Last week, I posted a chunk of what I wrote marking the 22nd birthday of the weekly "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service. You may recall that I focused on the bad news, which is the undeniable fact that there are fewer mainstream newsrooms with the resources to fund full-time, experienced, trained specialty reporters who want to cover religion news. At the same time, there was little evidence that the public was losing its interest in the subject. The actual percentage of religion in the major news outlets declined in 2009 -- but not by much.
At the same time, it was clear that religion-beat watchers were seeing a major uptick in religion writing online -- even if much of it seemed to be based on the Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" model, which essentially means that religion equals private beliefs and opinions and, thus, is not really news, at least not in the same way as real news -- like politics. There are very few religion facts out there (even in history and in the texts of catechisms), only feelings.
As I wrote that column I realized that there was no way I was going to get all of my material into a single column. Thus, I did something that I rarely do: I wrote a two-part column. That places a real burden on copy desks as they plan their pages and I know that. However, some newspapers like to weave the two pieces into one feature, which works, too.
Anyway, part II is out and here is how it opens:
For journalists who care about life on the God beat, the list of the dead and the missing in action has turned into a grim litany.
Some religion-beat jobs have been killed, while others have been downsized, outsourced, frozen or chopped up and given to reluctant general-assignment reporters.
Gentle readers, please rise for a moment of silence.
Like I said last time, religion is not being singled out for punishment. Rather, the current business-model crisis -- free content, maximum competition from online alternatives -- is having an especially crushing effect in the top-40 news markets, the big cities in which larger news organizations used to have the resources to fund specialty beats of all kinds (including religion).
The cuts in big newsrooms had another effect, according to the watchdogs at the Religion Newswriters Association:
"In the 1990s and early 2000s, the largest papers often had multiple religion reporters. That has disappeared, for sure. That is where the biggest cut for religion has occurred," said RNA Director Debra Mason, who teaches at the University of Missouri.
"We suffer in the meantime, and one possible casualty is all our experienced, better writers. I do worry that the next generation of religion writers don't have any mentors or internships, etc., to gain experience."
But the column stresses that the real growth has come on sites that mix some news with lots of opinion and media criticism (like this one). At the same time, readers now have much wider access to religious news, in the form of denominational wire services and public-relations offices (think Episcopal News Service) and those that tilt against those institutional windmills (think Stand Firm).
But this leads me to an interesting, and sobering, comment by the young man behind that Catholic weblog that is in almost everyone's browser bookmarks -- Whispers in the Loggia.
The harsh reality today, according to Rocco Palmo ... is that all too often readers who care about religion face tough choices. Will they place their trust in traditional news reports that are, these days, often written by journalists who have little training to prepare them for the rigors of the religion beat, or the opinion-based work of experienced insiders and scholars who may have ideological axes to grind?
"There are fabulous religion reporters who are still out there grinding away in the mainstream media, but they are an endangered species for sure," said Palmo. "I still think that basic, hard-news reporting is the gold standard and we need more of it. ... But most of what you see when you go online is commentary and criticism. You don't see that much original reporting being done. ...
"If anything, people like me are just trying to step in and fill the void."
Now, I realize that there are plenty of you out there -- on the left and the right -- who are perfectly happy in a world in which you can read dozens of openly European, slanted online publications and then compare the results and figure out what you think is the accurate information. Please don't hear me knocking that (said the pro-American model of the press Eastern Orthodox doctrinal traditionalist pro-life Democrat prodigal Texan who leads this here weblog). I'm all for alternative media sources. I'm all for constructive, pro-journalism media criticism.
But who does the basic reporting? Who gets to write the basic stories to which the weblogs react? Read that Palmo quote again. And again. Please.
Photo: Apparently, this is a loggia.