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Politics & Society

The Religion Beat: Pushed Out of the Pew?

As shrinking traditional media abandon the dedicated religion beat, blogs and specialty publications are picking up the slack

Email icon  elissa.lerner@nyu.edu

The 500-year love affair between religion and the printing press seems to be ending.

In the 1450s, the printing press escorted religion down the aisle of the public sphere, and never looked back. From the first printed Bible, religion and the press enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship in the West – generating and framing endless stories. But with the economic downturn and the vast expansion of the Internet, their relationship has become, well, complicated.

The New York Times cut one of its two national religion reporters. The Dallas Morning News, a 10-time winner of a best religion section award, eliminated the whole section. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution embedded the religion beat in its feature pages, and The Christian Science Monitor abandoned its daily print edition in favor of online. Similar cuts have been seen abroad: for example, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation removed “The Religion Report” from its tax-funded Radio National.

“The industry meltdown has been especially unkind to the religion beat, forcing some long-time colleagues and friends to leave the business—often not by choice,” wrote former Religion Newswriters Association President Kevin Eckstrom.

One problem, Newsweek religion editor and columnist Lisa Miller said, is that religion is “seen as extra.” Although this perception changed drastically after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the failure of the print advertising business model has forced newspapers to wrap religion coverage into other beats, or to drop it altogether.

“It’s terrible,” Miller said. She equates religion with the other “major forces” in the world – economy, history, and politics.

Yet interest in religion stories has exploded since 9/11. Denominational and digital publications are picking up the coverage mainstream media is leaving behind.

Secular publications can be skittish about covering religion, said Gary Rosenblatt, editor in chief of The Jewish Week. When the number of religion stories in mainstream sources shrink to the marginal, “the Jewish community complains about what counts – like it’s exotica,” Rosenblatt explained. He finds that the average Jewish reader will read a story about Judaism in The New York Times, and follow the same story in The Jewish Week.

“The approach is different,” he said. The Jewish Week can cover pertinent issues in greater detail, and there is some inherent trust that a religious publication goes “a little deeper” or “casts a softer light on whatever it is.”

However, The Jewish Week also feels the sting of the rise of online outlets. While the majority of subscribers are over 45 and still prefer the feeling of paper to a computer mouse, Rosenblatt acknowledged the need to expand and update the newspaper’s website. At 62, he compares the birth of the Internet with the introduction of television in the 1940’s. “It was the new kid on the block,” he said. “You couldn’t make money on it yet, but you couldn’t go backwards.”

Enter the religion blog. Many influential sites are popping up. Nicole Greenfield, editor-in-chief of TheRevealer.org, thinks the role of religion blogs and sites will continue to expand, as the people “become increasingly more interested in informed discussion of religion” and “seek more of an ‘expert’ voice.”

Those interviewed for this story stressed the importance of expertise in religion reporting; today, stories increasingly fall to unspecialized reporters.

“Religion needs translators – mediators – who can be compassionate but skeptical,” Miller said. Even in denominational reporting, Rosenblatt agreed, “a lot of people in Jewish journalism are not necessarily steeped in Jewish knowledge.” As readers learn more and grow more visible, via commentary on online forums and e-mail, there is a growing tension between the stories reporters want to cover and the stories people want to read.

At The Jewish Week, one hears complaints of “washing dirty linen in public.” For Rosenblatt, “the first rule of journalism is to shed light and expose things. But the implicit first commandment for the Jewish community is the opposite.” The readers want positive stories and a united front. Rosenblatt has a clear idea of the future of the major stories for his paper: increases in intermarriage and decreases in young Jewish organizational involvement. These are not pleasant issues, he said, but they need to be addressed.

Miller took a stronger stance on incorporating user feedback.

“Basing stories on Internet matrices is a dangerous game,” she said. She, too, knows what her next major stories will be. She pointed to the “shifts and rifts” in global Catholicism and Pentecostalism, the relations between Islam and Christianity in Africa and South America, “social justice Christianity” in the United States and its popularity among college students, alongside secularism, and her most important story, “The Nones.” This refers to the results of the 2008 Pew Report on the U.S. Religious Landscape, in which an increasing number of people are not affiliating with any religion. “What are they?” Miller wanted to know. “They’re not nothing.”

But everyone agreed that, as long as there is print media, there must be room for religion reporting – and that print and online coverage will likely find ways to coexist.

At The Jewish Week.

Photo by Elissa Lerner

Far fewer print publications are keeping dedicated religion reporters on the payroll.

Photo by Jose Warletta