RELIGION IN THE NEWS
Winter 2007, Vol. 9, No. 3

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Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Faith and Values Down the Tube

The GOP's Religion Problem

There's a Muslim in the House

Onward Christian Soldiers

Status Kuo

Warsaw Loses an Archbishop

The Pope Takes a Dive

The Gospel According to Hugo

Borat's Religious Provocations

Contributors

 

  From the Editor:
  Faith and Values Down the Tube

    by
Mark Silk

 

In this winter of discontent for the mainstream media in general and newspapers in particular comes the decision of the Dallas Morning News to do away with its weekly freestanding Faith and Values section. Created in 1994 at the initiative of editor Bob Mong, this prize-winning venture led the way for the Great Religion Beat Renaissance of the 1990s.

Back then, amid the gathering steam of the dotcom boom, newspapers were profitable beyond the dreams of avarice but steadily leaking subscribers. The industry saw what Mong had wrought and said that it was good.

The talk went like this.

More than baseball and football and NASCAR combined, religion is the great American pastime. Maybe paying more attention to it will help our circulation woes. At least it will be a way of showing the worshiping masses that the smart-alecks who put out our paper feel their faith. And isnít religion, after all, a pretty big story these days?

So from Atlanta to Salt Lake, from Grand Rapids to Tallahasee, freestanding religion sections began springing up like mushrooms after a heavy rain. Where they didnít, new religion reporters were laid on and the column inches devoted to the subject increased. The Rodney Dangerfield of newspaper beats was suddenly hot stuff.

The new sections were the marquee events but it must be admitted that what they amounted to, really, were bigger and better versions of the Old Church Page. Gone were the announcements of picnics and tag sales, but the soft profiles and features about the good works of the faithful remained staples.

Not that there havenít been other kinds of stories as well, and coverage that extends beyond the standard-brand churches and synagogues to newcomers on the local religious scene and the less institutionalized spiritual life of people in the community. But when the big tough religion stories come alongóthe bishop pedophile cover-up story, say, or the politics-in-the-conservative-churches storyóthese are not treated in Faith and Values.

Why not? According to an ancient journalistic principle, you donít print things that will annoy advertisers in the same place where their advertising appears.

The Church Page was invented in the early 20th century when editors realized that if you didnít list church services for free, the churches would let people know by buying ads themselves. Likewise, the new religion sections were designed to earn their keep, or at least part of it.

For better or worse, they havenít. ďFor reasons I donít entirely understand,Ē Mong wrote one unhappy reader after dropping the ax in January, ďwe could never build even a modest advertising base for the stand-alone section. I can assure you, no paper in the country tried harder than we did to garner such support.Ē

Diane Connolly, who once upon a time edited the Dallas section, thinks the paperís advertising department did not try hard enough. There was gold to be mined, she believes, among the retailers of Christian books and sundries around the Metroplex. Perhaps. But as for why those North Dallas megachurches declined to buy display ads in the Morning News, Iíd say that, with all their marketing skills and technological know-how, they figured they had better ways of putting fannies in the seats.

Over at the ever excitable religion news blog www.GetReligion.org, Terry Mattingly tried to whomp up a conversation on the significance of the demise of Faith and Values in Dallas. What of the fact that the paper had decided to move its religion coverage to metro? That important religion news was moving on-line to the paperís religion blog?

After a few posts, Mattingly was forced to admit, ďThere is, sad to say, mounting evidence that GetReligion readers are not all that interested in  the changes in the religion-news coverage strategies of the Dallas Morning News.Ē

Why the ho-hum?

The dirty little secret of the religion beat in these hard times is that itís surviving quite well, thank you. In the latest issue of the newsletter of the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), executive director Debra Mason sheds barely a tear for whatís happened in Dallas and a few other places that have retired their sections, lamenting instead the loss of a few long-time religion reporters and editors to layoffs and buy-outs.

But she notes that the number of RNA members and subscribers is now at an all-time high of 540. In the early 1990s, it was in the neighborhood of 200.

When Faith and Values debuted in Dallas, you had to make a case for robust newspaper religion coverageówhether it was on the grounds of commerce, ideology, or newsworthiness. The case doesnít have to be made anymore. Love it or hate it, religion is all over the news, and nobody inside or outside the newspaper business thinks itís about to go away any time soon.

Itís also true that back in 1994 it was assumed that if newspapers didnít do the coverage, then the thing wasnít going to get covered. As newspapers desperately try to reinvent themselves for the digital age, that assumption no longer holds. Rightly or wrongly, what happens in newspapers just doesnít seem to matter the way it used to.

   

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