Religion news: Evolving? On life support?

Whenever I speak at Christian colleges and universities, I always find flocks of students who, when I ask them to name their dream full-time jobs, stress that they want to cover topics linked to entertainment, not hard news.

However, I have to explain to them that they have a big problem.

What kind of news organizations, I ask, have the resources to pay salaries and benefits to people who write about specialty topics — like rock music, movies, television, etc.?

There is silence. Then someone will say, voice uncertain, “Websites?”

No, not yet, I say. Try again. There is more silence, then, “Rolling Stone?” “The New York Times?” “The Los Angeles Times?”

OK, that’s a couple of jobs. Name more, I say. They really can’t name any more.

So where, I ask, do you need to work before you are qualified to apply for those jobs?

Total silence. This time, no one has an answer. The answer, of course, is that for a generation or so the other jobs have been at America’s top 40 or so newspapers and the wire services that they support. These are, of course, the very newsrooms that are now being hit the hardest in the advertising slump as the whole mass-media world struggles to find a business model that works on the World Wide Web. How many of the students have purchased newspaper subscriptions to these kinds of papers? You know the answer to that one. They are tuned out.

What does this have to do with GetReligion? Well, this week marked the end of my 22nd year writing the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service. As always, I wrote a column to mark the anniversary that focused on a topic linked to the Godbeat. This year, it’s going to end up being a two-part column.

However, part one is out and, in it, I note that one of the reasons that the religion beat is enduring rough times — especially in comparision to the glory years in which solitary newspapers enjoyed near monolopies in their big-city markets — is that all all specialty beats are getting caught in cutbacks. In other words, religion is not being singled out for cuts. At least, in my opinion, the religion beat is not being singled out to a higher degree than in the past.

As I have long said (crucial link here), religion news has always given too many editors sweaty palms.

So what is happening now? The most interesting thing is that religion news and opinion, of various forms, is spreading online. But there’s the rub. It’s hard for the blogosphere to react to news that no one reports. Thus, I opened with a discussion of that 2009 report in the New York Times about the alleged move by Catholic leaders to “reopen” the door to plenary indulgences. Remember that story?

That led me to some information gathered by several Pew research projects. Here is a chunk or two of the column:

“Religion is one of those topics that has a unique ability to gather in one place large groups of people who care passionately about it. That’s the kind of thing that happens quite naturally online,” said Jesse Holcomb, a research analyst with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. “The irony is that these online debates almost always start with a story from a big, traditional news source. Someone has to report the news before the bloggers can take over.”

And what about the overall health of the beat?

… (The) amount of religion news remained surprisingly steady in 2009, at 0.8 percent, compared with 1.0 percent in 2008, according to a study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

As always, it was a good year to read about papal tours, especially when they cause controversy, and stories about religion and politics, especially about the beliefs, rhetoric and policies of President Barack Obama. As always, it was not a good year to read about how religious beliefs helped shape events in some of the world’s most tense and bloody settings, such as Iraq and Iran. Holcomb noted that journalists even failed to probe the intense religious language and imagery in Obama’s historic speech at Cairo University, which focused on improving relations with the Islamic world.

Meanwhile, additional Pew research into news and trends online found that 41 percent of Americans believe the news media should devote more attention to “religion and spirituality.” Only news about science — with a 44 percent score — drew a higher response.

Who claims to want more “spiritual” news coverage? Women (44 percent) are more likely to say so than men (37 percent), which is significant since editors are worried about the rapidly declining number of female readers. Young adults, ages 18-29, are more interested in religion than readers over 50 — 49 percent to 35 percent. African-Americans (57 percent) and Hispanics (43 percent) are more interested in religion coverage than whites (38 percent).

So where are readers going to find this content? Online sources, of course.

But the vast majority of the best online writing is linked to discussions and criticism of news reported — to one degree or another — in the mainstream press. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? It is true that sites, like this one, often add new information and insights into important news events and trends. But the bloggers are not working full-time, unless they represent advocacy groups, and they rarely have the time and resources to consistently, day after day, cover a wide variety of news.

Someone has to cover the story. Then the blogosphere does its thing. That’s the sobering reality, more often than not.

Let me know what you think of the column and, quite frankly, please share URLs for the online religion sites that you think do the best job of adding real content to the news flow. Yes, I hope to talk to that guy who keeps whispering in the loggia.

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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.

  • Jerry

    As always, it was a good year to read about…controversy, and stories about religion and politics,…As always, it was not a good year to read about how religious beliefs helped shape events…

    I’ve grumbled more than once about how GetReligion’s coverage falls into exactly this trap as the over the top coverage of the Catholic Church most recently illustrates perfectly. Yes I know that story is catnap to journalistic cats, but I think you’ve fallen for the sensationalistic trap and have ignored the stories which will be more important in the long term.

    To your column, I do agree that online sources for how religion actually affects people lives is much more important now than mainstream news which too often reflects today’s scandals and celebrity doings. There are exceptions, of course.

    But my google news scan for religion and spirituality turns up quite a few interesting stories, some in the media MSM and non-MSM and some direct sources. I’m much, much more likely now to want to go to original sources such as actual Pew surveys rather than reading about them through a reporter’s filter.

  • Ben

    Terry,

    I actually experience the opposite problem as a journalist — I want to cover hard news but Internet readers gravitate toward entertainment and presumably the stuff those students want to write about. You seem to be writing from the perspective of print publications that don’t make decisions about what they cover based on Internet readership numbers but maybe from Pew polls instead. I’m surprised such places still exist out there. Religion coverage, I suspect, will benefit from the Internet traffic feedback loop. Lots of Americans care about religion. It’s things like international news that I really worry about.

  • dalea

    I find that TheWildHunt frequently provides good coverage of current Pagan news. It relies somewhat on the MSM but also on direct reports from the scene by Pagans and from small town newspapers. In fact, the best concise description of our religion I have seen was from the Grundy County, IA weekly.

    http://wildhunt.org/blog/

    WitchesVoice is somewhat similar, only with lots more reader generated stories. WV draws on a wide range of sources, many of them outside the US. Which makes sense as Pagans throughout the world post there. In many ways, it resembles an old time country weekly filled with reports on rather minor events and very localized happenings.

    http://www.witchvox.com/

    Since the MSM religion reporters almost never cover any Pagan news, I really don’t think I would miss them were they to go away. How can someone whose work consists almost entirely of covering Christianity and Judaism be considered a religion reporter?

  • Jerry

    As a coda to my prior comment, one of the great things about the Internet is that I can find news from many sources. One great example I just stumbled upon tonight was a report on religion in Africa from the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/8621916.stm

    So some outlets may be dying but there are more outlets available – a kind of a trade-off.

  • Meredith

    I used to subscribe to many printed newspapers and magazines in order to keep tabs on religion news in general and news about religious cults and sects in particular. But during the financial crisis I canceled most subscriptions and found that getting my religion news online is far more convenient. I use Google Reader to quickly scan hundreds of headlines. Doing so saves me money and, more importantly, time. I like the religion news coverage by the BBC, The Guardian, and The Times. Niche blogs like Religion News Blog alert me to lots of relevant religion news articles I would otherwise not have found. My beef with both online and offline news sources is that religion news tends to be ‘hidden’ deep within the publication’s pages (e.g. ‘Life’ section) or is dropped altogether.

  • David Adrian

    tmatt:

    Insofar as I can see, the mainstream media provide far less religious grist for the online mills than other kinds of coverage, politics especially.

    I get my local religion news principally from the Detroit daily newspapers, the Detroit Free Press (http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/frontpage) and The Detroit News (http://www.detnews.com/apps/pbcs.dll/frontpage). I also read the Wall Street Journal (http://online.wsj.com/home-page?) every day Monday through Saturday, including the “Houses of Worship” column on Friday. And, of course, I get a lot of information on religion from news/talk radio and cable television news.

    However, the bulk of my daily religion news and commentary comes from these online sources:

    World Next Daily – http://www.wnd.com/

    The Christian Post – http://www.christianpost.com/

    Interfax/Religion – http://www.interfax-religion.com/

    OCA [Orthodox Church in America] News – http://www.oca.org/news.html?id=3

    Orthodox Christian News – http://www.orthodoxnews.com/

    Directions to Orthodoxy – http://directionstoorthodoxy.org/

    The AOI [American Orthodox Institute] Observer – http://www.aoiusa.org/blog/

    Orthodox Christians for Accountability – http://www.ocanews.org/

    St. Andrew House Discussion Forum – http://members5.boardhost.com/STANDREWHOUSE/

    Obviously, the majority of these are Orthodox Christian, since I’m an Orthodox Christian myself.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Meredith:

    Where do you plan to get your news after those publications (a) go out of business due to free WWW readers or (b) start charging for their work?

  • michael

    The chief problem with religion coverage, and arguably its primary contribution to its own demise, is that it typically conceives of religion itself taking the ‘secular’ assumptions of liberal democracy for granted: according to which religion is an essentially private (and a-rational or irrational) belief system, moral code, or therapeutic technique that qualifies or “affects” a more basic secular or atheistic reality. This apparently innocent assumption is a theology all its own, no more religiously or metaphysically neutral (and therefore no more ‘secular’) than the Nicene Creed. It hides from view all the really interesting and important questions not just about religion, but about so-called ‘secular’ reality. But when it’s taken for granted (and one could argue that journalism as such necessarily takes it for granted in its very structure as a thought form) religion stories can only assume one of a finite number of tired and conventional forms: how religion (thus conceived) “affects” things such as politics, private morality (largely reduced to sentiment), people’s motivations, or idiosyncratic character. And so on. Religion coverage thus becomes entertainment, a species of that larger genus known as the ‘human interest story’.

    It’s little wonder then that doctrine is ignored, since this view has already determined in advance that doctrine has next to nothing to do with the ‘real world’. And it is therefore no surprise that such stories tend to be relegated to the Saturday religon pages or now to disappear altogether, except where religious people and institutions can be shown to be hypocritical or when they are perceived to violate the religiously neutral terms of secular politics.

    Meanwhile, though it is extremely unfashionable right now to mention the Pope as if he might actually have something interesting or important or even true to say, his five year Pontificate has been filled with writings that don’t just elucidate Catholic ‘religious’ doctrines, but which call into question this very assumption and therefore most of what we take for granted both about our own human nature and about the ‘secular’ world. Given what’s at stake on even on this side of the great divide, you’d think that might be of interest to somebody, though from reading the papers you’d never even know such thoughts are possible, much less that they’ve been so beautifully and profoundly articulated.

    I don’t know whether religion journalism is dying or evolving, but I do believe that until religion journalists think harder about what both religion and journalism are, it won’t much matter.

  • Julia

    michael:

    These days doctrine and – horrors, dogma – are verboten subjects. These words have the medieval kiss of death about them. Now it’s all about feelings, saith the zeitgeist of the age.

    I always check a sort of Catholic Drudge Report to see what’s up. Some links are to responses to MSM coverage of events, but a lot of it isn’t. Chuck Colson is on there now and then, the indispensible John Allen appears frequently, and of course the Whisperer is routinely linked. http://www.newadvent.org/

  • Meredith

    Terry,

    I would subscribe to certain sites and services; the ones I find myself using most often. I also do respond to (i.e. click on) ads that interest me because I know that is how most websites are able to keep in publishing.

    Throughout Europe we have free newspapers in buses and trains. All of them are supported by advertising. Several of these publications are growing and their coverage often rivals that of subscription papers.

    I think that old fashioned media firms have been slow to understand the way the internet has changed the way people consume such things as news, music, video and so on.

    Note that many newspaper websites look very similar to each other. They blindly follow a cookie-cutter approach all the while claiming they are not making enough money to support their efforts. They should instead seek for ways to make it work.

    In the end that means some news outlets won’t make it while others will thrive. That’s business and that’s life.

    David,

    World Net Daily? To me that site reads like a ‘christian’ verion of the National Enquirer.