Star prayer power

maria_magdalene_prayingThe following bit of local news may not be the best evidence of a declining newspaper industry, or the media's overall challenges in covering religion, but I must say a word about The Indianapolis Star's decisions to cut the short prayer on page A2 next to the chuckle and horoscope and then bring it back a couple of weeks later. Star religion writer Robert King told us back when the prayer was yanked that of all the changes the newspaper made the day it dropped the prayer (eliminating the stand-alone business section, folding the features section into the classifieds section), the decision to send the short non-denominational prayer to the dumpster generated the most reader outrage. As a disclaimer, I never read the prayer until now (or the chuckle or the horoscopes and only occasionally the comics), but I'm told by a reliable source (my wife) that the prayer was a nice way of starting one's day along with the chuckle (which remains, but was reportedly less funny as a result of the prayer's temporary demise).

Apparently other readers felt the same. Here is King's blog post on the matter:

In conversation, [Star Editor and Vice President Dennis] Ryerson told me that he understands that there are people who grew up with prayer in the public schools and prayer in other public settings who see things like this as a "chipping away" of something sacred. But Ryerson told me he really sees prayer as something intensely personal and that he has spoken with Christian ministers who agree with him that prayer belongs in churches and in hearts, but not on the pages of the newspaper.

Callers so far do not seem mollified that the Star still maintains a Bible verse ("Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty" II Cor. 3:17) high atop the front page -- one of the few major metro papers in the country to do so. And there is no indication that the Spirit verse will go away.

But the question remains, in an environment where newspapers are struggling to remain viable, is saving the postage stamp sized space the prayer occupied worth the grief to readers accustomed to seeing a prayer in the paper?

That was then. This morning's front page contained a note that the "Prayer Returns:"

Earlier this month we eliminated the prayer that had been published daily in The Indianapolis Star for more than 40 years. We reasoned that philosophically, prayer was not the function of a newspaper. Our role is to be the voice of news and information in Central Indiana.

Thousands of calls, e-mails and letters to the editor later, we have been reminded of, and are thankful for, another important role: to be a vital part of our readers' lives. As our religion writer, Robert King, put it: "You don't get much more important than being a part of grace said over breakfast." The daily prayer returns today to Page A2.

Thank you for letting us be part of your life.

As for the prayer, read this with the fact that it's negative 12 degrees in Indianapolis right now:

O God, in these cold months, so many are homeless. Give them shelter, warmth and hope. Bless them through your care and ours. Amen.

That's a pretty good prayer, in my opinion. For a more extended explanation for why the newspaper removed the prayer in the first place, see here.

Former Star columnist Ruth Holladay and now local blogger provides some insight when the prayer was first canceled:

But in the meantime, those of us who know Ryerson's mindset are surprised, frankly, that the prayer has lasted this long. I can see the problematic nature of such a feature -- years ago, pre-Gannett, a copy editor who was Jewish pointed out that the Thanksgiving prayer set to run in the Thanksgiving paper was aimed at Jesus Christ. The last she had checked, the holiday was not a Christian one. Hence, she was concerned, perhaps even offended, and the prayer was changed.

But as King notes, the prayer for years has been vanilla flavored. It lacks the muscle to offend anyone.

Yet its removal clearly has created a sense of being wronged.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette religion editor Frank Lockwood notes that the newspaper kept the daily horoscope. Well, now they're both in the newspaper.

Clearly there are bigger things on the minds of the journalist at the Star right now, who just went through a severe round of layoffs and are now facing a quarter in which they will be forced to take an unpaid week off to avoid more layoffs.

The news that is bigger than the prayer controversy is, of course, the disturbing lack of news reporters and writers at the city's only major newspaper. The last couple of years have seen the growth of a fleet of local bloggers who occasionally break news ahead of the Star, a couple of alternative newspapers, the handful of local TV news stations, and a couple of radio stations. However, the days of the muscular local newspaper are over in Indianapolis and most communities around the country. (Star readers and reporters should be thankful they are not in the position of the Rocky Mountain News or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.)

As for religion coverage, King continues to produce excellent local articles relating to religion news (occasionally producing a local version of a national story), but that is about all we have when it comes to religion coverage in my city's major newspaper. The entire features section has essentially been eliminated (which used to occasionally carry religiously-themed articles) and a popular local columnist who wrote on family issues from an occasionally religious perspective was let go recently. Here is my question: what will rise in its place, with or without a prayer?

Image of Mary Magdalene by Ary Scheffer (1795-1858) used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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