Twilight of the Religion Writers
the world of journalism, the worst of times just keeps getting worse. Early
on a September Saturday, I strolled into the baroque Shriner’s temple on K
Street in Washington, D.C., where the Religion Newswriters Association was
holding its 59th annual conference. In the lobby, I came across Michael
Paulson of the Boston Globe. He told me that four reporters in
attendance had heard of layoffs, buyouts, or been reassigned at their
newspapers, just since Thursday, when the meeting had begun.
The larger list of religion reporters who had taken buyouts over the past
few weeks included former RNA president Sandy Dollbee of the San Diego
Union-Tribune, Thomas Heinen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,
and Neela Banerjee of the New York Times. Mark Pinsky had been laid
off in the massive newsroom cutback in July at the Orlando Sentinel.
Ari Goldman, a professor at Columbia University’s journalism school and
former Timesman, learned that the Daily News was dropping his
religion column because of space cuts.
“In my 10 years on the beat, the past year has been the most challenging
period as our industry faces unprecedented changes and challenges,” RNA
president Kevin Eckstrom of the Religion News Service wrote in the
conference program. “The industry meltdown has been especially unkind to the
religion beat, forcing some long-time colleagues and friends to leave the
business—often not by choice.”
Under the headline, “The death of the religion beat,” William Lobdell noted
in his August 28 blog how much things had changed since he was assigned in
1998 to write a weekly column on religion in Orange County for the Los
Angeles Times. “I was the fourth full-time reporter covering faith for
the newspaper. Today, there is one reporter—who in months past—has often
been pulled to cover other types of stories.”
Like many others laid off or bought out, Lobdell is trying to keep his hand
in as a blogger (williamlobdell.com) and author.
“This meeting is like a wake. Everyone is grieving,” RNA stalwart David
Gibson, who chose the freelancer’s life well before it became evident about
2005 that the newspaper business was in crisis, said after a session on
Catholic parochial education. “It’s sort of like a United Mine Workers
Union meeting in the 1970s—it feels like a whole way of life is ending.”
As Michael Paulson noted in his own blog at the Globe, “This is a
tough time for the news business generally—we have more readers than ever,
thanks to the Internet, but fewer and fewer of them pay anything to read us,
also thanks to the Internet—and the religion beat is suffering collateral
Newspaper circulation has been falling (as have the ratings of broadcast
news operations) for several decades, but the real crisis has been caused by
drastic changes in advertising strategies. In recent decades, most American
newspapers were functional, local monopolies that could set high ad rates
generally and totally dominate very profitable niches like classifieds. One
pertinent result was solid middle-class salaries and good benefits for
The development of on-line classified advertising like Craig’s List has
destroyed that once reliable cash cow. And, in 2005, it became clear that
many advertisers were moving quickly to the Internet, leaving newspapers
with diminished revenues and huge overhead costs for reporting and editing
staff, printing presses, paper, and distribution systems.
The old economic model allowed what now seems like lavish investment in
reporting and editing. In the late 1990s, it was wasn’t uncommon for
middle-sized metropolitan dailes to have newsroom staffs of 300 or 400, with
big dailies like the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post
reaching toward 1,000.
Staff contractions through buyout and layoff began around 2002, but have
ratcheted up dramatically this year. In July, for example, some newspapers
in the Tribune Company chain like the Hartford Courant were obliged
to reduce staff and news space by one quarter in one fell swoop.
The religion beat, which had been growing fast in the 1990s, has indeed
suffered collateral damage.
Writing on July 23 in his blog “Scriptorium” in the Lakeland, Florida,
Ledger about his friend Mark Pinksy’s layoff, Cary McMullen conceded
that “in a sense, it’s the logical outcome of the reduction in newspaper
size and sections. Those papers that had religion sections—the
Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the
Dallas Morning News, etc.—began to eliminate
them, and in some cases their reporters were reassigned.”
But now, McMullen continued, “it’s the reporters being eliminated, meaning
that a specialized knowledge is being lost, and with it the ability of
papers to make sense, on a local basis, of an intricate subject. I often
tell people that being a religion reporter is a little like being a sports
reporter who has to know the rules and the key players of sports as
different as soccer, polo, baseball and fencing.”
“There is no painless way to cut a shrinking pie,” Terry Mattingly wrote on
August 27 in his blog GetReligion.org. “Yet, of course, the news pie is not
shrinking. [Journalism] is changing into forms that do not include solid,
workable forms of advertising. A key element of American public life and
discourse is hanging, twisting slowly in the wind, waiting for someone to
create an ad form more winsome than those pop-up mini-monsters that we all
hate so much.”
“However, do not click ‘comment’ and tell me that you get all the news you
need from the Internet and from blogs,” Mattingly wrote. “It takes real
money to pay people to report and edit real information. Most of what
happens in weblogs—like this one, frankly—is secondary writing and
criticism. We are all like those little fish stuck on the flanks of big
sharks. Someone has to fund the shark which does the real hunting.”
Most of those present at the Washington meeting, like Arnold Labaton,
executive producer of PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” hold onto the
hope that a new model will emerge that will, once again, support ambitious
reporting. “There are just too many smart people who want to do good
journalism; they’ll eventually find a way to do it.”
Debra Mason, the RNA’s executive director, is keeping cool in the face of
rapid change. She noted that about 130 working religion reporters signed up
for the conference and that many news organizations remain committed to
There are some signs that she is right. For example, in July, when the
Hartford Courant cut 25 percent of its newsroom staff, it left religion
reporter Elizabeth Hamilton in place in a full-time beat, even though the
table of organization temporarily assigned just one reporter to cover
police, education, and local government in Hartford.
Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (one of the papers that
announced new buyouts during the RNA meeting) said things don’t feel
hopeless in her city. “Home delivery circulation is even growing,” she said.
Further, the Post-Gazette has been promoting itself as the place
where residents can get reliable information from the local experts. “That’s
good for beat reporters like me,” she said.
At the moment, the conventional wisdom is that blogging will be part of any
solution to the crisis. “How many of you think the future of the media is
online?” Andrea Useem asked the audience during her presentation at a panel
called, “Boggled by Blogging.” Virtually every hand in the room went up. As
an aspiring freelance writer, Useem said she realized a couple of years ago
that the career she dreamed of, “a series of jobs covering religion at ever
bigger newspapers,” wasn’t going to happen.
So she founded her own blog, www.ReligionWriter.com, because she believed
that she needed to master web skills in order to be in the game for whatever
happens next. She had to hire a web consultant to help her. After two years,
her blog still makes her no money; indeed, she’s still paying the
consultant. But there is good news on two fronts, she told her colleagues.
First, she can put whatever she wants on her blog—she’s her own editor. In
her case, that means the blog often features transcripts of lengthy
interviews with interesting people. She’s also able to put some limit on her
blogging, adding a new post only once a week. Most important for someone who
needs to make a living, the blog has become her calling card. It attracts
clients who hire her for the writing, editing, and consulting projects by
which she makes her daily bread.
“So, is anybody making money on blogging?” asked Jeff Sheler, a longtime
reporter at U.S. News & World Report before he took a buyout several
“I don’t think you’re getting the picture,” Useem replied. “This is mostly
about getting the skills that are now required in the marketplace.”
Established journalistic vehicles are also encouraging their writers to
blog. What news organizations want is interactive contact with their readers
and viewers. They want hits and comments on the websites. They also want to
establish their writers as personalities in the marketplace.
Manya Brashear of the Chicago Tribune has been blogging for two years
on her newspaper’s website, juggling online and print work. Like other
blogging religion reporters, she often uses the blog to empty her mailbox
and reporter’s notebook, processing pithily the huge collection of story
possibilities she can’t get into the newspaper. But the news format also
presses reporters to use their own voices. Brashear’s blog, for example, is
called “The Seeker: a personal and professional search for truth.”
Not all journalists are comfortable about introducing their own persona.
Cathy Grossman, who has eagerly built up USA Today’s religion web
pages, told Brashear that her generation of reporters doesn’t feel
comfortable using the first person in stories.
Another disorienting feature of the blogosphere is that bloggers, unlike
newspaper readers, get very precise statistics about how many read and
respond to work. It’s all about clicks. Brashear said that one result of
this form of accountability is that she works hard to get the best possible
placement for her work on the Tribune’s home page. Better placement
there means bigger responses to her blog.
Brashear and other bloggers said the response of readers—and the directions
that pushes coverage in—can be unnerving. She now has to deal with what she
calls the “Dana Jacobson effect”—the skewed impact of relatively trivial
posts that touch a nerve. Last January, Brasher casually tossed a brief quip
onto her page, serving up a question about the then-current controversy over
remarks made by ESPN sportscaster Dana Jacobson.
On January 23, under the headline, “Dana Jacobson roasts Jesus,” Brashear
wrote, “ESPN has temporarily suspended sports announcer Dana Jacobson for a
rant during the roast of two radio personalities, one of them a rival
because he went to the University of Notre Dame and she went to the
University of Michigan. But instead of roasting only her colleagues, she
also reportedly went after Jesus. Did she take a good-natured sports rivalry
The reader comments for other Brashear entries in January ranged from zero
to a couple of dozen. Her Jacobson blurb attracted 497 separate comments,
many in very, very forceful language.
Michael Paulson, whose Globe blog is called “Articles of Faith,”
shared Brashear’s sense that comments submitted to religion blogs are “often
very ugly.” He quoted the Washington Post’s David Waters, editor of
the Post’s massive blog “On Faith,” who said at an earlier RNA
presentation, “Even Jerry Springer would be embarrassed by the comments we
have on our site. They’re that bad.” At the Post, Waters said they
now refer to the Three M’s—Muslims, Mormons, and Moosekillers—as the topics
most likely to generate hits and vitriol.
“When you are measuring and judging your content by clicks, it changes the
way you think about what you’re offering,” Waters said. “In some ways,
that’s good, but it’s also bad…The temptation is to have more posts about
things that you know are going to click, which skews your news judgment.”
Evidently, even those who are working hard to make cyberspace a fit place
for serious journalism sometimes get the blues. Nevertheless, that’s where
the faithful remnant are putting their bets. At the moment, there doesn’t
seem anywhere else to put them.