was dropped for a Saturday evening edition that included a front page story about the Sermon on the Mount.
Sheldon also banned smoking, drinking and profanity in the newsroom and refused ads for tobacco, pat-ent medicines, bargain sales (there wasn't time to verify values) and illustrations of ladies' hosiery and underwear. To the delight of a friend who was a shopkeeper in Topeka, he also dropped ads from several Kansas City department stores.
By week's end, daily circulation had surged from 11,223 to 362,684 (publicity had brought in orders from around the world). Nevertheless, reviews were mixed. Critics noted the paper had ignored important stories, such as a bubonic plague in San Francisco and a deadly tenement fire in Newark. Besides that, they said, it was boring.
Sheldon was quick to defend himself. His paper may have been dull, he said, but at least it "had not one line that could not be read aloud in the family circle."
Satisfied, Sheldon returned to preaching and writing books. In 1920, again drawn to journalism, he moved to New York to spend four years editing the Christian Herald. He eventually returned to Topeka, where he died in 1946 at age 89.

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