Business

Time for a solid update on the changing realities in U.S. evangelicals' retail business

Time for a solid update on the changing realities in U.S. evangelicals' retail business

Hammered by superstore chains and then the online omnipresence of Amazon, America’s bookstores are struggling.

Thus there was more sorrow than  shock when the Southern Baptist Convention’s LifeWay Christian Resources announced on March 20 it will close down its chain of 170 brick-and-mortar stores, which sell books, Bibles, curriculum and a variety of other religious products.

Baptist Press reported the gap between LifeWay stores; sales and operating expenses grew from a manageable $2.3 million in 2010 to $35.5 million by 2017. That year, LifeWay’s chief rival, Family Christian Resources, shut all of its 240 retail locations, following the 2013 demise of the United Methodist Church’s 38 Cokesbury stores.

The Baptist collapse raises two themes for solid stories, the limits on what products religious stores should be selling, and the ongoing disruption as U.S. religious retail, dominated by evangelical Protestants, shifts toward online and phone-ordering operations. As a company, LifeWay will continue alongside the likes of family-owned Christian Book Distributors.  There will be ever fewer independent stores surviving to serve as local ministry and fellowship centers. 

 On the first theme, officially Christian stores obviously are not going to sell lottery tickets, randy novels and movies, pop music that degrades women, or books that deviate from their faith’s doctrines. The Baptists’ no-no’s include the prosperity gospel and  accounts of purported visits to heaven. Some respondents danced on LifeWay’s grave over the way its policies reflected the Southern Baptists’ narrowing definition of doctrinal fidelity.

The most-discussed example occurred in 2012 when LifeWay refused to sell “A Year of Biblical Womanhood,” a slightly sassy book on the gender wars by well-known author Rachel Held Evans,  published by Thomas Nelson, an evangelical subsidiary of HarperCollins that’s based in Nashville, the same city as LifeWay.  

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What's up with Chick-fil-A bans at two airports? Reporters need to ask more questions

What's up with Chick-fil-A bans at two airports? Reporters need to ask more questions

The popular fast-food franchise Chick- fil-A has been getting a bad rap lately, ranging from being cut out of food options at a New Jersey university to the latest insult: Being dumped from a list of concessions for Buffalo (N.Y.) and San Antonio (Texas) airports.

That’s right — in Texas, even.

These decisions have garnered react from evangelist Franklin Graham to the governor of Texas. The Buffalo decision was the most recent. According to USA Today:

The Chick-Fil-A fast-food chain has been disinvited from opening a location at the Buffalo airport, its second local snafu in two weeks.

The decision was due to the company's "long history of supporting and funding anti-LGBTQ organizations," according to New York State Assemblyman Sean Ryan, who had fought having Chick-Fil-A at the airport…

According to advocacy group Think Progress, the chain gave $1.8 million to what it calls "discriminatory groups" in 2017, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Paul Anderson Youth Home, and the Salvation Army, which it says "spread an anti-LGBTQ message," and teach that homosexuality is a sin.

Yes, the Salvation Army.

Here’s my first problem with that story.

ThinkProgress isn’t just a simple “advocacy group.” It’s a très left advocacy website, so let’s be a bit more forthcoming with the descriptors, folks. And if you’ve ever lived in the South (which I did for two years, recently), you would know that Chick-fil-A has cult-like status in those parts, which is why the San Antonio airport’s decision has raised hackles, to say the least. Unlike Buffalo, the airport isn’t getting away with this decision without a fight.

We’ll start with the Associated Press’ take on it all:

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas’ attorney general opened an investigation Thursday into San Antonio’s decision to exclude Chick-fil-A from opening airport concession facilities due to the fast-food chain owners’ record on LGBT issues.

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Fish sandwiches equal Lent: Maybe there's a religion hook in this meatless burger trend?

Fish sandwiches equal Lent: Maybe there's a religion hook in this meatless burger trend?

First, a confession: Which is a good thing during Great Lent.

I totally admit that the following headline caught my eye because, as Eastern Orthodox folks, my family is currently in the middle of the great pre-Pascha (Easter in the West) in which we strive to fast from meat and dairy. It’s a season in which the Orthodox have been known to debate the merits of various tofu brands and ponder the miracle that is apple butter.

Every now and then, people like me end up traveling — which means looking for Lenten options in the rushed, fallen world of fast food. Thus, you can understand why I noticed this headline in the business section of The New York Times: “Behold the Beefless ‘Impossible Whopper’.” Here’s the overture:

OAKLAND, Calif. — Would you like that Whopper with or without beef?

This week, Burger King is introducing a version of its iconic Whopper sandwich filled with a vegetarian patty from the start-up Impossible Foods. The Impossible Whopper, as it will be known, is the biggest validation — and expansion opportunity — for a young industry that is looking to mimic and replace meat with plant-based alternatives.

Impossible Foods and its competitors in Silicon Valley have already had some mainstream success. The vegetarian burger made by Beyond Meat has been available at over a thousand Carl’s Jr. restaurants since January and the company is now moving toward an initial public offering.

As I dug into this story, I had this thought: I realize that there is a religion angle here for strange people like me. But would the Times team include any kind of reference to the other religion angles linked to lots of other people who avoid beef?

Obviously, there are millions of Hindus in America and many of them avoid beef, for religious reasons. Then there are Buddhists who are vegetarians or vegans. Among Christian flocks, many Seventh-day Adventists strive to be vegetarians.

Then there is the Lent thing. Is there a religion angle to several fast-food empires — even Chick-fil-A, for heaven’s sake — emphasizing fish sandwiches during this Christian penitential season? #DUH

So I wasn’t looking for lots of religion-beat style content in this story. But maybe a paragraph noting the increasingly complex religious landscape in the American food marketplace?

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Religious freedom vs. gay rights: Debate is back in Georgia, and so are the scare quotes

Religious freedom vs. gay rights: Debate is back in Georgia, and so are the scare quotes

Georgia’s legislative fights over gay rights vs. religious freedom have made headlines before.

In fact, I wrote a 2016 post headlined “Down in Georgia, here's what the news media's love of 'religious liberty' scare quotes tells you.”

I noted then that most major media insisted on scare quotes around "religious liberty" or "religious freedom.”

By the way, Dictionary.com defines scare quotes this way:

A pair of quotation marks used around a term or phrase to indicate that the writer does not think it is being used appropriately or that the writer is using it in a specialized sense.

Fast-forward to present day, and a similar bill is making news again in Atlanta. The differing treatments of that bill by The Associated Press and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution are interesting.

On the one hand, scare quotes still seem to be in vogue at AP, which has this headline:

'Religious liberties' bill renews a recurring Georgia debate

AP’s lede also relies on scare quotes:

ATLANTA (AP) — A ‘religious liberties’ bill that aims to add greater protections for personal beliefs has renewed a recurring debate in Georgia about discrimination and religious freedom.

Republican state Sen. Marty Harbin of Tyrone said Thursday his proposal was drafted to mirror the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, passed by Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

“I believe that Georgians need to be fully protected under the First Amendment from not only federal law, but also state and local law,” Harbin said at a news conference.

But critics say the bill would allow discrimination against the LGBT community.

Republican Gov. Brian Kemp pledged during his election campaign last year to sign “nothing more, nothing less” than a mirror image of the federal law. His predecessor, GOP Gov. Nathan Deal, vetoed a similar bill passed by lawmakers three years ago amid threats by major companies to boycott Georgia if the measure became law.

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Friday Five: Godbeat trend, United Methodist future, Wheaton 'proof texts,' targeting atheists

Friday Five: Godbeat trend, United Methodist future, Wheaton 'proof texts,' targeting atheists

In a post this week about religion writer Tim Funk retiring from the Charlotte Observer, I asked about the status of religion reporting at the nation’s regional newspapers.

I mentioned a few metro dailies — the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Peter Smith), The Tennessean (Holly Meyer) and The Oklahoman (Carla Hinton) among them — that still rock the Godbeat.

But I asked readers to help me compile a list of all the big papers with full-time religion writers. Got a name to add to the list? By all means, comment below or tweet us @GetReligion.

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Did you hear that the United Methodist Church had a high-stakes meeting in St. Louis, the latest battle in decades of warfare over marriage, sex and the Bible? LGBTQ issues are at the heart of this drama, as always (it seems).

Of course you heard about that and here are some of our posts from that major shindig:

Next big news story: After 40 years of war, is United Methodist establishment ready to bargain?

Big United Methodist questions: Has left embraced 'exit' plans? Do 'coexist' clauses work?

Yes, the United Methodist Church's big meeting in St. Louis is national news, but it's something else, too

Out of all the news coverage that I read, my favorite piece was this one by The Atlantic’s excellent Emma Green. Got a different nominee? Share a link below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

Nostalgia for a journalistic golden age has gushed forth from an HBO documentary about New York City tabloid columnists Pete Hamill and the late Jimmy Breslin, combined with simultaneous obituaries about the era’s wry counterpart at The New York Times, Russell Baker.

It’s a pleasant distraction from current realities.

Pew Research data documents the “hollowing out” of the nation’s newsrooms, as lamented in the Memo last Nov. 15. Further developments require The Religion Guy to revisit the struggles in the news business.

Why? Let me state this sad reality once again: When times are tough, specialized beats like religion get hit first, and worst.

In just the past two weeks, a couple thousand media workers lost their jobs. The ubiquitous Gannett, known for eyeing the bottom line, enacted its latest round of layoffs even while facing a takeover threat from a colder-eyed print piranha. Particularly unnerving are the drawdowns at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Vice and Yahoo, because online operations were supposed to make enough money to offset jobs lost at declining “dead tree” newspapers and magazines.

As Farhad Manjoo commented in a New York Times column (“Why the Latest Layoffs Are Devastating to Democracy”), there’s a “market pathology” at work. Digital advertising is simply unable to fund hardly anything except “monopolistic tech giants.” And those big players are “dumping the news” in favor of easier ways to make money. Results: “slow-motion doom” and “a democratic emergency in the making, with no end in sight.”

All this occurs as a U.S. President emits unprecedented public hate toward reporters, with Main Stream Media outlets then taking the bait to become ever more hostile and partisan, thus sullying their stature.

On the MSM facts front, don’t miss Glenn Greenwald’s list of the “10 Worst, Most Embarrassing” blunders regarding Donald Trump and Russia. And my goodness did you see those lapses about First Lady Melania in the respected London Telegraph?!

Now along come two important insider accounts of what’s been going on across the industry: “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now” (Farrar, Straus) by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of Britain’s The Guardian, and “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts” (Simon & Schuster) by Jill Abramson, former Washington bureau chief and executive editor of the Times. Note that both of their dailies have fared relatively well in online competition.

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High Country News mourns growth of 'news deserts,' or how the West was lost

High Country News mourns growth of 'news deserts,' or how the West was lost

At the end of 2018, High Country News, a magazine centering on issues concerning the Mountain West, ran a full issue of pieces on the media scene in the Rocky Mountain and Pacific time zones. Large cities like Denver, Seattle and San Francisco will always have lots of investors, journalists, donors and audiences to support new media startups, it said, but not so much for the empty spaces in between.

One piece showed the “news deserts” of the West; that is whole chunks of states (think central Oregon and eastern Montana) with at best one newspaper. Forty-six counties in 11 western states now lack a local newspaper. My old haunt –- New Mexico -– lost two weeklies and three dailies and saw total news circulation drop 30 percent from 510,000 to 350,000.

Let’s state the obvious: Red ink in many zip codes has all but killed religion-news coverage. Now, we are seeing the growth of “deserts” in which there are no newspapers — period.

Look at the county map of the United States in the above photo. The red splotches outline 171 counties with no newspaper. The beige shows up the 1,449 counties with only one newspaper; most often a weekly.

Nevada’s news industry is probably the healthiest. Weekly newspapers lost 180,000 readers but dailies gained 140,000. All this came from “The Expanding News Desert,” a report from the Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media at the University of North Carolina’s School of Media and Journalism. This has been covered elsewhere, but HCN put together a large packet on western media in particular. It said::

In Idaho, weeklies in neighboring counties provide some local coverage, but the hometown, county-seat paper has vanished from the fast-growing state’s rural areas. Meanwhile, many Western counties are at risk of losing their only remaining newspapers. The report identifies 185 such single-newspaper counties in the 13 Pacific and Rocky Mountain states — 34 of them in Montana alone…

Still, Denver and Seattle (and Tucson, to a lesser extent) have potentially high numbers of investors, donors, journalists and audiences to support new media startups. The West’s small towns and rural areas lack that advantage. Instead, these communities risk losing critical information when a newspaper closes or merges with a neighboring county’s publication. Few entrepreneurs or startup editors see their future in the Western news deserts.

So, let’s return to the religion angle. The moment a newspaper starts to lose steam (revenue, reporters), it begins to cut specialty beats. Religion is one of the first to go, which is what happened at the Seattle Times after it reassigned its former religion writer Janet Tu to the Microsoft beat. And once Melissa Binder left Oregonian’s religion beat to pursue other interests, she was not replaced. Despite how faith often flourishes quite well in rural areas, it’s at the back of the pack in terms of incisive religion pieces.

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A GetReligionista looks back on some of his — and his colleagues' — most-clicked posts of 2018

A GetReligionista looks back on some of his — and his colleagues' — most-clicked posts of 2018

I write more than 200 posts a year for GetReligion.

My pieces range from our bread-and-butter critiques of mainstream news media coverage of religion to our weekly Friday Five columns highlighting each week’s major (or just plain quirky) developments on the Godbeat.

At the end of each year, I’m always curious to see which posts caught the attention of the most readers.

What makes a GetReligion post go viral? In 2017, key ingredients included Joel Osteen, same-sex wedding cakes and the Mark of the Beast. The previous year — 2016 — Donald Trump’s “Two Corinthians,” Merle Haggard’s Church of Christ mama and a rare opening of a Chick-fil-A on Sunday were in the mix.

2018? Well, let’s check out the top five posts for GetReligionista Julia Duin, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly and myself.

We’ll start with Julia, for reasons that will become obvious:

5. How journalists can nail down the rest of the Cardinal McCarrick story – for good

4. Cardinal Ted McCarrick, Part II: The New York Times takes a stab at this old story

3. Catholic News Agency pulls off investigative coup in the 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick saga

2. Another #ChurchToo: The Chicago Tribune investigates Bill Hybels in 6,000 words

1. The scandal of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and why no major media outed him

See any common thread there? That’s right — McCarrick and the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal were huge news and big traffic drivers to GetReligion in 2018, as was the related #ChurchToo news that also made headlines.

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