Black flag flying in Dallas (updated)

456px-blackflagsymbolsvgThis is certainly a day of mourning for journalists who know anything about the history of religion-news coverage in the mainstream press.

While we await further specifics, here is the short report from Dallas that has just been posted online by Rod “Crunchy Cons” Dreher:

Religion in the media

Depressing very local news: there is no longer a religion beat at the Dallas Morning News. Our last two religion reporters have been reassigned to covering suburban schools. I have no idea why this decision was made, and I am in no position to question it, certainly.

All newspapers, and certainly my own, are in serious trouble during this economic crisis, and we can’t cover everything. But it is a shame, and indeed more than a shame, to think that the DMN‘s Religion section used to be routinely acclaimed within the profession as the best religion section in the country. And given how passionately religious Dallas and its environs are, this is to be expected, and welcomed.

And now, we not only have no religion section, we have no religion beat reporters.

But religion has not ceased to be critically important to the lives of people today. I’d like to know from my readers what you think of the quality of religion coverage from your local media, and where you get your religion news. If your local paper was considering eliminating religion beat coverage, what case would you make to them to keep it?

By all means, please add your own commentaries in response to that question here and over at Dreher’s own weblog.

The late, many said great News religion section was highly symbolic for Godbeat professionals because it was launched during an era in the mid-1990s when several nationally known newsrooms — think NPR and ABC World News Tonight — were launching serious efforts to improve their religion coverage. Click here for a glimpse of that (especially if you are willing to pay to see the full article).

Here at GetReligion, we have chronicled the section’s decline into a web-based niche with a lively weblog — all fueled by solid professionals who were still working the beat, even though their analog home base was gone. While I, personally, have often been critical of some News coverage (the old section was kind of a National of Council of Churches publication trying to cover life in a National Association of Evangelicals town), I would be the first to note that this was serious religion coverage by talented professionals. The whole Dallas experiment offered hope to many mainstream journalists.

When the section was shut down, News editor Bob Mong sent this form letter to a concerned reader. I think it would be appropriate to cyber-clip this and send it back to the management team at the once mighty daily newspaper in one of America’s most important and symbolic cities (by all means, click here), when it comes to religion news.

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

Now the religion beat itself, the source of any dedicated religion coverage by full-time professionals, is gone. No religion reporter IN DALLAS?

Your GetReligionistas will pass along more information as it becomes available. I am sure that memorial service details will be announced soon.

UPDATE: I just heard some more details from Jeffrey Weiss in Dallas and they are not good. The religion-beat pros have been assigned out to suburban beats. The assumption is that if some story linked to religion came along — we are talking about Dallas, as in TEXAS — then they could still be assigned to it, if they have time.

Still waiting to hear about the status of the religion weblog.

Stay tuned.

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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://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Oh, BTW, first person to say, “Why do we need professional reporters covering religion anyway? I get all of the news I need from weblogs and Google!” wins a lifetime ban from this site.

    I’m joking. Maybe.

    It takes professional dedication to produce real news, as opposed to random commentary. Get serious, people.

  • http://www.askyourpreacher.org AskYourPreacher

    A sign of the times unfortunately. Not a good sign, but a sign nonetheless. Religion is far too uninteresting for our culture it seems. I know that the money is getting tight for the newspapers, but when money gets tight you cut what you think is unimportant, unnecessary, and trivial. Perhaps that is how our society feels about religion? Yikes.

  • Jerry

    I think the following says it all:

    we could never build even a modest advertising base for the stand-alone section.

    Understanding why that is the case would be worthy of a serious news story that will probably never see the light of day.

  • FW Ken

    Ok, how about this: I access the news I need though weblogs and google. It’s not the professional reporting at issue, but the choice of what gets covered and what gets printed.

    For example, the DMN religion section reliably greeted Easter with the Jesus Seminar or Episcopal John Spong dismissing the Resurrection. I remember the year the Saturday before Christmas, we got a long article on how unfriendly and inhospitable visitors found churches. I remember an article on religious leaders who had passed away. The conservatives (W.A. Criswell and Mary Kay Ash) were treated negatively; the liberals (a Methodist preacher and a rabbi, I think) were treated sympathetically. I’m all for critical analysis where critical analysis is due, but when the Christian scriptures are consistently treated differently from the Koran or eastern texts, when the analysis of Christianity is consistently negative, is it critical analysis, or is it bias? Or, even, propaganda? That’s too strong a word, but my tin foil hat is fitting a bit tight tonight.

    To be fair, the DMN did a decent job on the Rudy Kos sex scandal of Dallas in the mid-90s, and a decent job on the 2002 scandals. I recently came across a correspondence I had with one of the writers on that subject, and he seemed a decent guy with a good grasp of the subject.

    But I can only be so “fair”, looking at the subject over the long haul. So ban me if you will.

  • dalea

    Here is the Wikipedia description under the image that heads this post:

    The black flag is, among other things, the traditional anarchist symbol

    The traditional mourning symbol is, I think, called bunting. When I read the headline, I expected to find a discussion of religion and anarchy.

    But instead the sad news about the DMN religion section. Perhaps the 20/80 rules applies here as well. The 20 who are really interested can go online and get loads of religious news; the 80 will get the passing glimpses they want from a general paper.

  • http://goodintentionsblog.com Bob Smietana

    Any news on whether this is permanent or are they on flu patrol?

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  • Jerry N

    Building on what Ken and (the other) Jerry said, perhaps the market for mainstream reporting is slanted against the Dallas Morning News’ take on religion in favor of advocacy pieces and the general Meacham-Quinn school of reporting? The non-mainstream press has picked up the slack with issues like Planned Parenthood’s willingness to cover up statutory rape cases, and with Google and blogs (including this blog, so please don’t ban me), there are way fewer barriers to getting the alternative stuff.

    I’m sorry to see the big players sink like this, and whatever happens, Ann Rodgers better keep writing, darnit, but perhaps religious reporting isn’t dying so much as changing? Perhaps the non-mainstream will eventually mature and produce some periodicals that will gain a wider following. Heck, if the Christian Scientists could enter the mainstream with their eponymous “Monitor”, couldn’t a Catholic, Evangelical or Jewish publication enter the public square?

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    It’s as permanent as anything is these days, Bob.

    And FW Ken, with all due respect I’d say you are projecting. We had plenty of warm fuzzy holiday stories. I know because I wrote many of them. And as for how we treated the various sides of the theological divides. I took it as a point of pride that I could always get both sides to take my calls because they knew we rolled it down the middle.

    And to FW Ken and dalea: As the MSM stops covering religion, where do you think all that content you read online will come from? Elves?

  • dalea

    Jeffrey,

    I am a Wiccan or NeoPagan. Our religion receives virtually no coverage in the traditional media. Yet, somehow, we manage to have online news. It can not have come from the newspapers as they do not cover us. We just cover our own news.

    BTW, how much coverage did the DMN have on the ‘new’ religious movements and the New Age? These are rapidly growing religions with many younger members. Which should make them a key demographic.

  • http://goodintentionsblog.com Bob Smietana

    Jeff,

    Sorry to hear that. You guys do great work.

  • Martha

    “We had plenty of warm fuzzy holiday stories.”

    Jeffrey, that’s not good religious coverage. That’s nice, heart-warming, human-interest stuff to go along with the Christmas advertising blitz.

    Ken’s point is that, if the ‘serious’ coverage of doctrine is the “Tomb of Jesus discovered!” stuff, and the rest of it is ‘Hurrah for Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny!’ “warm fuzzy holiday stories” as you put it yourself, then that’s unbalanced. I know that it’s not the job of the religion reporter to proselytise for a particular reason, and that newspapers will prefer a story that’s unique instead of the 5,000th version of “Christians believe Jesus is God made Man”, but on the other hand, when it’s pretty reliable that for the major Christian feasts of Christmas and Easter, the media stories will be “Prominent scholar says this is all bunk”, it does get a little wearisome.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but how many Fourth of July stories on “Benedict Arnold – Misunderstood Patriot” are published? ;-)

  • Jerry

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but how many Fourth of July stories on “Benedict Arnold – Misunderstood Patriot” are published?

    I know you were asking a rhetorical question, but there was quite a good Revolutionary War series that covered how Benedict Arnold had been a hero before he became a traitor.

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Folks, I’m not going to cite a comprehensive list of stories that we produced in more than a decade of award-winning religion coverage. But we covered Buddhists and Sikhs and Brahma Kumaris. And every flavor of Christianity, Judaism and Islam you can imagine. And pagans and None of the Aboves and so on and so on. And yes, we did some edgy stories that pushed the boundaries of religion coverage. And some extremely mainstream stories that did not.

    Before the section, the DMN had religion reporters for many decades who did fine work in their time. In particular, the work of Helen Parmley should be remembered.

    I’m proud of all of it and I mourn its passing.

    Dalea, there will surely be news within the faith traditions. The Baptist Standard covers the Baptists of Texas, for instance. In dead-tree and on-line. As I am sure that pagan sites do (Wren’s Nest has been a bookmark for me for many years…). But inside reports seldom travel beyond the members. And there is, you must admit, a limit to the objectivity that true believers can bring to their efforts. That is not to dismiss the very good work done by those publications. But it’s not the same, nor intended for the same audience, as what we did. We explained Baptists to non-Baptists, pagans to non-pagans, etc etc.

    It was a fine world where all of that journalism was available. I mourn that, too.

  • Chris Bolinger

    “Why do we need professional reporters covering religion anyway? I get all of the news I need from weblogs and Google!”

    Terry, your premise is either that professional reporters only work for MSM publications or that the only religion coverage worth reading comes from MSM publications. Either way, I reject your premise. Feel free to ban me.

    We readers are a bit more discerning than you believe us to be. MSM publications are failing for a variety of reasons, but first and foremost it is because they have forgotten to put the customer first.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    CHRIS:

    I won’t ban you. You are simply wrong. You don’t know journalism.

    You are right that there are professionals in the “non-mainstream.” But they work FOR the institutions and for advocacy groups, with very few exceptions. They write tons of fine stuff and I read tons of it. Always have always will. So we both know that.

    But the mainstream is still about 80 percent of the info that most of the world knows. You don’t want a world in which Stewart yells at Limbaugh as normal news, or where the only info you have about, oh, the Anglican war comes from the Episcopal News Service and the online Anglican blogosphere. You need Eric Gorski, whether you know it or not.

    Professional reporters have salaries and some degree of independence. Laugh at that. But it matters.

    I accept much or even most of your attacks on the mainstream. That’s why this blog exists — to criticize the bad and praise the good.

    You are, however, losing sight of the basic structural reality of media and info.

    Let’s switch subjects.

    The Illinois legislature. Nice, clean bunch of folks, right?

    You think life in Illinois will be better with only 15 full-time, local-beat mainstream reporters covering the legislature, not 150. That’s your argument. That’s what you are saying.

    Right? And don’t tell me about the media habits of 5 percent of highly motivated readers, such as yourself. Tell me about PUBLIC DISCOURSE as a whole.

    Get real.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Oh, to others.

    The black flag is anarchy. That sort of fits.

    But it also is mourning in many cultures. Bunting, too….

  • FW Ken

    But we covered Buddhists and Sikhs and Brahma Kumaris. And every flavor of Christianity, Judaism and Islam you can imagine. And pagans and None of the Aboves and so on and so on. And yes, we did some edgy stories that pushed the boundaries of religion coverage.

    True, but it’s the differential treatment afforded those different religions that’s the issue. Probably I am “projecting” to a degree; who doesn’t?

    In fact, I think the section probably did improve. I picked up a copy of the DMN occasionally after I quit reading on a regular basis and there was some interesting stuff. But I’ll go with Jerry on this one: the inability of the section to attract advertisers in a city like Dallas is telling; there are large and wealthy conservative and liberal religious communities. Despite the disdain Mr. Weiss offers his critics, many of us are quite open to legitimate, accurate, and fair examination of our faiths.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    As I said in the other post above, until newspapers can become honestly and truly fair to the very readers it seeks to read the newspapers, the MSM will die a slow death. How positions are treated is at least as important as what is reported and included.

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  • http://checkonsteve.blogspot.com Tyra

    I helped edit the DMN Religion section for a few years and continued to write for the section after I quit full-time work to be at home with my family — until the section and later Metro presence disappeared.

    My friends from church and elsewhere who were devoted to the section to this day still bemoan its absence.

    When I notice a trend or wonder what’s really going on in the incredibly diverse religion world of North Texas, I briefly consider researching and learning more but then stop. No one around here is going to pay me to do so. So I’ll keep working for the clients who will pay me to research, write and edit.

  • Jill C.

    Jeffrey, I’m so sorry to read this news. I guess we shouldn’t have cancelled our subscription to the DMN. Hang in there — you are a very good journalist!