Close to home: Those Godbeat changes hit tmatt

What he said:

“I’m glad to hear that Scripps Howard still as a religion writer on its staff. Seriously, I mean it’s a nice thing that, you know, that still exists in the media.”

– Tom Hanks, at a press conference in 2009

For those who have not heard the news elsewhere, out in the Twitter-verse for example, there was a rather stunning announcement made yesterday that the Scripps Howard News Service is shutting down.

That was the first domino.

In my case, the second domino to fall was that the editors at the McClatchy-Tribune wire, which inherited the Scripps costumer list, did not pick up my “On Religion” column for syndication. This should lead to a third domino. If the weekly “On Religion” no longer exists, then it cannot be picked up by the 600 or so small- and medium-sized newspapers in the Newspaper Enterprise Association.

Here’s a clip from the all-to-familiar news obit, care of Bloomberg:

Scripps Howard News Service, which fed syndicated stories to papers across the U.S. since World War I, plans to shut down, becoming the latest symbol of readers’ shift away from print media. …

The Scripps Howard News Service, founded in 1917, supplied newspaper clients with Washington coverage and news from around the world, as well as photos, commentary and editorial cartoons. The operation was a remnant of a once-thriving era of wire services and news agencies, when an insatiable newspaper industry had numerous publications in every city and multiple editions per day. In an age when Internet news is typically free, newspaper consolidation, declining advertising sales and shrinking circulation have crimped demand for wire copy.

Internet news is free, sort of. However, it still costs money to produce real, live news and information.

If you follow the advertising crisis and its side effects, you know that there is great irony in all of this.

First of all, as newspaper staffs have gotten smaller, editors have often depended on wire-service copy to fill pages. Also, the declining number of reporters (and thus beats) in newsrooms has often resulted in wire features being used on topics (think entertainment, books, national sports) that interest many at-risk subscribers more than pages of horse-race politics. In recent years, I’ve been getting mail from readers in totally new towns and cities, where copy-desk pros discovered that it didn’t hurt to run a wire feature about religion.

But eventually, declining advertising revenues are going to affect the entire news and information marketplace, including wire services.

The bottom line: I am not surprised by this news, but it’s still rather stunning at the personal level.

In recent years I’ve been telling friends that I hoped to make it to the 25th anniversary of the column last spring.

Well, that came to pass. No doubt about it, a quarter of a century is a long time and writing the Scripps Howard column has been one of the defining acts of my life and career. It appears that the final column will ship on Dec. 11.

Meanwhile, here’s the top of that 25th anniversary column, in all of its ironic glory.

Every year or so, editors are asked to sit patiently while market researchers dissect thick reports about what consumers say they want to see in their newspapers.

That was already true back when Harry Moskos was editor of The Knoxville News Sentinel. But he immediately noticed something strange, when handed the executive summary of one late-1980s survey.

Two words near the top of the subjects valued by readers caught his attention — “religion” and “family.” Yet the professionals interpreting the data offered zero suggestions for improving coverage of those subjects.

“I remember saying, ‘Look at that.’ … Those words just jumped out at me, primarily because I knew people in Knoxville tend to see those subjects as connected,” said Moskos, 76, in a telephone interview. He recently ended his 60-year journalism career, with most of that work in Albuquerque, N.M., and Knoxville, Tenn.

Of course, he admitted, the fact he noticed the words “religion” and “family” also “says something about the life I’ve lived and how I was raised” in a devout Greek Orthodox family. “I just knew we had to do something … to respond to that interest among our readers,” he said.

Thus, Moskos asked his team to create a section on faith and family life. As part of that effort, he asked — at a meeting of Scripps Howard editors — if the newspaper chain could start a national religion-news column.

Click here to read it all.

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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.

  • Julia B

    WOW So sorry to hear that. My Belleville News Democrat is a McClatchey paper and it has an entire page every Saturday on religion subjects. I’ll hav to pay better attention to where the paper obtains the religion material.

  • Darren Blair

    Also, the declining number of reporters (and thus beats) in newsrooms
    has often resulted in wire features being used on topics (think
    entertainment, books, national sports) that interest many at-risk
    subscribers more than pages of horse-race politics.

    I’ve noticed that myself.

    I’m now the movie reviewer for the hometown paper, a small bi-weekly. Each Friday, love it or hate it, I’m in the local movie theater watching whatever came out. (Do not see “Bad Grandpa” unless you want to claw your eyes out with a spork.)

    The area daily, however, gets their movie review from a wire service. They’ll send people all over three counties to get the news, but apparently can’t send someone to the multiplex a mile down the highway from where their offices are.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    So what does that mean for you? What do you do now? Obviously, stay with the Washington Journalism Center, but what about a column? Or are you going to have to go freebie?

    • http://www.avclub.com/users/ghaleonq,4597/ GhaleonQ

      I’m sure we’ll here, but I fear the worst. I find all of the writers, current and former, extremely valuable, and getting free analysis on the side at Get Religion won’t be the same.
      Good luck! Let us know what we can do!

  • FW Ken

    My condolences. I wish all journalists had the deep respect for religion and journalism I have encountered here.

    My own town paper, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram led the B section with religion news when I was a kid. Today, religion is a half-page buried in the style section. The last I checked, it was the Billy Graham column, some church adds and events, and maybe a syndicated or local article.

  • Ben

    Sorry to hear that, Terry. Luckily you seem to have a lot of irons in the fire.


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