We have lamented the Dallas Morning News's near departure from religion coverage, but almost simultaneously, we've noticed the growth of another religion hub down the Texas road at the Houston Chronicle. Nearly every day, the editor of Houston Belief posts a religion news story on Believe It or Not, as she directs the rest of her team of bloggers in other religion-related coverage.
The lady behind the site is Kate Shellnutt, a religion reporter, blogger and web producer for the Chronicle whose work has earned honors from the Society for Features Journalism and Religion Newswriters Association. Before her time at the Chronicle, she studied religion and journalism at Washington and Lee University and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Shellnutt says her academic background, focusing on religious communities and the Internet, plays into some of her philosophies about Houston Belief as well as her approach to engaging with religious groups on social media. Her thesis was on the digitization of the Bible, and she conducted a sociological study on religious rituals on the web, particularly online confession.
Naturally, you can also find Shellnutt on Twitter (personal & professional) and Facebook, or RSS feed. We asked her to weigh in on how she handles the mix of responsibilities, especially in a climate where the traditional religion reporter's role could be changing.
You're editing a mix of opinion and news for the religion site Houston Chronicle and writing news posts. How does religion coverage compare online to what goes in print? Is online a better outlet for the mix of coverage you do? HoustonBelief.com offers more stories and represents a broader range of faiths on a day-to-day basis than our weekly print section, Belief. The site is newsier and has a social component, with about 20 blogs from community members and active commenters.
Much of what we do on the web feeds into the print section, which typically includes one of my best blog entries from the week, one of our readers’ best entries, a couple wire news stories and a local religion feature story.
Since you probably know exactly how many hits a story sees, how do you see analytics impacting the future of religion news? Do you see numbers that show religion news does well on the Chronicle's site? Is there a temptation to cover stories just for hits? I do pay attention to site traffic, and luckily, Houston readers care about religion. Big names like our own Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes always draw in clicks, as do stories about celebrities and faith, news-of-the-weird, the culture wars and certain religious groups, like atheists, Muslims and Mormons. Rather than cover a shallow story solely to draw up site traffic, I try to present thoughtful reporting or timely aggregations in ways that are particularly enticing for online readers—striking headlines, buzzy framing, strong images, etc.
As you assign and edit a mix of opinion, blogging and reporting, do you find yourself managing writers who could turn into sources? Do you think religion reporters at mainstream outlets will fill more of an editor/aggregator role? The volunteer bloggers for Houston Belief come up with their own story ideas and write their own posts, and they do a great job. I’m here to provide general direction to the group about topics they might want to address or to help with the technical side of the site, but I don’t have editorial control. I try to avoid quoting Houston Belief contributors in my coverage, but I often ask them to recommend friends, leaders, organizations or events for stories. They’ve been very helpful connecting me with their religious communities.
Like many others covering religion for a newspaper, I split my time between this beat and several other tasks. Bringing in community bloggers and aggregating news stories when possible make my job more manageable. For religion reporters who work on the web (or are responsible for a web component), I think these strategies allow them to keep readers interested and updated in a time-efficient way.
The Dallas Morning News once had a robust religion section, which turned into a robust religion blog before the paper decided to focus energies elsewhere. Is there something about Texas that makes religion coverage tricky? This change happened years before I lived in Texas, but I would assume the decision to scale back on religion coverage wasn’t because of the religious landscape in Texas, but the financial situation of the paper. Religion sections can be hard to maintain ad-wise because often the most interested parties—churches, non-profits, schools, etc.—aren’t dropping as much money on advertising as companies may spend in other sections. At the Chronicle, our Belief section in print has gotten a little smaller over the past few years, but HoustonBelief.com is getting more traffic than ever.
Several journalists seemed to resonate with Steve Buttry's post "Dear Newsroom Curmudgeon..." Do you think religion reporters could become a bit more open to new media? How would you recommend they start harnessing newer technology better? I think all reporters should be more open to new media. For religion reporters, it’s especially essential because (as I mentioned at the Religion Newswriters Association panel on social media) our sources and our readers are online. America’s most influential pastors, churches and religious leaders—for the most part—are blogging, tweeting, Facebook-ing and Instagram-ing. If we’re unplugged, we miss the chance to follow them, learn more about them and pick up on news stories.
If you’re hesitant or consider yourself technology-impaired, it’s fine to start by “lurking,” that is, tracking online activity without engaging just yet. Start following blogs and social media accounts relevant to your interests or your beat. Take note about what you like about the best ones (what info they shared, how often they posted, tone, etc.) and keep that in mind when you do decide to begin your own.
Where do you get your news about religion? Do you seek out sources for watching news different than religion reporters have in the past (Twitter, Facebook, etc.)? I absolutely rely on the Internet for religion news and story ideas. I follow local and national religious leaders and organizations on Twitter and Facebook. Because they’re updated so often, I can get more news and context than I would from a press release, bulletin or even a quick conversation with a pastor.
Every day, I read popular personal blogs written by people of faith, blogs by religion reporters and articles in religion journal and publications, in addition to following wire stories. There’s a huge amount of information out there, and I’ve become a filter for sharing, retweeting or contextualizing what’s most relevant and interesting to the HoustonBelief.com audience.