Dallas Morning News: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

dmnewsIf you have been looking for the religion section of The Dallas Morning News under the Features tab on the newspaper’s website, it isn’t there anymore. And if you live in Texas and you’ve been looking for the religion section in the dead-tree-pulp edition of the Saturday newspaper, you won’t find it anymore — at least not in its old section-front format.

As several people have noted in our comments boxes, one of the nation’s best known religion-news sections is gone, or almost.

Why did this happen? Well, here is what Dallas editor Bob Mong wrote to unhappy reader the other day. I do not think her name is actually “Ms. XXX,” but, hey, we are talking about Texas.

Dear Ms. XXX,

Thank you for writing about the format change in our Religion coverage. I can assure you the subject is not going to be an afterthought. As the person responsible for creating the section in 1994, I am quite proud of its many accomplishments. We will continue to take it seriously, as well we should. With writers such as Jeff Weiss and Sam Hodges, we will continue to take on interesting, complex and important stories as we have the last 12-plus years. Those stories … may appear on Page One and other section fronts. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, we could never build even a modest advertising base for the stand-alone section. I can assure you, no paper in the country tried harder than we did to garner such support. I would encourage you to also look at our online Religion blog and newsletter; they are both quite good and growing in popularity.

I do understand your concern, and I hope you will come to see our coverage of the subject will continue to be significant.

With regards, Bob Mong, editor

The key, for me, is that the newspaper (a) appears to know that religion is rather important in Dallas and (b) knows that this is not a one-person beat that can be put into one small niche. Here at GetReligion, we have had some good things and some bad things to say about religion coverage in the News. After all, I am a prodigal Texan. But, let’s face it — it’s a good thing that the newspaper prints so much religion news that this site has to watch it all the time just to see what it is doing.

And what about the digital future? The other day, Weiss dropped me a note asking if I had noted some of his recent coverage of an interesting story developing right now on the left side of the Baptist spectrum in North America. The key is that Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter — two old-fashioned “moderate” Baptists — are trying to rally a mess of Baptists around a covenant that clearly is meant to yank the word “Baptist” out of the exclusive territory of the religious right. Yes, this is yet another headline in the rapidly developing story of the emerging evangelical left. At least, that is one spin on what is happening.

 1181986 carterclinton ap300Weiss has been writing up a storm on this story at the News religion blog, but here is the starting point for the thread (the post contains some key URLs).

But the content of the story itself is almost beside the point. What Weiss wanted to discuss was the way the story is actually being written and handled by the News — or not handled, as the case may be, if you only care about dead trees. Here is part of his email:

… If you check out the mainpage of the blog you’ll see we’re posting pretty regularly on the topic. All without generating any stories for the Newspaper.

Which leads to the question: What with the death of the Religion section and the birth of the blog, more and more of my content is going online only. I suspect that is or will be true for some of the other religion reporters out there. It’s hard enough to keep track of the good and interesting stuff when it’s got a dead-tree hook. Add the blogs … And how does anyone — how does your blog or me — keep track of what is interesting and or significant?

For starters, Weiss & Co. have created a Listserv (within the News category) for the truly dedicated Dallas religion-news readers. It currently has 4,300-plus subscribers. Weiss also will use his blog to point toward major religion stories in the News that appeared in other sections — sports, entertainment, etc. — that readers may have missed. I suggest that he create a kind of rolling index on a sidebar of his blog to allow people to visit every week or so and catch up, chasing the religion ghosts through all the sections of the newspaper.

But what do you think of this new phase in the Dallas story? Weiss will be reading this post and commenting, and I hope to have a follow-up post or two.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://noleftturns.ashbrook.org Joseph Knippenberg

    For what it’s worth, the Atlanta paper is eliminating its stand-alone “Faith and Values” section and making it a four-page portion of Saturday “Living” section. I don’t know how that’s going to work for me, though I have to confess I was never exactly overwhelmed by the quality or depth of the AJC’s coverage.

  • Jerry

    I was wondering how well other papers cover religion. My local paper, the Contra Costa Times, has had one to two pages of religious coverage each Saturday at the back of the Home & Garden section of the paper mostly printing UPI stories. Unfortunately, even this coverage does not make it online; the web version of the paper does not even have a religion section.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Atlanta has also been one of the major players in religion coverage for a long time. Here’s the background: the newswpaper bidness (as they say in TX) is in trouble. Not trouble as in “losing money” for the most part. But trouble as in “no longer making the truckloads of money it used to.” And for a publicly traded company that’s big trouble. Readership is down for just about all of us. As is ad revenue. So that’s why the cuts.
    But here comes the web! Save us all, right? Leave the bidness side aside — will it?
    A couple of years ago, I knew that if I checked several key news sources, I could stay generally on top of major news. As Google news and Nexis gave me more tools, my net widened. This blog is part of my regular info feed.
    But the news content providing system is going through a major change. Non-professional blogs are contributing. Most of them not so much. But a few — if you cover Baptists there are a few that can’t be ignored — are as necessary to me today as checking Atlanta was a few years ago.
    But which ones? How can I tell? And how can the info consumer, what we used to call a “reader” — tell? How do my readers find me? My bosses say they are happy with the Religion blog. But our hit totals are a tiny fraction of the circulation for the dead-tree paper.
    Credibility is the only real coin of the realm. And where do we find that? And how do our readers find us?
    I got no answers, other than “time.”

    Back to you, Terry.

  • Sarah Webber

    I must say I appreciate this blog and am starting to venture out to other ones referenced here. I haven’t read a dead-tree paper since high school (more than a dozen years ago in far-away California) as our local papers (Philly suburbs) do not impress me. I tend to read Google news as well as the BBC news web front page for general news but use Christianity Today online (especially Weblog) and GetReligion.org to get the kind of detailed religious news I want. For example, I know I have a much better grasp of the Episcopal/Anglican issues of the last few years because both CT and GR have covered them extensively. So, folks, please keep up the good work.

  • Don Neuendorf

    What about this advertising question? I thought a more essential handle on this issue was the fact that they were unable to build any reliable advertising base for the religion section. Why might that be?

    It’s the same issue bedeviling the “new media” so it might be worth more pondering

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com MattK

    As a former advertising executive, let me tell you. Marketers want to target specific audiences. The less likely they are to have made up their minds about buying products (e.g.young), the better. The more maleable (e.g. young), the better. The more discretionary income (e.g. young and single), the better.

    The perception (justified or not) among the young (almost all younger than 35) people who make the decisions at ad agencies is that religious people are older, less likely to be influenced by advertising, and already know what they are going to buy.

    Advertising in a religion section of a newspaper is like buying an ad on Murder She Wrote, but not as effective.

    That is why religion news should not be in its own section of the paper. It could certainly take over most of the inches currently being given to the presidential race (the election isn’t even until November 2008!!!! Why is anyone covering it?)

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