We have had quite a bit of discussion lately on this blog about the decline of traditional "religion pages" in mainstream American newspapers. To follow some of the treads, click here, then here (for Martin Marty quotes) and finally here (for the views of a different Pulliam). Some people believe that religion sections should die out because they think this will represent the end of an era in which religion news is hidden in Saturday ghetto pages instead of being blended, where appropriate, into the entire news operation. There is some truth to this RIP position, of course. How can anyone think that religion news should be locked in a tiny section framed in dull or silly church ads?
Then there are other people -- like me, even way back in 1985 -- who believe that some crucial, complicated forms of religion news will never be able to compete at the city-desk level for declining inches of space in the daily news budget. Thus, I believe that religion-news sections are a crucial place for Godbeat specialists to place stories that need to get into the newspaper, but there is no way to convince a wall of hard-headed assistant city editors that this is the case. Does that make sense?
A third option exists today: Some say that we should put the "inside baseball" religion news online, or in blogs (hello, Dallas), but not in the declining inches of news space in the daily newspaper. That's an exciting option, especially at newspapers that are embracing "push" software that gets breaking news out to the readers who want it.
Thus, the debate continues -- this time in a lengthy feature by reporter Hannah Elliott on the website of the "moderate" Baptist wire service called Associated Baptist Press. The headline clearly embraces the viewpoint of the RIP option: "Not just for Sundays anymore: papers rethink religion section." As always, the symbolic death covered in the lede is in Dallas. This piece also, of course, quotes Marty.
There is this interesting section:
It's a lack of advertising and the perception that religion sections are "fluff" that often make them the first casualties of cutbacks.
Some experts believe the decline in newspaper circulation is directly related to the growth of online editions and blogs. Convenience and the ability to sift news in a topic-specific medium have caused previously devoted print subscribers to substitute the Internet for their daily paper. And when you lose print readers, you lose the seed money that funds special sections.
Brad Owens, a journalism professor at Baylor University, described the current status of print media as in a transition rather than a decline. He teaches students "multiple models" of media in order to help them anticipate how the market for professional journalism will change. Now more than ever, religion tends to be a topic especially covered on the Internet, he said.
"I think religion is a type [of news] where special websites and blogs kind of feed people's interest more than the traditional model of journalism would," Owens said. "People of faith are heavy, heavy users of the Internet."
That's interesting. Of course, it also implies that many religious readers may, in fact, have been driven to the Internet for news because (a) their local newsrooms do little to cover religion news and (b) when they do cover it they mess up.
Then again, these Internet news fans may also be religious people who want to read public relations rather than real news and, thus, they turn to websites that tell them exactly what they want to hear.
However, note the role of advertising in all of this. I have always found it interesting that churches, religious nonprofits, religious-market businesses, restuarants, etc., do not place more ads in mainstream religion pages. Then again, this may also be a Catch-22. Perhaps they know that many of their potential customers -- you got it -- no longer trust their local newspapers. Now, why would that be?
Round and round and round we go ...