Doomsday is coming to newspapers. That's what I read anyway. When the Dallas Morning News decided to shut down their award-winning religion section last year (year before?), I was extremely disappointed. It was the best religion section of any U.S. paper, including the LA Times, a paper known for their diverse religion coverage. More on religion sections later. The Daily Oklahoman, the conservative dinosaur with questionable coverage of almost anything newsworthy, announced plans recently to trim the size of the paper, not the paper as in newspaper, but paper as in dead trees. It's a cost-cutting measure. Columbia Journalism Review recently reported on the serious decline in newspaper circulations, layoffs of reporters, increasing use of wire services (a move that destroys a paper's local-ness), and reduction of peripheral sections (lifestyle, books, religion, etc.). Newspapers are going the way of the telegram, it seems.
There is a huge problem though. Most people get their news from the web these days, but most web-based news is derived from traditional print and broadcast reporters. That means newspapers, magazines, and television outlets are footing the bill without a "monetized" web solution. Bloggers fill in some of the gaps, but most bloggers, myself included, respond to something printed or broadcast somewhere else. I do religion reporting as well, but I tend not to blog about stories, as I've learned the financial way that apparent bias on a blog can mean no story later. The question CJR is asking, as well as editors around the country, is how are we going to get actual news if there is no money to pay actual reporters and journalists? A great question. One I've been thinking about for quite some time. In fact, a young lady told me recently that she's going to Oklahoma State this semester, but she is torn between journalism and English. I recommended English, since there will be a job for her four years from now. That's the larger problem, and I'd be curious to hear what you have to say about possible solutions.
Religion reporting is a smaller problem and is suffering due to the crisis at papers. On this one though, I'm pretty sure editors and reporters share some responsibility for why religion sheets are being eliminated. Religion news sucks, with a few notable exceptions: Orlando Sentinel, LA Times, Dallas Morning News, WSJ, Christian Science Monitor, and the Oklahoma Gazette. Yes, the Oklahoma Gazette. I write 20-25 religions stories a year for the Gazette. Occasionally, other freelancers will write a religion piece for them. It's a weekly, so do the math. How many religion stories would have to appear in a daily to equal that percentage, assuming an average of five news stories a week for the weekly (the other material in a weekly is usually editorial and lifestyle coverage)?
Diagnosing the problem is difficult, so let me make some observations in order of importance, I think:
- Most reporters don't know enough about their own religion, if they have one, to write intelligently about it. Now throw them into a story about Jainism or Wicca and watch them try to understand the vocabulary and basic concepts. People with degrees in journalism tend to know a lot about journalism, a little about their own faith, and nothing about other faiths. Think America post-9/11 when we were trying to understand Shia and Sunni and Wahhabi.
- Editors don't often know what to do with religion stories because they've been given the task of assigning a reporter to explain something in 500 or 750 words, but the background information necessary to make sense of the context is not present in the audience. A reporter doesn't have to say, "Barrack Obama is a bi-racial senator from Illinois running for President..." every time she writes a piece about Obama. The background information of Democrat, Republican, Senator, President, race relations, etc., are all present to greater or lesser degrees in the audience. To do a story about Buddhism, the audience may need to understand karma, samsara, meditation, eight-fold path, four jewels, etc. That works well in SE Asia, not SE Oklahoma.
- Religion sheets are tied to advertising budgets. It's a fact. Sorry. The Oklahoman just shut down a weekly one-sheeter that had run on the back of the food section for at least five years. It just so happens that one of our local ken and barbie megachurches took out a fifth-page ad every week. They must have stopped because the page went away.
- Religion news has been too preoccupied with PR for churches and saviors. Positive news is good. I believe that. But I also don't care that First Old Person Church is celebrating their 125th anniversary, nor do I care that First Shitty Music Church has a new organ. Religion reporting requires a certain amount of cyncism to be good. Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, even Urantians, are all capable of lying, and the tendency to lie and obfuscate increases as the responsibility in the faith community or hierarchy increases. But it also requires a certain amount of respect for differences. We have a reporter here in OKC that seems to think her sole responsibility is to ensure that Jesus gets more ink that Buddha. Fine, and you can make an argument that we're about fifty percent "Christian" around here, but there should be some correspondence between percentage of audience and percentage of coverage: 98 to 2 is not cutting it.
- Religion reporting requires that editor, reporter, and audience understand why the story is important. How is it that our Presidential candidates are forced to answer inane questions about what Jesus means to them but we can't figure out how to make religion reporting relevant? Can't explain its impact? It's possible that all forms of religion have become so privatized, except for the civil variety that we trot out every 4th of July and every election cycle, that we are incapable of understanding how religion becomes news because we no longer believe religion motivates anyone to do anything but pick a political side. This is obvious when we read otherwise excellent magazines like The New Yorker or Atlantic and see caricatures of Christians we know. The media is guilty of elevating spokespersons to that status because they say stupid or inflammatory shit. That doesn't mean they speak for all people in the community of faith, but people in the community of faith have to help editors understand why religion reporting is important. Right now, I'm pretty sure that neither editors nor practitioners think it is.