Saith EEE: The business of those religion-beat cuts

The other day I received an email from a former GetReligion colleague, the Rev. Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans, in which she posed an interesting question. She wanted an update on the status of my weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service, including how many papers ran the column through Scripps or through the Newspaper Enterprise Association.

It was an absolutely crazy week in my day job and, well, I didn’t have a chance to promptly answer the email. That’s digital life, I am afraid. My bad.

There was, however, another journalistic reason for the delay. The simple fact is this: Since very few small- and medium-sized newspapers put wire-service products — like my column — on their websites, it’s hard to run an online search and answer that kind of question. I wish I knew the answer to that one, myself. I hear from people all the time responding to my columns, readers from places that I had no idea the column appeared.

Anyway, I really wish I had answered EEE’s email, since it is now clear what she was working on. She was working on a column for The Lancaster (Pa.) Journal about — you got it — the current state of the Godbeat in light of recent exits. Eisenstadt-Evans is a veteran reporter, freelancer and columnist, as well as an Episcopal priest.

So what we have here is yet another update, and a fine one at that, on the topic that our own Bobby Ross, Jr., and others have been covering over and over. Click here for a recent post that has links to commentary from Poynter.org, Bobby, Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher, myself and others.

Read it all, please. But here is a slice or two of what she had to say.

After summarizing the recent painful exits from the Godbeat, EEE talks to an obvious and appropriate source:

First, some perspective: How much religion news makes the cut to begin with?

“Religion news has always been a tiny percentage of the total, “according to Debra Mason, a former reporter herself and the executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association.

According to information collected by Pew’s Religion and Public Life Project, mainstream media religion coverage in 2011 (the last report available) edged downward to .7 percent from 2 percent the previous year.

“Compared with topics such as politics and the economy, religion does not typically receive a lot of attention from the mainstream news media, and 2011 was no exception,” the authors of the report conclude.

When looking at American religion coverage, it’s wise to watch trends over decades rather than focus on a moment in time, says Mason, who notes that the 1990s had seen a “huge ballooning” of religion writing staffs and sections.

“These sections were created for economic reasons, and they closed for economic reasons,” she says.

Hard words, but well said. Of course, as noted here at GetReligion, there have been glimmers of hope as well — such as a large number of bright young reporters who want to cover religion news and the addition of former USA Today scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman to the talent pool at Religion News Service.

But the bottom line is easy to see: It’s the bottom line.

The advertising crisis that is rocking journalism is particularly nasty on beats that some editors tend to see as marginal. Let’s conclude with this sobering note (including, alas, a political hook):

No question but that the current news environment is tumultuous.

“The news business in general is going through a revolution. The business model doesn’t work anymore,” says Tom Heneghan, the Paris-based religion editor for Reuters. He and others note that beats such as religion, the arts and even science are more likely to be considered nonessentials than politics, business and sports.

Interest in religion as a topic waxes and wanes depending in part on such factors as the power and influence of groups such as the religious right in the political arena, he suggests. But there also are some issues specific to religion reporting, adds Heneghan, who flags “growing religious illiteracy and secularization” (especially in Western Europe) as particular challenges for journalists.

Readers also may be suffering from “religion fatigue” as they try to sort out Sunnis from Shiites, violent and peaceful divisions within the same religion, or why a particular group is considered heretical by other faith adherents.

“I think that a lot of readers, if they aren’t interested in religion in the first place, will only go so far in trying to figure out the background,” Heneghan says. “They have a tendency to want sound-bite explanations of things, and religion is very complicated.”

Next up, EEE looks at the religion-news scene in her own state. Stay tuned.

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.


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