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.

[Read more...]

WWROD: Faith and those news stories about civil rights

It’s been a few weeks — with Christmas season travel and all — since your GetReligionistas checked in with veteran religion-beat writer Richard Ostling and his new Patheos weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions.”

Time to fix that.

Our goal here is to feature at least one post from over there, especially when Ostling — with his years and years of experience at Time and the Associated Press — deals with religion questions that are directly related to religion news and/or coverage of the same.

Well, we’ve gone another one of those posts to spotlight.

In this case, a reader named Joshua — no mention of a home base for this person — asked this question:

What would you say is the biggest political theology story that has gone relatively untold in the last few decades?

That’s an interesting choice of words there — “political theology.” As opposed to “dogmatic theology” or “moral theology”?

Anyway, Ostling decided to focus his answer on religious life in the United States, as opposing to taking on all of Planet Earth.

Nobody missed the rise of the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition etc. Media analysts have expressed continual fascination or dismay over “religious right” activism, often missing the obvious fact that these conservatives merely imitated prior mobilizations by religious liberals.

Which brings to mind the great civil rights movement that began in the mid-1950s.

The Guy proposes that one of the big untold stories if not the biggest was the response by white southern evangelicals. The well-known courage of African-American Protestants in ridding the South of repellent racial bigotry is enshrined in the magnificent “Parting the Waters” by Taylor Branch (Simon & Schuster, 1988). There’s also memorable treatment by University of Arkansas historian David Chappell in “A Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow” (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

But what about whites?

On that, Chappell, an atheist, has added fresh, sophisticated analysis. Alas, we can assume some few Klan-style terrorists were churchgoers. But consider the main body of southern evangelical Protestants. Their performance certainly fell short of northern white liberals’ valor and is open to considerable criticism. And yet, as a reviewer in “The Atlantic” summarized, Chappell has shown that “nearly every important southern white conservative clergyman and theologian averred that there was no biblical sanction for segregation or for white supremacy.” This lack of moral grounding is what finally doomed Jim Crow in that notably pious and theologically conservative region – despite seemingly all-powerful racial traditions backed by many of South’s Democratic Party titans.

Yes, there is more to read. Go check it out.

But, most of all, get on the digital stick and ask The Answer Guy some good news-based questions.

He’s out there. What Would Richard Ostling Do? Use him, folks.

WWROD: When reporters fail to get religion ….

A quick online confession: Yes, I am “Terry in D.C.”

You see, while I am not in D.C. at the moment, I was inside the only Beltway that really matters at the time that I fired off a quick question to veteran religion-beat writer Richard Ostling at his weblog, Religion Q&A: The Ridgewood Religion Guy answers your questions” (for more info click here).

In his format, readers send him basic religion questions and, well, he gives brief, journalism-driven responses. As you would expect, issues linked to religion news and events are going to be common and, once a week, we’ll be pointing readers over to his site for material with strong GetReligion-esque content.

I this case, I rather blatantly primed the pump for Ostling:

TERRY IN D.C. ASKS:

What are the five mistakes that mainstream reporters make most often when covering religion? Let’s assume these reporters are NOT religion-beat specialists.

And the Ridgewood Religion Guy answered:

Good one, especially when a secular milieu in many newsrooms (and classrooms) can foster slant and error. Some Journalism 101 pointers:

Mistake 1 is to suspect religious believers in general tend to be stupid or at least ill-informed (particularly a problem if the reporter has no close friends who are devout).

Mistake 2 is to assume this reporter could not possibly be so ill-informed as to misunderstand the belief or believers being written about. Even those of us who’ve spent decades covering this field know religious topics are usually quite complex. Always check with experts if you’re unclear or uncertain about something.

Mistake 3 is the related tendency to over-simplify. (Do all American Evangelicals subscribe to the colorful End Times scenario in those “Left Behind” novels? Are they all Tea Party enthusiasts?)

Wait a minute (I hear many readers thinking), what about plain old laziness? That has to be in the list somewhere!

By all means, click on over to the Ostling site for the for rest of that post. And please leave some religion-beat questions of your own for the master of the house to answer.

PHOTO: The cover of a rather obvious book related to all of this, which you can buy (hint, hint) with a click right here.


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