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.