Once upon a time, the editor of the New York Times wrote a memo (PDF here) to his staff in which he waxed philosophical on a number of matters important to his newspaper. The inspiration for his memo was a self-study document (PDF here) that followed an investigation into a number of ethical lapses at the old gray lady of newsprint.
These two documents include many interesting words of advice for those who care about religion-news coverage in the mainstream press, including wisdom about the abuse of words such as “moderate” and “fundamentalist.” Still, the passage quoted most often by your GetReligionistas is this one that talks about two subjects dear to our hearts, starting with the need for intellectual and cultural diversity in newsrooms:
Of course, diversifying the range of viewpoints reported — and understood — in our pages is not mainly a matter of hiring a more diverse work force. It calls for a concerted effort by all of us to stretch beyond our predominantly urban, culturally liberal orientation, to cover the full range of our national conversation …
I also endorse the committee’s recommendation that we cover religion more extensively, but I think the key to that is not to add more reporters who will write about religion as a beat. I think the key is to be more alert to the role religion plays in many stories we cover, stories of politics and policy, national and local, stories of social trends and family life, stories of how we live. This is important to us not because we want to appease believers or pander to conservatives, but because good journalism entails understanding more than just the neighborhood you grew up in.
I bring this up for a simple reason.
This past weekend, Washington Post ombudsman Deborah Howell ended her “term” on the op-ed page with an end-of-the-year piece entitled “Resolutions for a Better Post.” As you would expect, in these hard times for newspapers, there is a sobering sense of reality in many of her recommendations. This is not a good time — hello, nonNewsweek — to be running off thousands of readers.
Thus, she writes:
… I’d like to again point out ways that The Post can enhance its accessibility, credibility and appeal to readers in this time of economic stress. The Post needs to value each loyal reader and pay more attention to those who are turned off or don’t see themselves reflected in its pages. Can those readers be brought back? That’s unclear, but it’s worth the effort.
And later, sure enough, we run into some Howell remarks that sound oh so similar to the wisdom expressed years earlier by Keller. Let us be attentive.
* Devote more coverage to religion. When you see how many reporters cover sports and politics, it seems natural to add more coverage of a subject dear to many readers’ hearts. This region has a wealth of religions with interesting stories. Recent Page 1 stories on the antiabortion movement by Jacqueline Salmon and new Catholic rules on fertility by Michelle Boorstein and science reporter Rob Stein were good to see, but two religion reporters aren’t enough.
* Make a serious effort to cover political and social conservatives and their issues; the paper tends to shy away from those stories, leaving conservatives feeling excluded and alienated from the paper. I’d like those who have canceled their subscriptions to be readers again. Too many Post staff members think alike; more diversity of opinion should be welcomed.
She has other advice, of course. But doesn’t that sound rather familiar? Of course, not all religious people are conservative, so it would be wrong to draw an iron-clad link between these two points. Still, many of the readers who feel abused and avoided are on the cultural and doctrinal side of the sanctuary aisle. So Howell is right to underline these points.
And all the people said, “Amen.”
Photo illustration: A popular sentiment with readers, but we disagree.