Assessing the state of the Godbeat

I posted earlier this week on three veteran superstars of the Godbeat — Ann Rodgers, Bob Smietana and Tim Townsend — deciding to leave major daily newspapers.

I noted a tweet in which The New York Times’ religion writer Laurie Goodstein joked, “Will the last one on the religion beat please turn out the lights?”

Playing off Goodstein’s quip, I suggested that someone — I nominated former GetReligionista and current Religion News Service national correspondent Sarah Pulliam Bailey — should “step up, interview these three and write a Pulitzer Prize-winning feature story on why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore.”

My choice of terminology, even while typing with my tongue firmly in cheek, was not the best.

My phrasing prompted a gentle pushback from tmatt in the comments section:

Well, is the issue whether people want to cover religion news or is it that they believe they can personally survive in the changing realities of smaller newsrooms?

I agree. I nominate Sarah to write a definitive piece for Poynter.org

RNS Editor in Chief Kevin Eckstrom, meanwhile, strapped on a rhetorical holster and came out firing (take cover, fellow GetReligion contributors!):

Or, how about this? Rather than conclude (without any basis in reality) that “no one wants to cover religion anymore,” perhaps it’d be a good idea to ask why these folks are leaving the beat (it’s complicated) and whether these positions will be filled (most likely).

But that’s not the way GR does things. Shoot first and never ask the appropriate questions later. C’mon, guys, you can do better than this. Or at least you should.

You can read my response to Eckstrom (and his response to my response) in the comments section of that original post.

Eckstrom complained that Poynter.org picked up on my question and that I didn’t do the religion beat “any favors with careless irresponsible exaggerations.” 

In fact, this was the headline on Poynter’s follow-up on my post:

Three religion reporters leave dailies, but the job isn’t vanishing

Some of the meat of Poynter’s report:

A Pew poll released last year said only 19 percent of Americans thought journalists were “friendly” toward religion.

But is religion reporting on the downswing? Is it even correct to say there are fewer staff jobs reporting on religion? The Post-Gazette plans to fill Rodgers’ spot, Executive Editor David Shribman told Poynter in an email, and the Post-Dispatch will fill Townsend’s spot, Editor-in-Chief Gilbert Bailon said. (I haven’t heard back yet from the Tennessean.)

“My impression is that coverage of many topical beats, including science, environment, and health as well as religion, have been cut back at many papers as staff and news hole have shrunk,” Pew’s Alan Cooperman wrote in an email to Poynter, adding that “there is still a lot of good reporting” and noting Religion News Service in particular.

It will be interesting to see if the Tennessean, a Gannett paper, fills Smietana’s position. USA Today, Gannett’s flagship paper, lost its longtime religion writer Cathy Grossman earlier this year when she took a buyout. If USA Today has hired a new religion writer, I’d love to know about it.

I know that The Associated Press had two full-time national religion writers until a few years ago. As far as I know, Rachel Zoll is the only one left. The Dallas Morning News, which once had an award-winning religion section and three or four full-time religion writers, has no Godbeat pros, as far as I know. And after my last post, Kevin Palau informed GetReligion that The Oregonian’s religion and ethics writer Nancy Haught told him in an email that she had been let go.

At the same time, I understand that the media landscape is changing and that some of the best religion reporting occurs at sites that didn’t exist a few years ago — take Jaweed Kaleem of the Huffington Post, for example, or the talented religion writers with CNN’s Belief Blog.

Poynter has made an admirable first stab at assessing the state of the Godbeat in America’s secular newsrooms.

I still think there’s room for someone to do a more in-depth, definitive analysis.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.


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