10 years of GetReligion: State of the Godbeat 2014

By Julia Duin

Ever since the Washington Post dumped its massive On Faith blog, there’s been more chatter about where the religion beat is headed these days. True, On Faith has found a new — and more attractively designed — home, but has anyone else noticed the Post spinning off other specialty blogs to new homes?

I sure haven’t.

In late 2004, when I did an assessment for Poynter.org — “Help Wanted on the Religion Beat” — I mourned how major papers were increasingly hiring inexperienced journalists to cover religion news.

A decade later, it’s a big deal if anyone — experienced or not — is hired to a full-time job covering religion.

Journalism has seen a sea change in the past decade-plus due to the Internet taking over how news is produced, distributed and funded. Every beat is feeling the pain, as reporters in all specialties — and above a certain age — are losing their jobs. Whole newspapers have gone online only, or cut back to only a few days a week. Not only have religion beat reporters been shed like autumn leaves, all sections of the typical newsroom have been hit with layoffs and buyouts, including one Chicago newspaper that ditched its entire photo staff in one swoop.

Looking back, perhaps the worst cut of all was the closing of the six-page Saturday religion section at The Dallas Morning News, which had been rated as the country’s best for years. That was nixed in 2007 and its writers reassigned to other beats. At its peak, this section had four full-time religion reporters plus an editor, assistant editor, copy editor and a page designer. By the end of 2009, not one of these people remained. Word on the street was that the section wasn’t selling enough ads to pay for itself.

Happily for beat reporters, the electrifying papacy of Pope Francis has made the beat sexy again for the multitudes. When you see Francis’ image on the front covers of The New Yorker, Time magazine and The Advocate all in the same month — and in Rolling Stone a month later — know that lesser publications all want Francis-related stories and just might hire the right journalists to produce them.

Witness the Boston Globe’s recent surprise hire of John Allen to head up its new Catholic section. Also promising is the decision at The New York Times to move Michael Paulson — a former Globe reporter with oodles of knowledge on the Catholic beat who had been the politics and religion editor for the Times metro section — to national religion reporter status.

Further down the line, in terms of market size, results have been mixed. As of late last summer, some of the religion beat’s most experienced hands decided it was time to move on — marked by flurries of black flags at GetReligion. These were accomplished veterans who have years of institutional knowledge and contacts in the beat. Some had major questions about whether their jobs would still be there a year from now and wanted to control their exit rather than having someone else hand them the pink slip.

A few were replaced with experienced religion writers. One is Peter Smith, who left his post at the Louisville Courier-Journal for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has a tradition of solid religion reporting thanks to long-time scribe Ann Rodgers. Mark Kellner, news editor at The Adventist Review and freelance religion columnist at The Washington Times, started reporting this month on religion full-time for The Deseret News. And The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasted little time in filling the shoes of departing writer Tim Townsend with that of Lilly Fowler, a writer for a Los Angeles-based nonprofit who has an master’s degree in religion and has freelanced for Religion News Service (RNS). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has replaced its departing religion writer with Jean Hopfensperger, their philanthropy/non-profits reporter.

And a year ago this month, The Orange County Register hired Cathleen Falsani, who made her mark at The Chicago Sun-Times for her knack at interviewing celebrities from Bono to Barack Obama to Melissa Etheridge about their beliefs. She was brought on as a full-time faith and values columnist, only to be laid off Jan. 16 when the Register axed several dozen reporters.

Religion-beat jobs are either vacant or dead at The Nashville Tennessean, the Oregonian, the Washington Times (which laid me off in 2010 and has yet to find a replacement) and many other newspapers such as The Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and USA Today. The Seattle Times re-assigned its religion reporter, Janet Tu, to the Microsoft beat. With few exceptions, their replacements have been either no one or overworked GAs who produce uninformed and simplistic coverage.

One of the most egregious examples of leaving a crucial desk vacant is my old stomping grounds (back in the 1980s) at The Houston Chronicle, a Bible Belt city that has only just replaced its last religion reporter, Kate Shellnutt. In 2012, she left a cadre of outside bloggers to take her place. These days, Allan Turner — who has been at the Chronicle since 1985 — tells me that he is covering religion, along with some other beats. That’s 180 degrees from the days when the Chronicle employed two full-time religion news writers.

The major television networks still have no full-time religion reporters, with the exception of Lauren Green at Fox News. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has been faithfully doing important work for PBS for 17 years, but that program remains dependent on major funding from the Lilly Endowment and a few smaller grants.

Cutbacks in newspaper staffs have been a boon for RNS, which has become a major player in the secular media.

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So what is the new ‘On Faith’ about, in these early days?

Through the years, your GetReligionistas tended to offer rather mixed views of the “On Faith” project at The Washington Post.

First of all, it had tremendous potential as a religion-news hub, in part because of the presence of several writers in the Post newsroom — in a variety of departments — who clearly were interested in religion topics and showed ability when dealing with religious subjects. I mean, in addition to the obvious scribes, I would put entertainment writer Hank Stuever in that crowd, along with Hamil Harris, my long-time friend over in Metro.

Throw in the obvious resources of Religion News Service and you had a big head start on being a serious religion-news hub.

However, from the beginning, the “On Faith” project founders appeared to believe that religion is a corner of life that is dominated by emotion and opinions, not facts and reporting.

You do recall that first “On Faith” question to the commentators in its Parliament of Religions panel?

If some religious people believe they have a monopoly on truth, then are conversation and common ground possible? If so, what would be the difficulties and benefits of such a conversation?

The basic question back then, for me, was this: Is religion a topic that, for journalists, is uniquely rooted in opinion? As I wrote in one rather urgent post called “On Fog — A Meditation,” back in 2008:

There are facts that matter here. Facts about history, doctrine and courtesy. Facts matter when you are covering religion news and trends. Facts matter when you are interviewing religious people — left and right, members of major world religions and members of lesser known bodies that some would be tempted to call “fringe.” Facts and doctrine matter to religious people, even to people who are very specific and highly creedal about the doctrines that they reject. I have interviewed many an atheist who had more doctrines in his anti-creed than I recite in the Nicene Creed.

This isn’t about emotions and feelings. It’s about getting the facts right and showing respect for the people for whom those facts, doctrines and rituals are a matter of eternal life and death. Facts matter in journalism, religion and journalism about religion. Amen.

Now, as most GetReligion readers will know, “On Faith” has left the Post world and been handed over to the FaithStreet project in New York. Here is the link to an opening PR salvo on the move. Also, here is a link to the current version of the new site. What do you think of the current topics and content?

Recently, a veteran religion-writer type send me a copy of a note that editor Patton Dodd at FaithStreet sent out, seeking contributions to the new site.

Here is a key chunk of the letter:

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Pope Francis and the press: What Elizabeth Tenety said!

First came the religion-beat buzz about Pope Francis being named Person of the Year by the powers that be at Time magazine.

I had some thoughts on one or two elements of that piece that some GetReligion readers thought were a bit unkind (if not snarky), in part because I thought that the cover story — while very admirable in its coverage of this man’s life and pre-Vatican ministry — ended up telling us just as much about the cultural views of the Time editors (concerning the Sexual Revolution, of course) as it did this pope’s statements and actions on matters of the Catholic faith.

In particular, I stand by the following:

Simply stated, the pope wants the emphasis in his church to be on showing mercy to sinners — an equation that connects the repentance of sin with sacraments that bring healing and forgiveness. The problem, of course, is that the Time essay has little to say about what Pope Francis does or doesn’t believe about sin. …

If the Time editors insist on judging Pope Francis primarily by his stands on culture-war issues — to a degree that is strikingly similar to the pope’s harshest critics on the right — then they will need to be careful, paying close attention to the actual content of his actions and words. Hint: Heed and study his thoughts on sin.

Stay tuned.

Now, the Time cover story has inspired a remarkably candid essay from “On Faith” editor Elizabeth Tenety, whose writings on all things Catholic are always worth dissecting and then stashing away for later reference.

The headline was certainly a grabber and provoked some buzz online and in email circles that reach me from time to time: “Like Pope Francis? You’ll love Jesus.”

Read it all, of course, but here are some key samples. Right up top, after samples of go-Francis-go raves from The Huffington Post and Gawker, there is this:

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Got news? Has Kristallnacht come to the Middle East?

There was always an important, yet unstated, idea at the heart of the “On Faith” website at The Washington Post: Religion is an important and powerful force in the real world, but the reality is that religion is all about feelings, experiences and opinions, not facts about history, doctrines, laws, scriptures, traditions and governance that journalists should cover in an accurate and balanced manner.

Needless to say, your GetReligionistas have never embraced that foggy point of view.

As a result, the “On Faith” site has always been dominated by waves of low-cost opinion essays written by religious leaders, offering a mix of analysis and information about events and trends from their own perspectives. Most of this content has meshed comfortably with the interests of the agnostic, spiritual and/or Episcopal views of founding editor Sally Quinn, the legendary force of nature in DC social life and the newspaper’s Style pages.

Alas, “On Faith” never even created a format that consistently showcased the NEWS CONTENT generated by the many fine reporters on the staff of the Post, along with the resources provided by Religion News Service.

Now, as most GetReligion readers know, “On Faith” is changing homes. This PR bulletin came out on Oct. 18:

FaithStreet today announced it has hired Patton Dodd as editor-in-chief of On Faith, The Washington Post‘s popular religion website. Last summer, The Washington Post Company WPO +1.87% made an investment in FaithStreet that included the contribution of On Faith to FaithStreet. Dodd will take over the editorial direction of On Faith, while the Post‘s Sally Quinn will remain founding editor and continue to work closely with the site.

“We’re going to reimagine what covering religion can look like,” Dodd said. “I’ve read On Faith for years, and I’m thrilled about the future of this site. The partnership with FaithStreet and its deep connection to local communities of various faiths will give us an on-the-ground perspective of what’s happening with religious people in this country.”

Dodd will oversee a transition in the editorial mission of On Faith, whose content will continue to include religion news and commentary by religious leaders from across the faith traditions. The scope of the new On Faith will be announced early next year.

So, the site will continue to mix news and opinion, but there will be a “transition” in its editorial mission and its “scope” will change.

Does this mean more news or less news? More information or less?

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