State of the online Godbeat 2010

Last week, I posted a chunk of what I wrote marking the 22nd birthday of the weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service.

You may recall that I focused on the bad news, which is the undeniable fact that there are fewer mainstream newsrooms with the resources to fund full-time, experienced, trained specialty reporters who want to cover religion news. At the same time, there was little evidence that the public was losing its interest in the subject. The actual percentage of religion in the major news outlets declined in 2009 — but not by much.

At the same time, it was clear that religion-beat watchers were seeing a major uptick in religion writing online — even if much of it seemed to be based on the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” model, which essentially means that religion equals private beliefs and opinions and, thus, is not really news, at least not in the same way as real news — like politics. There are very few religion facts out there (even in history and in the texts of catechisms), only feelings.

As I wrote that column I realized that there was no way I was going to get all of my material into a single column. Thus, I did something that I rarely do: I wrote a two-part column. That places a real burden on copy desks as they plan their pages and I know that. However, some newspapers like to weave the two pieces into one feature, which works, too.

Anyway, part II is out and here is how it opens:

For journalists who care about life on the God beat, the list of the dead and the missing in action has turned into a grim litany.

Some religion-beat jobs have been killed, while others have been downsized, outsourced, frozen or chopped up and given to reluctant general-assignment reporters.

Gentle readers, please rise for a moment of silence.

Like I said last time, religion is not being singled out for punishment. Rather, the current business-model crisis — free content, maximum competition from online alternatives — is having an especially crushing effect in the top-40 news markets, the big cities in which larger news organizations used to have the resources to fund specialty beats of all kinds (including religion).

The cuts in big newsrooms had another effect, according to the watchdogs at the Religion Newswriters Association:

“In the 1990s and early 2000s, the largest papers often had multiple religion reporters. That has disappeared, for sure. That is where the biggest cut for religion has occurred,” said RNA Director Debra Mason, who teaches at the University of Missouri.

“We suffer in the meantime, and one possible casualty is all our experienced, better writers. I do worry that the next generation of religion writers don’t have any mentors or internships, etc., to gain experience.”

But the column stresses that the real growth has come on sites that mix some news with lots of opinion and media criticism (like this one). At the same time, readers now have much wider access to religious news, in the form of denominational wire services and public-relations offices (think Episcopal News Service) and those that tilt against those institutional windmills (think Stand Firm).

But this leads me to an interesting, and sobering, comment by the young man behind that Catholic weblog that is in almost everyone’s browser bookmarks — Whispers in the Loggia.

The harsh reality today, according to Rocco Palmo … is that all too often readers who care about religion face tough choices. Will they place their trust in traditional news reports that are, these days, often written by journalists who have little training to prepare them for the rigors of the religion beat, or the opinion-based work of experienced insiders and scholars who may have ideological axes to grind?

“There are fabulous religion reporters who are still out there grinding away in the mainstream media, but they are an endangered species for sure,” said Palmo. “I still think that basic, hard-news reporting is the gold standard and we need more of it. … But most of what you see when you go online is commentary and criticism. You don’t see that much original reporting being done. …

“If anything, people like me are just trying to step in and fill the void.”

Now, I realize that there are plenty of you out there — on the left and the right — who are perfectly happy in a world in which you can read dozens of openly European, slanted online publications and then compare the results and figure out what you think is the accurate information. Please don’t hear me knocking that (said the pro-American model of the press Eastern Orthodox doctrinal traditionalist pro-life Democrat prodigal Texan who leads this here weblog). I’m all for alternative media sources. I’m all for constructive, pro-journalism media criticism.

But who does the basic reporting? Who gets to write the basic stories to which the weblogs react? Read that Palmo quote again. And again. Please.

Photo: Apparently, this is a 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.

  • Dave

    Terry, a newcomer to GR might not realize that in your terms “European” and “American” refer to partisan versus non-partisan mainstream media.

    Read that Palmo quote again. And again. Please.

    Why, in an age of such a wealth — if not an excess — of electronic communication, cannot interested readers go to one place on-line for the work of those fabulous reporters grinding away?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I thought I had defined it with this context:

    “openly European, slanted online publications”

  • Dave

    Someone ignorant of your use of these terms might read that as slanted online publications originating in Europe.

  • Ben

    Will they place their trust in traditional news reports that are, these days, often written by journalists who have little training to prepare them for the rigors of the religion beat, or the opinion-based work of experienced insiders and scholars who may have ideological axes to grind?

    I’m guessing that at this rate journalism will be mostly “replaced” by the latter option, with some news reporting being financed by foundations and a very small handful of for-profit old media that survives. :-(

    Thanks for not going gently into that goodnight.

  • Martha

    “openly European, slanted online publications”

    And on a tangent – hey! As an openly European European, I resemble that remark! :-)

    At least over here, one knows which biases are behind which newspaper and can adjust mindset accordingly, whereas American papers seem to be saying “Nope, us? Not partial to anyone at all, at all. Even though our publishers are major donors to political party A/bankroll foundation B/have endowed chair C at university D. No, no hidden prejudices or slant here, nosiree!” So you read a story which seems, on the face of it, to lead you to the inescapable conclusion that such-and-such is the case because the reporting is purely fact-based and impartial, then it turns out that the reporter is a member of an advocacy group for/against the position being covered in that story.

    It seems to this slanted European that you just have to figure out the biases for yourself in that case ;-)

  • Ben

    But, Martha, you never seem to be fooled by the bias of American newspapers, so are you really worried they are going to pull the wool over your eyes? Isn’t the objectivity standard actually more important for its impact on reporters and editors than its impact on the readers? When I write a story, I know it’s part of my job to air all sides of a topic. That motivates me to do things I might not bother so much with if I were working under a different model of journalism. It motivates my editors to push copy back in my face when it’s lopsided. And when a reader gets upset, she has a specific standard to point to and say, “Hey, you didn’t live up to your code of conduct here.”

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/ Ted Olsen

    Mark Leibovich’s NYTMag profile of Mike Allen and Politico (I’m sure GetReligion will get to it, given its repeated but unexplored references to Allen’s Christian faith) has me thinking about the difference between a site like Politico and a site like Christianity Today.

    Politico, Leibovich says, is “aggressively neutral”—read bipartisan—but is also aggressively evangelistic in its view of politics itself: it’s a game to be covered like ESPN. Politico is a vehicle for sources to “market” data and opinion and measures its success on “being first with a morsel of information, whether or not the morsel proves relevant, or even correct, in the long run — and whether the long run proves to be measured in days, hours or minutes.” Give the fans a touchdown to cheer about, even if the team loses in the end (or wins but has a bad season)—that’s what keeps people interested and the gears turning.

    Christianity Today, is also “aggressively neutral” in some areas and aggressively evangelistic in others. We do not, however, tend to view what is happening in churches and ministries through the prism of a game. Modeling our reporting on ESPN would make no sense to us. One recurring problem that I see is that much religion reporting is essentially political reporting in the Politico/ESPN mode. Who’s winning today? Conflicts are binary and identities are divided up into “teams” for easier scorekeeping. (e.g. almost all the problems with coverage of the Bruce Waltke controversy stemmed from reporters’ attempts to put Waltke and RTS on separate teams.) Opinion/theology stories focus on who’s convincing who, and rarely delve into the opinion/theology itself. I can go on, but this is all well-trod ground for GetReligion types.

    My point being: I’m not as eager as you are for online publications to treat religion like they do politics, if it would mean covering it like sports. And I think that one of the problems with BOTH the “On Faith” model and the “Stand Firm” model (though both can be helpful) is that they both tend to fall into religion-as-sport coverage, with Stand Firm playing the part of cheering on the home team and writing with the assumption that readers are fans of one particular team (and dislike the crosstown rivals) and On Faith strangely asking football coaches who will win Wimbeldon.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/ Nicole Neroulias

    It’s a sad state of affairs, indeed. Religion beat reporters at newspapers are basically like public school art/music teachers: most people agree that these jobs are important, but when budget push comes to bottom line shove, they’re ultimately expendable.

    On the bright side, it does seem like reputable, relatively objective online news sources are growing — fueled partly by the growing ranks of ex-newspaper religion reporters, unfortunately — along with more in-depth broadcast coverage by the likes of PBS and CNN. There’s still Religion News Service (www.religionnews.com), which is now providing some content to the Huffington Post’s new religion section (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/religion). And, my new Belief Beat blog, at http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat, offers a bit of original reporting along with some daily religion news every day.

    In the meantime, keep up the great work at GetReligion!

  • Jerry

    I think David Brooks’ comments in a recent column are applicable to this topic. The conclusion to his piece says:

    This study suggests that Internet users are a bunch of ideological Jack Kerouacs. They’re not burrowing down into comforting nests. They’re cruising far and wide looking for adventure, information, combat and arousal. This does not mean they are not polarized. Looking at a site says nothing about how you process it or the character of attention you bring to it. It could be people spend a lot of time at their home sites and then go off on forays looking for things to hate. But it probably does mean they are not insecure and they are not sheltered.

    If this study is correct, the Internet will not produce a cocooned public square, but a free-wheeling multilayered Mad Max public square. The study also suggests that if there is increased polarization (and there is), it’s probably not the Internet that’s causing it.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/20/opinion/20brooks.html

  • Peter

    It seems that what you want is antithetical to the online model. Online news is, by its nature, more edgy and opinionated. Even GR, populated by commentators who have abandoned US-styled journalism for the religious press, relgious trade groups, and punditry, show the attraction to that kind of journalism. Opnionated, ideologically drive commentary is why people turn to online sources, Ike GR, at least now.

    While religion may not be covered like politics, it is going to be difficult to come up with an online model of relgion coverage that readers are going to be perceived as balanced that is also interesting, especially in the current relgious environment.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    PETER:

    We all have mainstream experience. I’m a columnist with a mainstream wire.

    However, you expect someone still ON THE BEAT to be writing about the work of colleagues and competitors?

    No way.

    GR is the way it is because that’s the only way to pull off this site.

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/ Ted Olsen

    Terry wrote:

    You expect someone still ON THE BEAT to be writing about the work of colleagues and competitors?

    No way.

    This is odd. I still very much consider Sarah and Bobby to be “on the beat,” and I consider RNA members their (and my) colleagues and competitors. I find much camaraderie at RNA. Since I work with Sarah and often use Bobby as a stringer (I also edit Mollie’s columns for CT) perhaps you and I should talk more about this. If blogging for GR and being “on the beat” are mutually exclusive, then we certainly have a problem.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    TED:

    I don’t want to have a debate about CT’s place in the news world. No way.

    But I would ask if CT considers itself an American or European model of the press publication. Or is it American in the news papers and European in the feature pages?

  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/ Ted Olsen

    I don’t find American vs. European to be a helpful distinction. It’s not something we’d use here, certainly.

    I find magazine (serves an audience based on shared interests and values) vs. newspaper (serves and audience based on geography) to be far more helpful. Christianity Today is a magazine, as are The Economist, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Slate, Mother Jones, The Advocate, Newsweek, and other publications that I’d say are more like us than, say, The Guardian.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Ted:

    This are just basic journalism history.

    Newsweek was American. The magazine recently openly said it was becoming a liberal magazine. That’s European. Ditto for, well, World. European.

    Your list mixes American and European content newsrooms, according to the rules under which they operate.

  • Peter

    CT is probably more like the Advocate, in terms of covering a specialized audience as interested insiders, but it goes to the notion of different media types and what will survive. It’s neither European or Amercan, just as GR isn’t nonideological media criticism, like CJR, but also not Breitbart’s Big Journalsm.

  • Bob Smietana

    Ted’s right, there’s a nuance about magazines in general and religious magazines, that’s missing in the American/European categories.

    CT, like Sojourners, US Catholic, the National Catholic Reporter, and a host of other religious magazine all have a distinctive point of view. They’ve always wanted to be fair while maintaining a distinctive voice. That was definitely the case in the years when I was a magazine editor.

    Newspapers on the other hand, can fall into those two camps– American/European–when it comes to news coverage.

    Making things even more complex, there are also some magazines–World and Touchstone in the religious world for example–where the editorial bias shapes the news coverage.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Interesting, Bob.

    You see a difference in the editorial approaches of Sojourners and World?

    Why? Both are classic European publications. Do you respect one and not the other? A matter of taste?

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    How about the roll of free-lancers in all this??? I know from doing some free-lance writing that many publications print only stories written by totally clueless journalists whether on their staff or on their list of professional journalists (they don’t even accept submissions from free-lancers no matter their educational background on the topic or even if the topic is non-controversial).
    On the other hand, a while back I was looking at a lot of old 19th and early 20th Century newspapers and magazines in our public library and a huge percentage of the articles in general publications on “specialty” topics like religion had been written by people with some connection to the field they were writing about–they weren’t written by “journalists” or “generalist” reporters.

  • http://goodintentionsbook.com Bob Smietana

    Terry:

    World’s philosophy, as far as I can tell, is that facts and sources which conflict with its point of view are ignored.
    That’s what Olasky argues is biblical objectivity:.
    Sojourners has a definite point of view but is less likely to commit journalistic sins of omission.
    I trust Sojourners, in part because I know editors there and trust them.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby

    If blogging for GR and being “on the beat” are mutually exclusive, then we certainly have a problem.

    I guess one question is: Can religious journalists do quality work that rivals or exceeds that in the secular press? I certainly think so, or I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I try to bring the same level of commitment to high-quality journalism to my current work that I did in my time with The Associated Press. And the process of writing, and the style of writing, I use for a Christian Chronicle or CT news story are the same as when I worked for AP.

    At the same time, secular and religious journalism are certainly in different universes. Which is why I can do my day job and still write for GR. Writing for GR would be impossible if we suddenly started critiquing the religious press. :-)


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