From the Editor:
and Values Down the Tube
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.
talk went like this.
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?
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.
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.
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
not? According to an ancient journalistic principle, you donít print things
that will annoy advertisers in the same place where their advertising
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.
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
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
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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.