Want religion coverage in Winnipeg? Readers need to be prepared to pay for it

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We complain a lot about the dearth of full-time religion writers here in the USA, but our situation is positively lush compared to our neighbor to the north.

Whereas Canadian religion reporters once featured the likes of Tom Harpur, Doug Todd, Bob Harvey., Gordon Legge and Harvey Sheppard, Todd now does religion plus a bunch of other beats. Other professionals have moved on, retired or died.

In the crunch that is today’s print newspaper world, dozens of religion writers have either been laid off or transferred to other beats. A younger generation of reporters, mainly Gen X’ers, never got to work full time because the beat was crashing in major regional newspapers from coast to coast just as they were coming into their prime.

But one newspaper: the Winnipeg Free Press, has a full faith page with local religion news. The reason?

Viewers are paying for it.

I want to draw your attention to a column (in J-source; the online publication for the Canadian Journalism Project) by Free Press religion freelancer John Longhurst, who explained how the Godbeat has appeared in the Winnipeg paper.

(A story about a local Catholic priest) is an example of the new approach the Free Press is taking to religion coverage, in a unique year-long pilot project in partnership with the city’s faith groups.

As editor Paul Samyn put it in a note to readers on March 2 when the project was launched: “Over the past nine months we’ve been on a mission, meeting with various members of the city’s faith groups to gauge their willingness to help fund the journalism we produce. The offer was simple: if you value faith coverage in your newspaper and you want to see more — help us do more.”

The faith community responded, contributing just over $30,000 to fund additional freelance writing by the Free Press’s two regular religion writers, along with other contributors.

“The collection plate that has been passed around has seen donations from all corners of our city’s faith community,” Samyn said, in announcing the result.

The project has similarities to SpokaneFAVs, the faith-and-values website created by Tracy Simmons in 2012 as a place for the religion stories that the Spokesman-Review — the local daily — should have been carrying, but wasn’t.

As is so often the case, SpokaneFAVS had grant money — for its first three years. Since then, Simmons has been trying to get her site into the black. Last week, its supporters celebrated the recent donation of a building for interfaith events.

But Simmons has had to work as a full-time academic to afford keeping her site afloat. Longhurst is her Canadian counterpart and he’s the one who put together an advisory committee to mull over ways to pay for religion news.

Publisher Bob Cox … adding the partnership with the faith community is also a new way to help the Free Press be sustainable.

“All newspapers are looking for different ways to fund journalism as advertising revenues decline,” he said.

“Going directly to groups we cover is new and, as far as I know, unique in Canadian newspapers.” …

“Rather than simply cutting reporting on an area, we feel it is important to talk to the groups and individuals affected to see whether there are alternatives,” he said.

I’ve got to agree this approach is unusual. What pros on other specialty beats have done is get non-profits devoted to investigative reporting to pony up the money for beat coverage. The Center for Investigative Reporting is one. ProPublica is another.

So is Investigate West. This Investigate West story said the site needs people to contribute roughly $5,000 per investigative story.

The really big stuff, that wins awards, costs north of $50,000.

Let me add a personal note here. These organizations choose crime, environmental, social, agricultural, sports and other topics to report on. They all avoid religion coverage. I tried pitching ProPublica at one point to run something on religion. No dice. You’d think, after this past year of one priestly abuse scandal after another rippling through the Catholic Church from the Vatican to Australia, that some news group would see that the hard-news pickings are good, these days.

Nope.

Anyway, once the money came in, the Free Press committed to doubling its religion coverage this past March. The editor announced the increased coverage here along with a recital of who and what some of the city’s religious groups are.

Longhurst wrote to GetReligion to let us know that he and publisher Bob Cox spearheaded the fundraising and some $32,000 from 15 diverse groups came in. The newspaper said that contributions wouldn’t influence the tone of the coverage; that is, if there was a scandal, they’d report on it, even if the subject-group happened to have donated to the religion writer fund.

Each month, there’s 18-22 religion stories scattered about the paper, written by four freelancers although, looking at the page, it’s mainly two writers doing most of the work. You can see the results here. Apparently the Winnipeg paper never has had a dedicated religion reporter, although it has assigned reporters to cover breaking religion news.

The material is not behind the newspaper’s paywall and at the bottom of each is a tagline that notes how the contributions of the city’s faith community made the reporting possible.

Canada’s prairie cities skew more conservative than, say, Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver or Montreal. Would such an experiment have happened in a more liberal city? I’m curious.

It’s frustrating when some beats, such as sports and local politics, are automatically covered in the media — but religion is not. Hopefully, the $32 grand will be enough to fund reporting until the newspaper can get enough journalism grants to keep it going. What would be even better is if enough could be earned to fund a full-time religion beat. Or better still, the Winnipeg paper would decide there’s enough support for a religion beat to use its own money to hire a writer.

One can only dream. Some of us have been dreaming about these issues for a long time.

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