Belt-tightening has been the order of the day for most journalistic
organizations since the boom of the 1990s ended abruptly in 2000. In most
newsrooms, the press for higher profit margins and new ways to attract
readers and viewers has been little short of desperate, with rounds of
cutbacks and layoffs striking at brief intervals.
It’s not yet clear that religion writers are encountering proportionally
more difficulties than other specialists, but there are plenty of signs of
widespread concern about the future of religion writing in American
newspapers and broadcast operations.
During the 1990s, good religion coverage was viewed as part of the solution
to the problem of falling audiences, and some employment and news holes
grew. But after more than a decade of unsolved problems, religion coverage
is increasingly seen as part of the discredited, stodgy old paradigm that is
failing to attract a new generation of readers and viewers.
Naturally, anxiety about this turn of events is most concentrated among the
members of the Religion Newswriters Association. Its annual meeting is
always the best place to hear what’s happening on the beat. And at the
organization’s meeting in Washington in September the mood was glum, despite
the highest attendance in memory and the largest organizational membership
annual session given over the shop talk was headlined by Stephen Scott of
the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a highly successful religion writer who
had just been told that the religion beat was being discontinued as part of
a major reorganization at the newspaper.
Scott, who had produced 53 page -one stories in three years on the beat, was
still visibly stunned by the decision. He spent much of the summer lobbying
editors to change their minds and recounted his last ditch effort to
persuade his managing editor.
After hearing him out, his editor simply said, “Steve, you’re trying too
hard. Religion just doesn’t sell newspapers.” On September 11, Scott moved
off to a new assignment in a suburban bureau, leaving the Pioneer-Press
as the largest American daily without a religion specialist.
“I’ve got a new sign on my desk,” Scott said. “It’s about selling
villain of the piece, to judge by discussion at the RNA, was not obtuse
senior editors, although a few choice words were spoken about them. It is,
instead, a massive study produced in 2001 by the Readership Institute at the
Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Called “The Power to
Grow Readership,” it has become the battle plan of many embattled editors
and publishers struggling to recoup dwindling circulation.
Based on content analysis of 100 daily newspapers of varying sizes and a
survey of 37,000 newspaper readers, the study represents the newspaper
industry’s most sophisticated effort yet to understand what readers—and
particularly potential readers—want. The survey’s 400 questions were
designed to elicit reader responses about the news topics they wished to see
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 perceived potential to ignite reader interest. One
major artifact of the process, from the religion writers’ point of view, is
that religion was paired with news about parenting and relationships—soft
news stuff— when the subject areas were boiled down from 26 to 15.
Observing that readers “want and expect a wide variety of content,” the
study then went ahead and identified nine potentially high-impact areas of
coverage. These began with “intensely local, people focused news.” Other
areas with the greatest potential to attract new readers were judged to be:
“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;
Religion ranked way down at Number 12 of 15, outside the critical core.
Cristal Williams, of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, bravely told
an audience of about 150 religion writers that the problem is that “Religion
doesn’t reflect well in quantitative research.”
Debra Mason, executive director of the RNA, responded that in her view the
problem was that quantitative researchers weren’t asking the right
questions. And Bob Mong, editor of the Dallas Morning News, which
publishes what is widely regarded as the best weekly section on religion in
American journalism, soon weighed in on Mason’s side.
“The Readership Institute’s otherwise brilliant analysis of what editors
need to do to make their papers more reader driven is woefully ignorant of
how religion stories can win the interest of target audiences,” Mong wrote
in the RNA’s annual report, published in October. “Its research suggests
that editors should focus on African-American, English-speaking Hispanic,
and younger readers to grow readership. If you think you can cover
African-Americans, even younger blacks, without interesting and vital
religion coverage in the mix, you are sadly naive.
“Editors across the country are cutting back on already modest religion
coverage, because it doesn’t match up to certain Readership Institute
recommended checklists. To me, this represents a void of imagination.”
the RNA meeting itself, some of the field’s senior figures began to
speculate that the Readership Institute study was actually flagging the
failure of one of the major innovations of the 1990s, special,
feature-driven, “faith and values” sections, which have proliferated but not
attracted a great deal of advertising support. In the course of this
expansion, many news organizations have shifted the bulk of religion
coverage from news to feature sections.
“This all taps into something problematic,” said Gustav Niebuhr, of Syracuse
University’s Newhouse School of Journalism and a former religion writer at
the New York Times. “Editors are thinking about the religion page as
religion coverage, and not Stephen Scott’s 53 page one stories.” Reporters
yearn for hard news, especially after several years on page one covering the
misconduct scandal in the Catholic Church and a religion-drenched
Nevertheless, the Readership Institute’s study has galvanized the leadership
of the RNA and its allies in editorial suites and journalism schools. One
possible substantive response to bosses is that evidence from the Readership
Institute’s survey-driven research contradicts a large but diffuse body of
evidence from focus groups. The results of focus groups led editors to
invest in religion writing in the 1990s, and many reports speaking at the
RNA meeting suggested that focus groups run by their organizations continue
to report high readership interest in religion reporting.
Voices are also beginning to be raised to argue that the news business would
benefit from a substantial rethink of the way it covers religion. On October
3, Dennis Ryerson, the editor of the Indianapolis Star, published a
column admitting that the ingrained ideals of American journalists (respect
for competing points of view, cherished notions of balance, and the
determination to avoid favoritism) often lead to shallow reporting about
religious belief and the roles religion plays in society.
“How can newspapers, non-religious institutions, do a better job reporting
about the lives of readers, most of whom regard themselves as living in a
religious world?” Ryerson wrote. “We’ve got to find a better way to
understand in a more meaningful way the impact of faith on such public
issues as education, health care, the war in Iraq, and same sex-marriage.”
on the flanks are guerillas like Jeff Sharlet, editor of The Revealer,
a “daily review of religion and the press” published online by New York
University’s Center for Religion and Media and its Department of Journalism.
On October 11, Sharlet, who’d be happy to see much of contemporary religion
journalism vaporized, published a piece called “Killing Religion
Journalism,” a manifesto for a religion journalism that focuses on unpacking
“Religion, in the true broad sense, underlies, controls, permeates at least
half the stories in the news, probably a lot more,” he wrote. “I don’t want
less hard news when it comes to covering religion, I want more. I want to
know the numbers, I want to know who did what to who in what dark room and
when—and in every instance. I want to know what the subjects of the story
believed they were doing. Not the official story, not the perfunctory
justification: The fabric of belief.
“That’s what religion writing has to offer to every other aspect of
journalism: the focus on belief. That’s missing even from most religion
writing. The ‘faith pages’ languish while news stories revolving around
real, actual belief, causing events in the world occupy the front page.”
My job is not on the
line and this business is about selling newspapers. But as prescriptions for
revitalization go, wouldn’t it be better to take a stand on passionate
commitment to hard news than to descend with the Readership Institute into
the Valley of News We Can Use? For, verily, what profiteth it a journalist
to embrace “decreased length and complexity” in stories, more “community
announcement listings,” and new sections for youth?