Religion beat caught in U.S. journalism changes

By Chris Herlinger, New York Chapter

journalists panel

Three journalists discuss how their organizations approach religion news during the 2009 Religion Communicators Council national convention.

The journalists are (from left) Rachel Zoll, national religion writer for the Associated Press; John Yemma, senior editor of The Christian Science Monitor; and Michael Paulson, religion reporter for The Boston Globe.

News coverage of the U.S. religious landscape has in recent years gained visibility because of increased interest in faith-related issues.

But now the religion beat faces an uncertain future, given the current flux in U.S. journalism, prominent religion journalists told the Religion Communicators Council National Convention in Cambridge, Mass.

“The religion beat is suffering collateral damage,” reporter Michael Paulson, who covers religion for The Boston Globe, said during the council’s March 26-28, 2009 meeting.

During a March 26 panel discussion, Paulson along with Rachel Zoll, who covers religion for the Associated Press, and John Yemma, editor of the Christian Science Monitor, told of frustrations and discouraging trends in religion coverage. Those ranged from staff reductions to all-out elimination of newspaper sections devoted to religious reporting.

The journalists noted that The New York Times now has only one reporter covering religion at the national level instead of two. The well-respected Dallas Morning News ditched its weekly section on religious news, which many observers considered the best in the field.

Problems of religious coverage hinge on what is happening to U.S. journalism as a whole, panel members said.

Metropolitan areas are losing newspapers, and newspapers are cutting back on news coverage because of declining advertising revenues and loss of readers. Many now blame the availability of what is called “free news” on the Internet for what is taking place.

In recent weeks, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News shut down. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped its print edition.

“There is a crisis in print,” said Martha Mann, the president of the Boston RCC chapter.

The Christian Science Monitor is another case in point. The journalists’ panel took place on the day the Boston-based national newspaper, renowned for its international coverage and dedication to analytical stories, published its last daily print edition.

The newspaper will continue to put out a weekly print edition but move most of its coverage to the Web. Unfortunately, said Yemma, the Monitor’s editor, “the traditional newspaper model is untenable.”

He noted that his newspaper had 50,000 paid subscribers but 2 million visitors monthly to its Web site, where stories can be read for free.

Asked by an RCC member what council members could do to help journalists, Paulson said, “Buy a copy of the newspaper.”

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