The founder's farewell to Eternity News

John Sandeman reflects on his ‘good news’ publication

I am old-fashioned enough not to want to speak ill of the dead, but one of my favourite stories for Eternity was one where a beloved leader of a large Christian organisation had got himself into an inappropriate relationship.

A major media figure was onto him. And what was the editor of a fledgling Christian paper to do about it?

What was a Christian way of telling the story? I decided to try, and in the days when the major deadline for Eternity was when the presses needed to start, I found myself negotiating a statement of repentance with his son, who was pressing the breakfast show on a Christian radio station that morning.

It is a favourite story of mine because it is a pointer to two things:

  • There is a theologically informed way of doing news, even difficult news
  • Too often, the Christian public does not know what is going on, and the antidote to the cynicism that breeds is a little more fresh air than we are used to.

The press needed to start at 10 am. I filed the page at 9.50am. And collapsed.

Inverting traditional media tropes, we could have missionaries and church planters as the heroes.

Eternity could have been filled with “naughty vicar stories”. But that was never the intent. Instead, out of a conviction that God, being a good God, is doing great things, we could run a mostly good news operation.

Inverting traditional media tropes, we could have missionaries and church planters as the heroes, and instead of writing about a socially constructed reality, we could affirm the Bible. Instead of conflict stories, we could run testimonies. But we would also include a few warts because we needed to show we were reflecting reality: a sinless church would not have needed a saviour.

As sales whiz David Maegraith and I launched Eternity in 2009, it was with a conviction that Australian Christians needed to hear what each other were doing, and that would encourage them, knowing that God had been working across the land. And that instead of doing a tightly controlled circulation, we needed to go big. So we did. The secret to Eternity’s success was scale – matching the reach of the audience because there are actually an awful lot of Christians in the great South Land. (I don’t think I ever wrote the piece I planned on whether Australia is the “Great South Land of the Holy Spirit” – maybe it will appear on my post-Eternity blog

Eternity learned some things along the way. It is always raining somewhere in Australia, so we had to shrink-wrap the bundles of paper. That made the Tullamarine Melbourne Age plant the best place to print for a time. Distribution consultant Joe Pesce came on board and taught us that by using a chair and a whip, Australia’s courier companies could obey orders. Well mostly.

Counter-intuitively Eternity started as a print product even though the internet age was upon us – that gave us the scale we needed, and took advantage of the curious habit Christians have of gathering together.

At its peak, Eternity got more than five million views a year and published half a million words annually.

The Bible Society decided to become a national organisation, and the new team of CEO Greg Clarke and CFO Barry Morris became adoptive parents for Eternity. This allowed a twig in the ground to grow into a tree and offer staffers a chance to become wordsmiths.

At its peak, Eternity got more than five million views a year and published half a million words annually. I never thought that established writers like Naomi Reed and Anne Lim could write for Eternity, but they seem almost like fixtures – except that nothing is. I trust Ben McEachen, who presents Mornings on Hope Media, and Kaley Payne, who produces John Dickson’s Undeceptions podcast, regard their Eternity experience as making their present lives more possible. And there are many others of you – I am not going to be able to name you all – that I hope Eternity had good “resale value” for your careers. That was the plan.

Some contributors like Michael Jensen have told me that Eternity helped launch their writing carers. I hope so – that was part of the plan. The Wildhive group has sold ads for Eternity; I hope we gave them a boost, too.

I got a spectacular 13 years of running Eternity, inventing my job and running with it.

As I left Eternity I remembered some of the wisest words about running a paper I heard in the Sydney Morning Herald news conference. “The Herald is like a shark,” said Editor-in-Chief John Alexander (who had a track record of increasing circulation whenever he ran a newspaper before heading off to run the Kerry Packer empire). “If it stops moving forward, it sinks to the bottom.”

I think I quoted him to one of my soon-to-be former colleagues. I was worried that the newsy part of Eternity would be removed without plans to add extra energy to the new mix.

This meant that Eternity head Rebecca Abbott and Simon Smart of the Centre for Public Christianity (CPX) were given a hard job taking the site forward. They deserve readers’ thanks for putting their shoulders to the wheel. The Bible Society, as owners of Eternity, had – and have – every right to change then halt Eternity. I wish they hadn’t, of course, but CEO Grant Thomson and the Board have the right to set their own vision and follow it.

Josh Maule, the first staffer at Eternity (he job shared as a ministry trainee with Dominic Steele’s Village Church Annandale), might recall telling me what missionary Wendy Toulmin had said – that Sandeman was too lively for Bible Society, and I was always afraid she was right. Well, eventually, right: I was well treated by the Bible Society. Quite likely better than I deserved.

I got a spectacular 13 years of running Eternity, inventing my job and running with it. That’s a long time in media, and I can’t be anything but grateful.