RELIGION IN THE NEWS
Fall 2001, Vol. 4, No. 3

Table of Contents
Fall 2001

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Other articles
in this issue


From the Editor: The Civil Religion Goes to War

Religion After 9-11:

Good for What Ails Us

Falwell and Robertson Stumble

Islam is Everywhere

Pacifism on the Record

When Our Allies Persecute

No Bad Sects in France

The Stem Cell Conundrum

Gain, No Pain

Letter to the Editor and Reply


 

On the Beat
Covering Religion in Hard Times
by Andrew Walsh

One of the many benefits of the nationís long economic expansion during the 1990s was a boom in the religion writerís trade. The number of journalists assigned to full-time positions covering religion swelled dramatically. Scores of newspapers introduced expansive weekly "faith and values" sections. Even in broadcast journalism, hitherto the Gobi Desert of religion reporting, a few beat reporters appeared, along with public televisionís "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly." Religion journalists were even finding jobs in the dot.com sector.

But the long boom ended abruptly in 2000. Ad revenues plummeted and the high profits of the 1990s evaporated. At the top of the journalistic food chain, corporations like Knight-Ridder, the Tribune Company and the New York Times Company announced substantial budget cuts, large buyout plans, and even newsroom layoffs.

So when the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA) gathered in late September in Boston to talk shop the question of the hour was: "Will the beat follow the industry trend back down?"

So far, the evidence suggests that while the boom in religion writing has definitely crossed its zenith, the beat is not crashing back to earth. There have been widespread cutbacks, with RNA members reporting pervasive cuts in travel budgets and in their news holes, but few think that religion is being singled out for disproportionate reductions in their newsrooms.

"A beat that does well during economically good times and when extraordinary events are in the news does less well in economic downturns," Gustav Niebuhr, one of the New York Timesí two national religion correspondents, told Bill Cessato of the Religion News Service. "But I donít think thatís unusual for specialty beats."

Reductions can, however, be identified. Over the past year, Cessato reported, full-time religion beat positions have been terminated at the Eugene (Ore.) Register Guard and at the Hendersonville (N.C.) Times-News. Debra Mason, executive director of the RNA noted in the organizationís fall newsletter that in August the Omaha World Herald had "temporarily suspended" its religion position.

General hiring freezes are also making some measurable impact, according to Cessato and Mason. There are unfilled vacancies at the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader, the Record in Stockton, California, and at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (for a second religion reporterís position).

But given the current size of the corps of religion writers, these are hardly drastic cuts. RNA, for example, currently reports a total membership of 240 full-time religion journalists working for secular news outlets. In 2000, John Dart and Jimmy R. Allen updated their 1993 study, "Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media," and received responses from 163 additional part-timers, most of whom worked for small and mid-size daily newspapers.

The picture is much the same in broadcast. Reporter Peggy Wehmeyer left ABC News this fall because of budget cuts, after working the religion beat from her base in Dallas since 1994. She will not be replaced. But CNN has recently hired its first full-time religion beat reporter, and this fall National Public Radio replaced its religion beat pioneer, Lynn Neary. The experiments in "convergence," the practice of using specialist newspaper reporters on local television news broadcastsóespecially in cities where the Tribune Company owns both newspapers and television stationsóare also continuing.

Intense speculation is focused on the future of the weekly "Faith and Values" sections established in the 1990s. These often appeared after media executives turned to focus group research to find ways to curb falling readership. American readers often told focus group managers that they are keenly interested in religion news. And so, in the mid-1990s, new faith and values sections popped up like mushrooms.

Flagship efforts, such as those at the Dallas Morning News (with seven full-time reporters and editors) and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune appear to be rolling along. But casualties are occurring. In early September, the Indianapolis Star folded its three year-old weekly "Faith and Values" section into a new "Indiana Living" section.

Concern about the future of these sections focuses on a two issues: Do they generate enough ad revenue, especially in a time of surging newsprint costs? And do they attract new readers?

After a decade of high profits but unstemmed readership decline, itís hard to demonstrate unambiguously that more and better religion reporting has helped to solve the readership problem. And the new sections are typically not heavy laden with ads.

And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, bigger and better religion coverage is not part of what appears to be the newspaper industryís next Big Solution for its problems.

Last spring, the Readership Institute of the Media Management Center at Northwestern University released the results of a massive study of American newspaper readers entitled "The Power to Grow Readership." Sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the study, based on content analysis of 100 daily newspapers (ranging in circulation down to 10,000) and a survey of 37,000 readers, offered a long list of nostrums.

The 400-question survey included a series of questions designed to elicit reader responses about the news topics they wished to see covered better. Beginning with a list of 26 content topics, a subsequent analytic process rearranged these content topics into 15 subject area clusters and then ranked them according to their potential to ignite new reader interest. Readers "want and expect a wide variety of content," the study concluded, and proceeded to identify eight potentially high impact areas.

"Intensely local, people-focused news" topped the bill. The other "topics with the greatest potential" were: lifestyle news; government and international news; disasters and accidents; movies, television and weather, business; economics, and personal finance; science, technology and environment, police, crime, and the judicial system; and sports."

Coming in at Number Twelve, religion coverage was not deemed to have high potential impact. It was not, in the Instituteís best judgment, a "core news" topic. The analytic process linked it with coverage "parenting" and "relationships."

Was this linkage based on the views of readers or of survey designers? Whichever, the studyís prescriptions for reader-friendly improvements were "decreased length and complexity" in stories, more "community announcement listings," and new sections for youth.

Sigh.


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