Fall 2008, Vol. 11, No. 2

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Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Region Matters

The Postville Raid

FLDS 1, Texas O

Is the Dalai Lama Slipping?

Lambeth Blah, Blah, Blah

Women's Ordination Revisited

Having it All

Twilight of the Religion Writers

New books

Letter to Editor


Twilight of the Religion Writers
by Andrew Walsh

In the world of journalism, the worst of times just keeps getting worse. Early on a September Saturday, I strolled into the baroque Shriner’s temple on K Street in Washington, D.C., where the Religion Newswriters Association was holding its 59th annual conference. In the lobby, I came across Michael Paulson of the Boston Globe. He told me that four reporters in attendance had heard of layoffs, buyouts, or been reassigned at their newspapers, just since Thursday, when the meeting had begun.

The larger list of religion reporters who had taken buyouts over the past few weeks included former RNA president Sandy Dollbee of the San Diego Union-Tribune, Thomas Heinen of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and Neela Banerjee of the New York Times. Mark Pinsky had been laid off in the massive newsroom cutback in July at the Orlando Sentinel.  Ari Goldman, a professor at Columbia University’s journalism school and former Timesman, learned that the Daily News was dropping his religion column because of space cuts.

“In my 10 years on the beat, the past year has been the most challenging period as our industry faces unprecedented changes and challenges,” RNA president Kevin Eckstrom of the Religion News Service wrote in the conference program. “The industry meltdown has been especially unkind to the religion beat, forcing some long-time colleagues and friends to leave the business—often not by choice.”       

Under the headline, “The death of the religion beat,” William Lobdell noted in his August 28 blog how much things had changed since he was assigned in 1998 to write a weekly column on religion in Orange County for the Los Angeles Times. “I was the fourth full-time reporter covering faith for the newspaper. Today, there is one reporter—who in months past—has often been pulled to cover other types of stories.”           

Like many others laid off or bought out, Lobdell is trying to keep his hand in as a blogger ( and author.

“This meeting is like a wake. Everyone is grieving,” RNA stalwart David Gibson, who chose the freelancer’s life well before it became evident about 2005 that the newspaper business was in crisis, said after a session on Catholic parochial education.  “It’s sort of like a United Mine Workers Union meeting in the 1970s—it feels like a whole way of life is ending.” 

As Michael Paulson noted in his own blog at the Globe, “This is a tough time for the news business generally—we have more readers than ever, thanks to the Internet, but fewer and fewer of them pay anything to read us, also thanks to the Internet—and the religion beat is suffering collateral damage.”

Newspaper circulation has been falling (as have the ratings of broadcast news operations) for several decades, but the real crisis has been caused by drastic changes in advertising strategies. In recent decades, most American newspapers were functional, local monopolies that could set high ad rates generally and totally dominate very profitable niches like classifieds. One pertinent result was solid middle-class salaries and good benefits for reporters.

The development of on-line classified advertising like Craig’s List has destroyed that once reliable cash cow. And, in 2005, it became clear that many advertisers were moving quickly to the Internet, leaving newspapers with diminished revenues and huge overhead costs for reporting and editing staff, printing presses, paper, and distribution systems.

The old economic model allowed what now seems like lavish investment in reporting and editing. In the late 1990s, it was wasn’t uncommon for middle-sized metropolitan dailes to have newsroom staffs of 300 or 400, with big dailies like the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post reaching toward 1,000.

Staff contractions through buyout and layoff began around 2002, but have ratcheted up dramatically this year. In July, for example, some newspapers in the Tribune Company chain like the Hartford Courant were obliged to reduce staff and news space by one quarter in one fell swoop.

The religion beat, which had been growing fast in the 1990s, has indeed suffered collateral damage.

Writing on July 23 in his blog “Scriptorium” in the Lakeland, Florida, Ledger about his friend Mark Pinksy’s layoff, Cary McMullen conceded that “in a sense, it’s the logical outcome of the reduction in newspaper size and sections. Those papers that had religion sections—the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, etc.—began to eliminate them, and in some cases their reporters were reassigned.”

But now, McMullen continued, “it’s the reporters being eliminated, meaning that a specialized knowledge is being lost, and with it the ability of papers to make sense, on a local basis, of an intricate subject. I often tell people that being a religion reporter is a little like being a sports reporter who has to know the rules and the key players of sports as different as soccer, polo, baseball and fencing.”

“There is no painless way to cut a shrinking pie,” Terry Mattingly wrote on August 27 in his blog “Yet, of course, the news pie is not shrinking. [Journalism] is changing into forms that do not include solid, workable forms of advertising. A key element of American public life and discourse is hanging, twisting slowly in the wind, waiting for someone to create an ad form more winsome than those pop-up mini-monsters that we all hate so much.”

“However, do not click ‘comment’ and tell me that you get all the news you need from the Internet and from blogs,” Mattingly wrote. “It takes real money to pay people to report and edit real information. Most of what happens in weblogs—like this one, frankly—is secondary writing and criticism. We are all like those little fish stuck on the flanks of big sharks. Someone has to fund the shark which does the real hunting.”

Most of those present at the Washington meeting, like Arnold Labaton, executive producer of PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly,” hold onto the hope that a new model will emerge that will, once again, support ambitious reporting. “There are just too many smart people who want to do good journalism; they’ll eventually find a way to do it.”

Debra Mason, the RNA’s executive director, is keeping cool in the face of rapid change. She noted that about 130 working religion reporters signed up for the conference and that many news organizations remain committed to covering religion.

There are some signs that she is right. For example, in July, when the Hartford Courant cut 25 percent of its newsroom staff, it left religion reporter Elizabeth Hamilton in place in a full-time beat, even though the table of organization temporarily assigned just one reporter to cover police, education, and local government in Hartford.

Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (one of the papers that announced new buyouts during the RNA meeting) said things don’t feel hopeless in her city. “Home delivery circulation is even growing,” she said. Further, the Post-Gazette has been promoting itself as the place where residents can get reliable information from the local experts. “That’s good for beat reporters like me,” she said.

At the moment, the conventional wisdom is that blogging will be part of any solution to the crisis. “How many of you think the future of the media is online?” Andrea Useem asked the audience during her presentation at a panel called, “Boggled by Blogging.” Virtually every hand in the room went up. As an aspiring freelance writer, Useem said she realized a couple of years ago that the career she dreamed of, “a series of jobs covering religion at ever bigger newspapers,” wasn’t going to happen.

So she founded her own blog,, because she believed that she needed to master web skills in order to be in the game for whatever happens next. She had to hire a web consultant to help her. After two years, her blog still makes her no money; indeed, she’s still paying the consultant. But there is good news on two fronts, she told her colleagues.

First, she can put whatever she wants on her blog—she’s her own editor. In her case, that means the blog often features transcripts of lengthy interviews with interesting people. She’s also able to put some limit on her blogging, adding a new post only once a week. Most important for someone who needs to make a living, the blog has become her calling card. It attracts clients who hire her for the writing, editing, and consulting projects by which she makes her daily bread.

“So, is anybody making money on blogging?” asked Jeff Sheler, a longtime reporter at U.S. News & World Report before he took a buyout several years ago.

“I don’t think you’re getting the picture,” Useem replied. “This is mostly about getting the skills that are now required in the marketplace.”

Established journalistic vehicles are also encouraging their writers to blog. What news organizations want is interactive contact with their readers and viewers. They want hits and comments on the websites. They also want to establish their writers as personalities in the marketplace.

Manya Brashear of the Chicago Tribune has been blogging for two years on her newspaper’s website, juggling online and print work. Like other blogging religion reporters, she often uses the blog to empty her mailbox and reporter’s notebook, processing pithily the huge collection of story possibilities she can’t get into the newspaper. But the news format also presses reporters to use their own voices. Brashear’s blog, for example, is called “The Seeker: a personal and professional search for truth.”

Not all journalists are comfortable about introducing their own persona. Cathy Grossman, who has eagerly built up USA Today’s religion web pages, told Brashear that her generation of reporters doesn’t feel comfortable using the first person in stories.

Another disorienting feature of the blogosphere is that bloggers, unlike newspaper readers, get very precise statistics about how many read and respond to work. It’s all about clicks. Brashear said that one result of this form of accountability is that she works hard to get the best possible placement for her work on the Tribune’s home page. Better placement there means bigger responses to her blog.

Brashear and other bloggers said the response of readers—and the directions that pushes coverage in—can be unnerving. She now has to deal with what she calls the “Dana Jacobson effect”—the skewed impact of relatively trivial posts that touch a nerve. Last January, Brasher casually tossed a brief quip onto her page, serving up a question about the then-current controversy over remarks made by ESPN sportscaster Dana Jacobson.

On January 23, under the headline, “Dana Jacobson roasts Jesus,” Brashear wrote, “ESPN has temporarily suspended sports announcer Dana Jacobson for a rant during the roast of two radio personalities, one of them a rival because he went to the University of Notre Dame and she went to the University of Michigan. But instead of roasting only her colleagues, she also reportedly went after Jesus. Did she take a good-natured sports rivalry too far?”

The reader comments for other Brashear entries in January ranged from zero to a couple of dozen. Her Jacobson blurb attracted 497 separate comments, many in very, very forceful language.

Michael Paulson, whose Globe blog is called “Articles of Faith,” shared Brashear’s sense that comments submitted to religion blogs are “often very ugly.” He quoted the Washington Post’s David Waters, editor of the Post’s massive blog “On Faith,” who said at an earlier RNA presentation, “Even Jerry Springer would be embarrassed by the comments we have on our site. They’re that bad.” At the Post, Waters said they now refer to the Three M’s—Muslims, Mormons, and Moosekillers—as the topics most likely to generate hits and vitriol.

“When you are measuring and judging your content by clicks, it changes the way you think about what you’re offering,” Waters said. “In some ways, that’s good, but it’s also bad…The temptation is to have more posts about things that you know are going to click, which skews your news judgment.”

Evidently, even those who are working hard to make cyberspace a fit place for serious journalism sometimes get the blues. Nevertheless, that’s where the faithful remnant are putting their bets. At the moment, there doesn’t seem anywhere else to put them.


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