Winter 2005, Vol. 7, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2005

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Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Our New Religious Politics

Religion Gap Swings New Ways

A Certain Presidency

Schiavo Interminable

Iraq's Sunni Clergy Enter the Fray

Windsor Knot

Protestants in Decline

The Televangelical Scandal That Wasn't

Channeling Bleep

Cut-Rate Religion Coverage



Cut-Rate Religion Coverage
by Andrew Walsh

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 in history.

The 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 newspapers, stupid.”

The 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 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 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; and sports.”

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.”

At 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 presidential campaign.

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.”

Out 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 belief.

“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?



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