RIP: The religion beat? (update)

17309As far as I know, veteran Godbeat and popular culture scribe Mark Pinsky isn't dead (although I haven't heard from him in a week or two, so I will check). His website is nice and up-to-date looking. Still, it is clear shock waves from the news that Pinsky was part of newsroom cutbacks at the Orlando Sentinel continue to affect the mood of many people who care about religion-news coverage in the mainstream press.

In fact, another Florida-based scribe -- Cary McMullen (his blog is here) of The Ledger -- pounded out an obituary for the entire world of religion news, in part inspired by the Pinsky announcement. This obit opens with a love song to the Religion Newswriters Association and the pros who form that august crowd. Then McMullen leaps in gloomy territory, which no doubt inspired the feature's "Religion News Becoming Obsolete" headline:

To some extent, I still have not lost my sense of awe for my colleagues, even though the names and faces that once were familiar to me have changed. In recent years, it seems that the faces are changing more quickly. Or rather, they're disappearing.

As you would expect, the details about Pinsky's departure are depressing, to those who care about mainstream news. But here's the part that we need to think about:

In a sense, it's the logical outcome of the reduction in newspaper size and sections. Those papers that had religion sections -- the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, etc. -- began to eliminate them, and in some cases their reporters were reassigned. Now, it's the reporters being eliminated, meaning that a specialized knowledge is being lost, and with it the ability of papers to make sense, on a local basis, of an intricate subject. I often tell people that being a religion reporter is a little like being a sports reporter who has to know the rules and the key players of sports as different as soccer, polo, baseball and fencing.

The problem, of course, is that there is more religion news out there than ever, not less, and the beat is getting more complex, not less.

On one level, we have to see this religion-beat crisis as a reflection of what is happening in the news industry. There is no painless way to cut a shrinking pie. Yet, of course, the news pie is not shrinking. It's changing into forms that do not include solid, workable forms of advertising. A key element of American public life and discourse is hanging, twisting slowly in the wind, waiting for someone to create an ad form more winsome than those pop-up mini-monsters that we all hate so much.

However, do not click "comment" and tell me that you get all the news you need from the Internet and from blogs.

It takes real money to pay people to report and edit real information. Most of what happens in weblogs -- like this one, frankly -- is secondary writing and criticism. We are all like those little fish stuck on the flanks of big sharks. Someone has to fund the shark, which does the real hunting.

At the same time, we are also seeing another vivid illustration of how editors and newspaper managers think and how they view the world around them. Hint: Many of them do not get religion. This is a topic I have written about over and over for a quarter of a century (Quill '83 here, Quill '93 here, Poynter.org '03 is here).

Commandments Tablets 1It also helps to remember that the World Wide Web is a buffet of niche news topics, teaming with readers who are very interested in specific, detail-rich subjects that, for them, may as well be matters of life and death and eternal life. Religion is the kind of topic that should thrive on the Net and it does. Kind of. The problem -- a Catch-22, again -- is that supporting this kind of specialty reporting requires resources.

Yes, there are non-profit sources of some religion news. But do you trust denominational wire services to bring you the news about their own pews? Yes, those wire services are crucial and do tons of fine work. But are they enough? Do you trust Planned Parenthood to cover Planned Parenthood or Focus on the Family to cover Focus on the Family? And so forth and so on.

End of sermon. I believe we are moving into an era in which wire services and national newspapers will play major roles, backed, I hope, by high-quality websites for smaller, niche audiences. I certainly am not prepared to schedule a funeral Mass for the religion beat or for religion news. I would not be doing the jobs that I do, if I felt that way.

Also, please be alerted -- yet again -- to a new book that is coming out later this year from Oxford University Press, entitled "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion." My chapter in the book is based on interviews with pros and scholars who have found ways to improve work on this beat. In other words, my chapter is part of this equation -- How To Get It Right.

Here's what Prof. Ari Goldman of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City -- formerly a religion-beat specialist at The New York Times -- had to say about the book. He's the author of the classic "The Search for God at Harvard."

It's not often that I get up and do a dance of joy when I read a book, but I did while reading "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion." I've been preaching this gospel for 15 years and it's great to see it so brilliantly argued and supported in these pages. The editors have done an impressive job in assembling a top-flight team of writers to build the case brick by solid brick. It is now an unassailable truth: without an understanding of religion, a journalist can miss the greatest stories of our time.

So help us get the word out.

Meanwhile, consider this post an open thread on the state of religion writing in the mainstream. But honestly, folks, look at the larger picture. Look for the signs of progress, as well as the signs of trouble. Your GetReligionistas see excellent work out there every day, as well as the ghosts and gaffes.

UPDATE: Heard from Pinsky and he's doing fine. You may have seen him on CNN the other day (or perhaps Dutch public television). He's working on a nonfiction book about a murder in North Carolina and pounding out a few freelance pieces hither and yon. Look for a big piece in the bulletin of the Harvard Divinity School on science and religion.

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