Today I’ve arrived in Minneapolis for the 60th annual convention of the Religion Newswriters Association, which is the national organization that represents the dwindling band of us who cover religion in the media. Attendance is off this year, in part because newsroom travel budgets are down, but in part because the religion beat is, itself, suffering a serious reversal of fortune.
When I first started covering religion for the Globe, nearly a decade ago, the beat was almost trendy – newspapers were beefing up their coverage considerably, religion sections were fat, and a few newspapers, like the LA Times, had four or more religion writers.
No more. Just this week, as I was preparing to depart for Minnesota, my colleague Gary Stern, who has been a model of how to successfully juggle religion writing for a newspaper and a blog simultaneously, announced that his employer, the Journal News (of Westchester County, New York) had decided it was no longer going to have a full-time religion writer. Gary is fortunate – he gets to keep a job – and he says he’s going to try to continue posting periodically about religion – but clearly the beat is diminished there. This comes on the heels of a decision by the San Francisco Chronicle to stop covering religion full-time – Matthai Kuruvila is now covering the East Bay – and, most shockingly, the decision by the Dallas Morning News, which for years had an award-winning religion section, to kill the free-standing section and reassign the writers to suburban education and other beats.
There have been reductions in the number of reporters who write about religion full-time at all of the nation’s biggest newspapers --- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times (and even at the Globe, where for a brief period we had two religion writers) – and the religion news beat has disappeared from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Orlando Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post, the Grand Rapids Press, the Chicago Sun-Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Newsday, according to Debra Mason, the executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association. The surviving newspaper religion sections are getting smaller. And at many small and mid-sized newspapers, reporters now juggle coverage of religion with other, often unrelated, subjects, and religion often gets short shrift.
Mason told me she does not believe that the religion beat is being targeted, but that all specialty beats at newspapers, including the environment, health and education, are suffering as newspapers, with shrinking budgets, allocate an increasing fraction of their diminished newsroom staffs to general assignment jobs.
What exactly this means for the future of religion coverage in the U.S. is unclear. The beat is not likely to disappear entirely from the mainstream media, and there is still a lot of great work being done. There are also plenty of political writers, and feature writers, and general assignment reporters, who periodically write about religion. Although the number of RNA members who work for the print media has dropped from 232 to 197 just over the last year, the number of freelancers has risen, and at least one religion writer is launching a hyperlocal religion news site. A few religion writers are gainfully employed on-line – most notably David Gibson, a onetime religion writer for the Newark Star-Ledger, who is now covering religion for Politics Daily, and David Waters, a former religion writer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, who now produces On Faith for the Washington Post and Newsweek.
There is a huge amount of writing about religion in new media – blogs and other on-line publications -- some of which breaks news, and some of which comments on news broken by others. Much of the on-line work is focused on a particular faith group, and is written from a particular ideological or theological perspective, which differentiates it from traditional religion journalism. At the most recent denominational conventions I have attended (and I’ve now pretty much stopped going to such conventions), bloggers and reporters for religious publications have easily outnumbered reporters for secular publications.
A final, and related, trend that I see is an increase in religious denominations reporting about themselves. I participated in a conference at Utah State University earlier this year and attended a fascinating presentation from a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints's public affairs staff about how, in light of the decline of the religion beat, the Mormon church is more aggressively telling its own story, through blogging and Facebook and Twitter. It now seems clear that the Catholic bishops’ conference is doing the same thing, and the Episcopal Church appears to be moving in a similar direction. Of course, lots of organizations have tried over time to circumvent the media and tell their stories directly to the public – what’s new now is that, in some cases, this is being precipitated not by an overarching critique of the quality of coverage, but by the paucity of coverage. Obviously, this trend raises all kinds of questions for those of us who believe that the critical distance journalists seek to maintain from their subjects makes an important difference in storytelling. And apparently some religious leaders are worried too – the Rev. Peg Chemberlin, the president-elect of the National Council of Churches, told us this afternoon, “It’s a concern for many of us in the faith community…as religion writers are seeming to slide away from the landscape.’’