Religion news: Evolving? On life support?

Whenever I speak at Christian colleges and universities, I always find flocks of students who, when I ask them to name their dream full-time jobs, stress that they want to cover topics linked to entertainment, not hard news. However, I have to explain to them that they have a big problem.

What kind of news organizations, I ask, have the resources to pay salaries and benefits to people who write about specialty topics -- like rock music, movies, television, etc.?

There is silence. Then someone will say, voice uncertain, "Websites?"

No, not yet, I say. Try again. There is more silence, then, "Rolling Stone?" "The New York Times?" "The Los Angeles Times?"

OK, that's a couple of jobs. Name more, I say. They really can't name any more.

So where, I ask, do you need to work before you are qualified to apply for those jobs?

Total silence. This time, no one has an answer. The answer, of course, is that for a generation or so the other jobs have been at America's top 40 or so newspapers and the wire services that they support. These are, of course, the very newsrooms that are now being hit the hardest in the advertising slump as the whole mass-media world struggles to find a business model that works on the World Wide Web. How many of the students have purchased newspaper subscriptions to these kinds of papers? You know the answer to that one. They are tuned out.

What does this have to do with GetReligion? Well, this week marked the end of my 22nd year writing the weekly "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service. As always, I wrote a column to mark the anniversary that focused on a topic linked to the Godbeat. This year, it's going to end up being a two-part column.

However, part one is out and, in it, I note that one of the reasons that the religion beat is enduring rough times -- especially in comparision to the glory years in which solitary newspapers enjoyed near monolopies in their big-city markets -- is that all all specialty beats are getting caught in cutbacks. In other words, religion is not being singled out for cuts. At least, in my opinion, the religion beat is not being singled out to a higher degree than in the past.

As I have long said (crucial link here), religion news has always given too many editors sweaty palms.

So what is happening now? The most interesting thing is that religion news and opinion, of various forms, is spreading online. But there's the rub. It's hard for the blogosphere to react to news that no one reports. Thus, I opened with a discussion of that 2009 report in the New York Times about the alleged move by Catholic leaders to "reopen" the door to plenary indulgences. Remember that story?

That led me to some information gathered by several Pew research projects. Here is a chunk or two of the column:

"Religion is one of those topics that has a unique ability to gather in one place large groups of people who care passionately about it. That's the kind of thing that happens quite naturally online," said Jesse Holcomb, a research analyst with the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism. "The irony is that these online debates almost always start with a story from a big, traditional news source. Someone has to report the news before the bloggers can take over."

And what about the overall health of the beat?

... (The) amount of religion news remained surprisingly steady in 2009, at 0.8 percent, compared with 1.0 percent in 2008, according to a study by the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism and the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

As always, it was a good year to read about papal tours, especially when they cause controversy, and stories about religion and politics, especially about the beliefs, rhetoric and policies of President Barack Obama. As always, it was not a good year to read about how religious beliefs helped shape events in some of the world's most tense and bloody settings, such as Iraq and Iran. Holcomb noted that journalists even failed to probe the intense religious language and imagery in Obama's historic speech at Cairo University, which focused on improving relations with the Islamic world.

Meanwhile, additional Pew research into news and trends online found that 41 percent of Americans believe the news media should devote more attention to "religion and spirituality." Only news about science -- with a 44 percent score -- drew a higher response.

Who claims to want more "spiritual" news coverage? Women (44 percent) are more likely to say so than men (37 percent), which is significant since editors are worried about the rapidly declining number of female readers. Young adults, ages 18-29, are more interested in religion than readers over 50 -- 49 percent to 35 percent. African-Americans (57 percent) and Hispanics (43 percent) are more interested in religion coverage than whites (38 percent).

So where are readers going to find this content? Online sources, of course.

But the vast majority of the best online writing is linked to discussions and criticism of news reported -- to one degree or another -- in the mainstream press. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? It is true that sites, like this one, often add new information and insights into important news events and trends. But the bloggers are not working full-time, unless they represent advocacy groups, and they rarely have the time and resources to consistently, day after day, cover a wide variety of news.

Someone has to cover the story. Then the blogosphere does its thing. That's the sobering reality, more often than not.

Let me know what you think of the column and, quite frankly, please share URLs for the online religion sites that you think do the best job of adding real content to the news flow. Yes, I hope to talk to that guy who keeps whispering in the loggia.

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