The Deseret News' amped-up faith coverage is a year old

A year ago this week, the Deseret News started an online national section with religion news as a major component.

As explained by the Nieman Lab, the national edition was targeting all faiths with the idea that there’s a huge group of believers out there who want some intelligent coverage of their faith.

The News is owned by a subsidiary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and it has long provided in-house news to members via inserts such as The Mormon Times. The Rocky Mountain West is not a huge reservoir of religion news, which is why the work of Utah-based staff both at the Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune provides an oasis.

The News’ national section was a refreshing addition to the news scene, in that many of the newer kids on the block in online religion content are blogs or columns: On Faith, Patheos and BeliefNet are just some of what’s out there in Opinion Land.

This not the first time that a newspaper owned by a church has ventured into such territory. I worked 14 years for The Washington Times, which was founded and owned by corporations affiliated with the Unification Church, and we had a national section that included religion news, although not to the extent that the Deseret News does.

That was when the Times wanted to own the faith and family beat. Nowadays, it’s more focused on politics, leaving a clear path for the Deseret News to take up the baton. The paper re-tooled its mission a few years ago, deciding to focus on the family, faith in the community, excellence in education, values in the media, financial responsibility and care for the poor.

More than a year ago, it hired former Getreligionista Mark Kellner to work for this national edition and write about faith and religious freedom, among other topics.

His most recent pieces include everything from a visiting Catholic archbishop to the complexities of Jewish divorce.

He wrote this on the 70th anniversary of the death of German martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Seven decades after his execution for his role in a plot to assassinate Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer continues to inspire Christians and others around the world with his message of spirituality and faith.
Bonhoeffer, who joined his brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi in a resistance group led by Maj. Gen. Hans Oster, was hanged April 9, 1945, at the Flossenbürg concentration camp, weeks before World War II formally ended. He had been linked to the failed attack on Hitler that took place July 20, 1944, by documents the Gestapo found after the event. Ironically, Bonhoeffer was in prison at the time, following his arrest for "undermining the military" 14 months earlier.
According to the German state broadcasting organization Deutsche Welle, "Bonhoeffer's Christian theology influenced the post-war period like no other of his generation," adding the cleric "preached the presence of Christ in the world and laid the foundations for an interdenominational church image to which today both conservative and progressive theologian profess."

The national section also ran this very decent feature by Kelsey Dallas on Karen Swallow Prior:

Around 25 years ago, Karen Swallow Prior and her husband, Roy, were walking to their car in a Buffalo, New York, drugstore parking lot when they came upon two men in a heated argument.
Drunk and clearly angry, the men were screaming at each other and on the verge of physical violence. Prior, then about 25 years old, felt she had to step in, so she walked up to try to restore peace.
"One of the men was African-American and there were racial slurs involved. I wanted to defuse the situation," she said, laughing at her youthful sense of invincibility.
Roy instinctively pulled her back from the tense scene, and the two headed home. Almost 25 years later, that night still pops into Karen Prior's mind from time to time, reminding her of how the drive to seek justice never really goes away.
"If I see something that's wrong, I want to fix it," said Prior, now 50 and the author of one of 2014's most notable Christian books, "Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More — Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist." As she continues to promote the book through Women's History Month, Prior is making a name for herself as a reformer in her own right.

Since last year, the man who launched the national edition, Clark Gilbert, has been transferred to head BYU/Idaho. It’s not clear whether or if there will be any changes in his absence. I’d like to suggest a few.

First, outside of its own staff, the section’s coverage is tied to whatever Religion News Service offers. RNS provides a valuable service and is unique in its positioning in the news firmament but some of its values may not be what many of the Deseret News readership would align with.

Is the section subscribing to other respected outlets, such as Catholic News Service? Or Baptist Press or Al Jazeera, all of which offer some very respectable religion coverage?

Secondly, if they’re going to provide the full scope of religious experience, let’s amp up the variety of voices. Better still, hire more staff for the section to provide original content.

This not to say Mormon-centric stories cannot be found on the site. Elsewhere in today's paper is this feature on a Mormon ballerina and a piece on a Mormon-missionary-turned-Ms. Virginia.

But the faith page for the national edition doesn't immediately show those stories. I'd suggest this: carry more links, such as one to the PBS show Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, which would provide some much-needed video to the site. There is a column of links, called the Pulse, to other religion sites such the Huffington Post, but that appears on the main page of the national section and not on its faith portal. Change that.

And are the grid or list templates only options for presenting the stories? More creative page design would help here. I’d sure be interested in knowing what the web analytics are for this section and whether it’s getting the hits to make the suits at the Deseret News feel like this has been a good investment.

If a large demographic of Americans are keying in on this content, here’s hoping other newspapers will revive their religion sections as well.

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