How is the Godbeat supposed to work?

food gathering behavior of bees fullThere is, sad to say, mounting evidence that GetReligion readers are not all that interested in discussing the changes in the religion-news coverage strategies of The Dallas Morning News. This is rather disappointing to me because the "multi-platform" news questions faced by Jeffrey Weiss & Co. are issues that the entire news world will have to face sooner rather than later. Well, I am sure as heckfire interested in the future of the news industry and, thus, the future of mainstream efforts to cover religion news. So I'm going to keep trying to get this "cross-pollination" conversation going between this blog and the new News blog.

So the much-saluted Dallas religion section has died and the beat has been moved over to the Metro section. Is this good news for the Godbeat or bad news? What approach works best in the real world of the newsroom?

Bruce Tomaso at the News says things are going pretty good (read his full post, complete with URLs to the stories he discusses):

If there was a silver lining in the decision by our top chiefs to scrap the freestanding Religion section (in favor of space inside each Saturday's Metro section), it was that the change would free up religion writers Sam Hodges and Jeffrey Weiss to write more for Page One and the Metro cover -- prime newspaper real estate where their thoughtful, illuminating stories would reach the widest possible audience.

So far, I think, the plan is working. This past weekend alone, Sam and Jeff combined to produce really smart, high-profile stories covering the waterfront from Mormons to Methodists to Southern Baptists.

... (If) you've had a chance to look at the Religion pages inside Metro, there's been some darned good stuff there, too. We're finding interesting features about goings-on in the local faith community. ... We're still reviewing religious books and music that you won't see reviewed in many other secular newspapers. Special Contributor Tyra Damm has just started her third lap through the alphabet with her feature, Religion A to Z. There's the Web Site of the Week. Q&As with prominent figures in religion. And more. Lots more.

This sounds pretty good. But what this really means is that almost all of the newspaper's religion-news coverage will have to compete for space in the daily news budgets that tend to be dominated by crime, local government, schools and other "traditional" news subjects.

This is a classic good news-bad news situation. The good news is that this is an approach that takes religion coverage seriously. The bad news is that this depends on having Metro and page-one editors who "get religion." Some do. Many more do not.

getreligion1I have long been an advocate of this spread-out-the-religion-coverage approach. Here's what I had to say in an article for The Quill:

It's beyond dispute by now that the news media ought to cover religion. How they should do so raises institutional questions of column inches, job titles and dollars in the travel budget. Should it be treated as a city-desk beat for rookies, a feature beat, a semi-political beat, or a prestigious specialty beat? Should the stories be limited to a religious section? Should there be a weekly religion column?

I've found that religion is a subject that likes to wander through the newspaper -- drifting onto page one, then over to Op-ed, and then into the entertainment section or even sports. Sometimes religion needs a softer, feature-oriented approach -- which takes space. Other stories are hard news and should appear on the local-news front. Major stories should be written for everyone and pushed for page one. Some trend stories may fit in the editorial pages.

Now here comes the twist:

I used to think religion pages were old hat. My views have changed. Religion pages, and columns, make excellent safety valves. A space clearly labeled "religion" can ease the pressure that builds up when editors and writers try to jam stories into the space and style limitations of hard-news pages.

However a news organization arranges its space and personnel, serious coverage of religion is going to be shortchanged as long as many editors still feel about religion writers as E.M. Forster's character Ronny feels about religion itself; Ronny "approved of religion as long as it endorsed the national anthem, but ... objected when it attempted to influence his life."

And what, you say, about the Internet?

Well, I wrote this essay in 1985. Some of these broader issues have been around for quite some time now, to say the least.

But, yes, the new wrinkle is the World Wide Web, which allows religion-news professionals to "cover" all kinds of things without colliding with the harsh realities of the daily news budget. But, as Weiss and I have mentioned, this raises the question of the status of blogging in mainstream news. At the moment, the very word "blogging" stands for a rebel alliance of alternative scribes throwing their opinions against the mass-media walls like half-cooked pasta. But if the news industry has a future, it will have to find a digital-publishing format -- is "blogging" the rough draft? -- that rolls along 24/7 like a wire service, yet is taken seriously when it "breaks" news.

So, has anyone out there seen a religion-news site attached to a mainstream newsroom that is actually "breaking" news? And when news "breaks" there, does it stay broken?

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