Puppies v. hard religion news (UPDATED)

Buzz words around the Religion Newswriters Association’s conference in Denver yesterday included “broccoli,” “ice cream” and “puppies” after some discussion about how journalists can get better at developing their precious online audiences.

Elizabeth Tenety of On Faith at the Washington Post, Alana Kornfeld of the Huffington Post and Eric Marrapodi of CNN urged religion reporters to actively promote their content through the web.

All three of these editors are doing very interesting work, and you should certainly read those sections and learn tricks about marketing and promotion. Editors are not only content producing; they are then actively promoting it. Tenety of the Washington Post explicitly told the audience that you can’t expect people to come to the Washington Post because it’s the Washington Post. You have to take content to people. It was a humble–and important–point for other media outlets to consider.

But the elephant in the room? Who is going to pay for original religion reporting, even if opinion pieces generate more hits? Who is paying for a reporter to remain on the religion reporting beat? Who reports the facts that put backbones in those opinion pieces?

Also, when sites like On Faith, Huffington Post and CNN post content in a running blog format, how do readers distinguish between news and opinion? Kornfeld suggested that readers could determine that from the story itself, so it’s worth considering whether that presentation/separation matters or not. Readers need both broccoli and ice cream, she said.***

Generally, you could argue that the sites mentioned above place a heavier emphasis on opinion, especially since none of them pay for original freelance religion reporting while accepting free content from religious leaders and scholars. Tenety said that she plans to make news a priority after the On Faith redesign, which is an encouraging sign (as opposed to this).

Last night, RNA handed out several awards to reporters who couldn’t make it (many for weddings and personal reasons), but there were definitely some high- profile publications missing. As far as I could tell, no one was attending from the Associated Press, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, Time, Newsweek, or the Chicago Tribune. Some of those publications don’t have religion reporters anymore while others seem clamoring to keep their jobs. As someone commented last night, the number of freelancers seemed much higher than previous conferences.

When reporters are getting laid off left and right and turning to freelancing, unpaid posts are not a great sign for the future of religion reporting. Media outlets put their money where their heart is. If they value hits, they’ll produce puppy stories all day long. If they value religion coverage, they’ll hire (at least) a religion reporter, and if we’re dreaming, maybe they would add a religion editor and pay for freelance content. If you have Cathy Lynn Grossman of USA Today, you get your reporter/blogger two-for-one.

While some reporters couldn’t make it to the conference for various reasons, it looked like Laurie Goodstein from the New York Times experienced quite an eventful one. We talked before about Archbishop Charles Chaput’s boycott. Then, during her presentation on investigative reporting, a spokesman from the Church of Scientology confronted her about the piece she did on scientology and asked why the church was unable to rebut the claims made in the piece. She explained that she did give the church a chance to respond, and she said she felt the piece gave generous space to the church (We tackled that piece here at GetReligion back then). Then she won the religion reporting of the year award (from work done in 2009), so there you have it.

Finally, RNA gave a lifetime achievement award to Gustav Niebuhr, who urged reporters to write with clarity. Reporters should not use the words “liberal,” “conservative” or “moderate” without defining the terms and giving appropriate context — a key point in GetReligion land and spoken so eloquently. Hopefully RNA will post an audio clip or transcript on its website.

Yes, it’s a tough time for publishers to dish out even $50, but if you want to do serious religion reporting, you might want to find a way to become a member of Religion Newswriters Association. I’m thankful to work at an organization that takes RNA seriously and helped me attend this year’s conference for story, source and network ideas. I happen to know that Melissa Nanna Burke, who won first place in her circulation category last night, will happily discuss membership possibilities with you.

If you want to find specific quotes, data, information gathered at this year’s conference, search for #RNA2010 on Twitter, or I hope religion reporters will post any follow-up stories, columns or, yes, blog posts in the comments section.

Update: An earlier version of this post suggested that Kornfeld used the ice cream and broccoli line first. Although many used the words, the idea came from Eric Marrapodi first. Proof here and here. My apologies.

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  • Ben

    The puppy stories will subsidize the real reporting at news organizations. And the public will conitnue to decry media shallowness without breathing a word about their prefernce for puppy stories. Plus ca change….

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie


    Did you see that Mayhill Fowler, the journalist who broke the story about Obama saying people who don’t vote for him are still clinging to God and guns, just announced she can’t work for the Huff Post for no pay any more.

    She said she doesn’t want to be paid for her perspective or opinions — just for the money she spends to do basic reporting.

    How is the HuffPo model sustainable?

  • Jerry

    Maybe puppies (and babies) are so popular because they can open our hearts the way few sermons can.

  • http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nicole-neroulias/denver-archbishop-chaput-_b_738516.html Nicole Neroulias

    FYI: CNN’s Eric Marrapodi used the “ice cream and broccoli” line first (so much for thinking I had come up with it!), but then Alana Kornfeld and probably also Liz Tenety used it in their remarks, too.

    In addition to the #RNA2010 tweets and my Huffington Post piece about the Laurie Goodstein-Archbishop Chaput exchange, I wrote two blog posts about the conference up at Belief Beat:

    RNA2010 Notes & Belated Fun Friday: Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert Express Their Faith

    RNA2010 Notes: Tackling Bible Translations & Tweets (Mostly to Miley Cyrus)

    This was my fourth RNA conference — I couldn’t make it last year, unfortunately – and it’s extremely valuable for professional/source development and networking opportunities. I hope more religion reporters and experts can make it next year, slated for Sept. 15-17 in Durham, NC. The RNA contests are also expanding, with new categories that include book and magazine writing, and members of the independent (not run by the faith they cover) religious press are also eligible to become members now. Contact Melissa Nann Burke, RNA, me (@BeliefBeat) or any other RNA members for more information.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for adding further context, Mollie. Thanks for these links and for the clarification, Nicole. There you have it.

  • Julia Duin

    I was at the conference and there was quite a bit of talk behind the scenes as to why CNN and Huffpost – especially the latter – didn’t have their feet held more to the fire because of their policy of not paying for content. One of the speakers – I believe it was the one from Huffpost – said you could leverage the work you do for her in terms of getting work elsewhere. That got lots of rolled eyes. CNN and Huffpost are not small organizations barely making it through the month; they are very financially well-off sites. Isn’t this quite the ethical issue; monied media outlets making their fortunes off the unpaid labor of freelancers?

  • Jeffrey

    Isn’t the HuffPost model sustainable precisely because they can people to contribute without pay? HuffPost has responded to Fowler pointing out she can’t quit something she never had. They never told her she’d be paid and that she shouldn’t have expected to get paid or have her stories turned into work for pay.

    While I think Julia’s point is important when it comes to established journalists, the reality is that the online world has created a lot of opportunities for work that isn’t paid or has questionable pay systems.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Julia and Jeffrey, I think that is THE question in new media. Who is willing to pay for what? What grants hits v. credibility? Will you pay for, say, a piece on Indonesia that gets few hits but hits on important shift? Or will that be donor-funded? These are pretty serious questions for media as it moves forward and sees which stories get the most hits.