Insult + injury? It could look that way, but it was probably just a blunder by the Tampa Tribune. The newspaper set out a tradeshow table at a community event May 15, prominently showing a poster of Faith and Values writer Michelle Bearden — six days after she was laid off.
“Perhaps this means I got my job back and no one told me,” Michelle commented dryly on her Facebook page.
Her layoff, one of six from the newsroom that week, ends a much-honored specialty career of 20 years just in Tampa. By my estimate, Michelle was also the last fulltime veteran newspaper religion reporter in Florida.
Michelle will be hard to replace with her several hats. Besides the print edition, she did a weekly segment, Keeping the Faith, for WFLA-TV. She also did video presentations and interactive items for TBO.com, the newspaper’s online version.
Even before the Tribune, she wrote about religion across Tampa Bay for the St. Petersburg Times, as well as The Florida Catholic and the National Catholic Register. During the 1980s, she also covered religion and general assignment stories for the Phoenix Gazette in Arizona.
The trend of laying off religion writers reaches across the nation, as Julia Duin showed in a guest column on Feb. 18. Last September, GR’s Bobby Ross reported the layoff of Nancy Haught from the Oregonian and the exit of Cathy Lynn Grossman from USA Today via buyout.
And the beat goes on: In January, longtime Godbeat writer Cathleen Falsani was laid off from the Orange County Register. And even across the Atlantic, The Times in London has laid off Ruthie Gledhill after 27 years as its religious affairs correspondent.
Gledhill’s departure got an acid reaction by Clifford Longley, her predecessor at The Times. He accused the press of being prepared to risk “making a mess of the coverage of religion … In a subject of considerable misunderstanding, expertise is no longer, by and large, thought necessary.”
Here’s what Michelle told us about her experiences, and her career.
Your layoff surprised you, didn’t it?
Yes, I was pretty devastated. There are churches and mosques and synagogues on every corner in this community. And there’s not going to be anybody designated to cover Faith and Values anymore.
What will you miss most?
Two things. I love the interaction with the readers, whether by e-mail or phone, or meeting them face to face. I’ll also miss working in a newsroom: the camaraderie, the zaniness. But we’ve had so many cuts, and the few people left are slammed, picking up the slack.
What achievement have you been most proud of?
I won the Supple Award of the Religion Newswriters Association twice. To me, that recognizes knowledge of the beat and writing skills. And Central Michigan University put me in their Journalism Hall of Fame for my pioneer in convergence. That meant a lot to me.
But I think it was also an achievement just learning as I went. I knew little about religion except what nuns drummed into me [in school]. Being able to learn as I go, and learn from my peers in RNA, that was an achievement.
What were some of your most memorable experiences?
One was when I went to Billy Graham’s home. I also spent three days with Mother Teresa. And I went to Cuba, Bosnia and Medjugorje. That will never happen for future religion reporters on newspapers.
But my most fascinating interview was Madalyn Murray O’Hair. She was the most hated woman in America, but I found her brilliant, abrasive, funny. I was enthralled.
What’s the most important story you never got to do?
Billy Graham’s death. Everybody had been paranoid at the paper every time I took a vacation. But he has outlived my career. If anyone wants to hire me to write that story, I’ll be more than glad to.
Why did you get into religion writing?
It wasn’t planned. I was in Phoenix, covering crime and the prison system. I was almost kidnapped by a gang member, and I told my editor I had to get out of this beat. They moved me to religion, which at the time was a ghetto beat. I thought my career was over. But Jim Bakker was arrested the next day, and religion was on the front page again.
When I came to Tampa, the news director for WFLA decided they needed a religion reporter. So I became one of the first “converged reporters” in the country.
I also interviewed Ted Turner when he was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. He said, “I don’t even know what a humanist is.”
From your contacts with friends in RNA, what’s your assessment of religion reporting around the country?
Our ranks have been diminished over years. It’s not the robust group of newspaper religion writers we once had. The organization has opened itself up to other media, of books, magazines and online.
And that’s OK. It’s a changing world. I’m grateful I lived in a golden age of newspapers. It was the greatest career ever.
You’ve heard Clifford Longley’s remarks. Do you think he’s right?
I agree with him across the board. It’s also happening with other specialties, like environmental and investigative and business reporting. And with local arts and medical-health writing.
What directions are you considering?
Right now, I’m a little shell-shocked. My natural inclination is to hit the ground tomorrow and look for a job, but I’m making myself slow down. I sleep regularly; I sit back and read books; I clean house and volunteer a bit.
And I’ve been a weekend cowgirl for eight years. Everyone else can smell the roses. I love the smell of manure.
I want to stay with my niche of faith and values. I’m going to do some kind of writing. And I think I want to do something that uses TV skills. I know how to voice, log and produce a segment.
I really believe I’m going to be OK. I’m going to rise like a phoenix.