On the Beat
Covering Religion in Hard Times
by Andrew Walsh
One of the many benefits of the nationís long economic expansion during
the 1990s was a boom in the religion writerís trade. The number of
journalists assigned to full-time positions covering religion swelled
dramatically. Scores of newspapers introduced expansive weekly "faith
and values" sections. Even in broadcast journalism, hitherto the Gobi
Desert of religion reporting, a few beat reporters appeared, along with
public televisionís "Religion and Ethics Newsweekly." Religion
journalists were even finding jobs in the dot.com sector.
But the long boom ended abruptly in 2000. Ad revenues plummeted and the
high profits of the 1990s evaporated. At the top of the journalistic food
chain, corporations like Knight-Ridder, the Tribune Company and the New York
Times Company announced substantial budget cuts, large buyout plans, and
even newsroom layoffs.
So when the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA) gathered in late
September in Boston to talk shop the question of the hour was: "Will
the beat follow the industry trend back down?"
So far, the evidence suggests that while the boom in religion writing has
definitely crossed its zenith, the beat is not crashing back to earth. There
have been widespread cutbacks, with RNA members reporting pervasive cuts in
travel budgets and in their news holes, but few think that religion is being
singled out for disproportionate reductions in their newsrooms.
"A beat that does well during economically good times and when
extraordinary events are in the news does less well in economic
downturns," Gustav Niebuhr, one of the New York Timesí two
national religion correspondents, told Bill Cessato of the Religion News
Service. "But I donít think thatís unusual for specialty
Reductions can, however, be identified. Over the past year, Cessato
reported, full-time religion beat positions have been terminated at the
Eugene (Ore.) Register Guard and at the Hendersonville (N.C.) Times-News.
Debra Mason, executive director of the RNA noted in the organizationís
fall newsletter that in August the Omaha World Herald had
"temporarily suspended" its religion position.
General hiring freezes are also making some measurable impact, according
to Cessato and Mason. There are unfilled vacancies at the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader,
the Record in Stockton, California, and at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (for a second religion reporterís position).
But given the current size of the corps of religion writers, these are
hardly drastic cuts. RNA, for example, currently reports a total membership
of 240 full-time religion journalists working for secular news outlets. In
2000, John Dart and Jimmy R. Allen updated their 1993 study, "Bridging
the Gap: Religion and the News Media," and received responses from 163
additional part-timers, most of whom worked for small and mid-size daily
The picture is much the same in broadcast. Reporter Peggy Wehmeyer left
ABC News this fall because of budget cuts, after working the religion beat
from her base in Dallas since 1994. She will not be replaced. But CNN has
recently hired its first full-time religion beat reporter, and this fall
National Public Radio replaced its religion beat pioneer, Lynn Neary. The
experiments in "convergence," the practice of using specialist
newspaper reporters on local television news broadcastsóespecially in
cities where the Tribune Company owns both newspapers and television
stationsóare also continuing.
Intense speculation is focused on the future of the weekly "Faith
and Values" sections established in the 1990s. These often appeared
after media executives turned to focus group research to find ways to curb
falling readership. American readers often told focus group managers that
they are keenly interested in religion news. And so, in the mid-1990s, new
faith and values sections popped up like mushrooms.
Flagship efforts, such as those at the Dallas Morning News (with
seven full-time reporters and editors) and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
appear to be rolling along. But casualties are occurring. In early
September, the Indianapolis Star folded its three year-old weekly
"Faith and Values" section into a new "Indiana Living"
Concern about the future of these sections focuses on a two issues: Do
they generate enough ad revenue, especially in a time of surging newsprint
costs? And do they attract new readers?
After a decade of high profits but unstemmed readership decline, itís
hard to demonstrate unambiguously that more and better religion reporting
has helped to solve the readership problem. And the new sections are
typically not heavy laden with ads.
And so, perhaps unsurprisingly, bigger and better religion
coverage is not part of what appears to be the newspaper industryís next
Big Solution for its problems.
Last spring, the Readership Institute of the Media Management Center at
Northwestern University released the results of a massive study of American
newspaper readers entitled "The Power to Grow Readership."
Sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society
of Newspaper Editors, the study, based on content analysis of 100 daily
newspapers (ranging in circulation down to 10,000) and a survey of 37,000
readers, offered a long list of nostrums.
The 400-question survey included a series of questions 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 their potential to ignite new reader interest.
Readers "want and expect a wide variety of content," the study
concluded, and proceeded to identify eight potentially high impact
"Intensely local, people-focused news" topped the bill. The
other "topics with the greatest potential" were: 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
Coming in at Number Twelve, religion coverage was not deemed to have high
potential impact. It was not, in the Instituteís best judgment, a
"core news" topic. The analytic process linked it with coverage
"parenting" and "relationships."
Was this linkage based on the views of readers or of survey designers?
Whichever, the studyís prescriptions for reader-friendly improvements were
"decreased length and complexity" in stories, more
"community announcement listings," and new sections for youth.