Curation, a publishing model for MennoMedia?

For about as long as I’ve worked in the publishing industry I’ve been involved in discussions about the right publishing “model” for paid content. Authors, editors and other content creators do work that is valuable to society, and if it’s good, should be paid for.

I worked for an academic publisher in the early 2000s when the industry was at the tail end of the effectiveness of the academic library model, the model where academic books and journals that broadened the boundaries of academic knowledge and were deemed publishable by academic peers, and by the publisher were packaged and sold to libraries all over the world. Library budgets began to shrink and the money previously available for academic monographs was shifted to academic journals. Academic journals printed in often slim volumes were a lucrative business for a while, but the electronic revolution was coming and subscription sales began to drop as knowledge moved online. Publishers who had relied on this model as their bread and butter began to look for alternatives and developed online platforms, or partnered with content aggregators to distribute the ever broadening academic knowledge available on the web.

Fast forward to the mid-2000s, and smart publishers had successfully made this transition from printed knowledge to knowledge that was packaged, accessed, and sold electronically. It’s a fascinating history for anyone who follows academia, or is interested in technological transitions and revolutions.

Textbooks, trade books, and non-academic titles didn’t really catch up to the technology until the late 2000s. Now, however, we are firmly ensconced within the digital revolution across all book and knowledge types. Journalism has gone through a heart-wrenching and harsh transition from print to an online environment where the default mode for content for many former subscribers is “free.” Just ask yourself: When was the last time you picked up a print newspaper that you actually paid for? Even if you have read a print newspaper recently, how has the online “free” environment changed your reading and purchasing patterns?

So what do you value? What kind of content would you pay for?

Recently a couple of previously unrelated strands began to come together for me as I thought through this question. In February I attended the Tools of Change Conference in New York City, a conference dedicated to those in the publishing industry who are wrestling with how to embrace both technological and social change to provide a valuable product for their customers.

I attended a session where one of the panelists was the founder of Twitter, about what he was working on next. He is currently working on a platform called Medium that, unlike Twitter which focuses on immediacy and currency, goes deeper into the web and into our thoughts, rather than shallower. If Twitter is a 140 character window into someone’s online soul, what the Twitter founder was working on next was something more like a panoramic painting or photograph, digging deep to find not just what was new and immediate, but what was most valued and important; not exactly timeless, but something close. He was talking about curation.

What I didn’t realize in February was that I had already known and appreciated the concept of curation for a long time, I just hadn’t applied it to my professional life.

When I lived in Southern California one of my favorite radio shows was by a guy named Jason Bentley called Metropolis. Bentley was a DJ for the public radio station KCRW. KCRW had long established itself as a cultural bellwether in Southern California and especially in the electronic and the Hollywood film music scene of the 2000s. Bentley was part DJ, part cultural savant, and most importantly a curator. When I look back to that time driving the LA freeways and listening to his show I realized that I listened to his show not so much because I knew what was going to play next, but because I wanted to hear what Bentley was hearing out there in the world he inhabited, and I knew it would be good. This is an example of curation.

What I value and am willing to pay for is a vision of how things can and should be, whether that is in music, religion, art, or any of the realms I inhabit.

MennoMedia as the publisher and producer of Anabaptist content for the Mennonite Church and for the world, can become a curator of a vision of how the world should be, for how a people can faithfully live out their calling as followers of Jesus.

Food and Faith in Anabaptist Perspective

What does the food we eat and how we prepare it say about the kind of world we envision?

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Food “draws together all of the important themes of biblical faith” noted theologian Walter Brueggemann said in a recent lecture. The growing, harvesting, tending, and preparation of food expresses the highest hopes of a people while it meets some of their basic needs.

Barbara Kingsolver novelist and author of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle wrote: “Modern American culture is fairly empty of any suggestion that one’s relationship to the land, to consumption and food, is a religious matter. But it’s true; the decision to attend to the health of one’s habitat and food chain is a spiritual choice. It’s also a political choice, a scientific one, a personal and a convivial one. It’s not a choice between living in the country or the town; it is about understanding that every one of us, at the level of our cells and respiration, lives in the country and is thus obliged to be mindful of the distance between ourselves and our sustenance.” [From The Essential Agrarian Reader, University Press of Kentucky, 2003, quoted in Simply in Season, Herald Press, 2009, p. 299.]

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The art and aesthetics of food and its growing, harvesting, tending and distribution has regained a place of prominence in interconnected global cultures of the 21st century. Mennonites have historically strong food cultures and that is reflected in the unparalleled cookbooks and simple living books published for over 60 years by Herald Press and MennoMedia. For Mennonites, food has always been tied to values and traditions of faith, family, community and responsibility for themselves and for others.

What can we glean from the cultural history of Anabaptism in relation to food that can be communicated and transformed for the future?

I have spent some time in my adult life trying to answer this question. Values of peace and justice, hospitality and welcome, stewardship and caring have permeated Anabaptism for centuries. It is a culture that arose out of persecution but has counterintuitively lived in abundance for most of the 20th century.

In the modern era food became highly commoditized and traded at a far larger scale than ever before as technology became a primary driver for production and distribution. While vast swaths of the world lacked (and still lack) access to adequate food and nutrition many portions of the Western world are dealing with a different issue: that of too much food and consumption of the wrong types of food, leading to a host of personal and social problems.

Both scenarios reflect an unsustainable situation. How should a people of faith respond?

In the past ten years popular interest in food and how it is produced in the West, Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere globally has reached an all-time high. In 2008, many parts of the world experienced a food crisis, driven in part by changing patterns of consumption and production.

Pivoting off of strong historical ties to food and food cultures, MennoMedia is positioned to become a catalyst for a new kind of good food culture whether among people of faith, people with no faith community or tradition, or between people of otherwise dissimilar faith traditions. Like it or not, we are all connected by the food we eat and how it is distributed. By maintaining and expanding Mennonite cultural insights on food through new books like the forthcoming Mennonite Girls Can Cook Celebrations, Mennonites will display the abundance of the earth while remaining true to the core of the faith.

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Ben Penner (and family), Marketing Director

Meet the New Director of Marketing and Sales, Ben Penner

Greetings! My name is Ben Penner and I am thrilled to join MennoMedia as the new Director of Marketing and Sales. Together we will strive to be the first place you look for the most authoritative and engaging books, curriculum, and congregational resources from an Anabaptist perspective.

I just wanted to take a moment to share a few biographical details and thoughts on the future of publishing including how you can help MennoMedia become the destination for all things Mennonite and Anabaptist.

I grew up Mennonite Brethren in Hillsboro, Kansas on a wheat farm. After my graduation from Tabor College I made the somewhat unconventional pilgrimage to Southern California where I attended Fuller Theological Seminary and almost as unexpectedly started a career in publishing. I say unexpectedly because I didn’t go to a Seminary to learn how to publish books, but that’s what happened. I ended up working as an assistant of sorts with Dr. Eddie Gibbs on a book about the future of the church called ChurchNext. I was hooked. I learned that my interests in church, culture, globalization and the future were just the catalyst I needed to help others express their ideas about how best to respond to the challenge of the modern world to people of faith.

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Fast forward ten plus years and I’m still looking for new ways to engage the best thinking about culture with convictions that I believe can show people of every background the way forward, leading me to MennoMedia.

A few weeks ago I attended a conference in New York City devoted to the future of publishing. One of the highlights was the phenomenal energy that I saw exhibited by the many startup media companies in attendance, showing off their ideas. I was impressed by their attention to the specific needs of the people they served, and to the very specific ways people read books today, whether they be in paper format or through eReaders such as the Kindle or iPad. Everyone I talked to was unanimous in their enthusiasm and excitement about the future of the written word. I believe that this is a model that we can follow at MennoMedia.

In the near future we’ll be experimenting with new ways to deliver the best content from an Anabaptist perspective to you. One concept I’ve learned about recently is Lean Publishing, which basically means experimenting with product delivery and design at a very early stage, sharing it with the world from the very start, and learning from what you tell us. In other words, we want to hear from you.

To reach me to talk about how we can best serve you and your congregation or community, please send me an email at benp@mennomedia.org or give me a call at 507-995-7756.

What would you like to see from an Anabaptist media publisher?