Downsizing the Godbeat

CanGodInterveneI love following Michael Paulson's Articles of Faith blog but one of his posts last week depressed me. He was explaining that he was at the Religion Newswriters Association 60th annual convention where travel budgets and downsizing of the religion beat meant decreased attendance. He said that when he first started covering religion for the Boston Globe nearly 10 years ago, the beat was almost trendy:

No more. Just this week, as I was preparing to depart for Minnesota, my colleague Gary Stern, who has been a model of how to successfully juggle religion writing for a newspaper and a blog simultaneously, announced that his employer, the Journal News (of Westchester County, New York) had decided it was no longer going to have a full-time religion writer. Gary is fortunate -- he gets to keep a job -- and he says he's going to try to continue posting periodically about religion -- but clearly the beat is diminished there. This comes on the heels of a decision by the San Francisco Chronicle to stop covering religion full-time -- Matthai Kuruvila is now covering the East Bay -- and, most shockingly, the decision by the Dallas Morning News, which for years had an award-winning religion section, to kill the free-standing section and reassign the writers to suburban education and other beats.

There have been reductions in the number of reporters who write about religion full-time at all of the nation’s biggest newspapers --- the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times (and even at the Globe, where for a brief period we had two religion writers) -- and the religion news beat has disappeared from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Orlando Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post, the Grand Rapids Press, the Chicago Sun-Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Newsday, according to Debra Mason, the executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association. The surviving newspaper religion sections are getting smaller. And at many small and mid-sized newspapers, reporters now juggle coverage of religion with other, often unrelated, subjects, and religion often gets short shrift.

It's not, the post goes on to say, that the religion beat is being particularly targeted. It's just that the journalism industry is in the tank. On the other hand, while the number of newspaper employees who are members of RNA has decreased, the number of freelancers has increased. And there are other signs of health, too. Paulson goes on to analyze what this all means but I just want to pause on the news about Stern.

Stern is a great local religion reporter. He's won a ton of awards. He does a great job covering stories big and small on his beat. Here's a recent post looking at how local Muslims are marking Ramadan. He's one of those reporters that does such a good job that it almost keeps him from getting mentioned here at all. But that doesn't mean that he's not a treasure. I'm glad he'll keep covering religion in a limited capacity but I'm really sad that he won't be on the beat full time.

In his post explaining the change, Stern writes:

Clearly, I think religion news is important in many ways--and that the beat is perhaps the most interesting in journalism. I've written about this many times.

But these are tough times for everyone and the newspaper industry is going through a brutal transition period. No one knows what the news media might look like, say, a decade from now.

It will be interesting to watch this change in print media and it will be interesting to see if and how that changes our role here at GetReligion. In the meantime, our best wishes to Stern and all of the other veteran Godbeat scribes who are adjusting to the new landscape.

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