10 years of GetReligion: State of the Godbeat 2014

By Julia Duin

Ever since the Washington Post dumped its massive On Faith blog, there’s been more chatter about where the religion beat is headed these days. True, On Faith has found a new -- and more attractively designed -- home, but has anyone else noticed the Post spinning off other specialty blogs to new homes?

I sure haven't.

In late 2004, when I did an assessment for Poynter.org -- "Help Wanted on the Religion Beat" -- I mourned how major papers were increasingly hiring inexperienced journalists to cover religion news.

A decade later, it’s a big deal if anyone -- experienced or not -- is hired to a full-time job covering religion.

Journalism has seen a sea change in the past decade-plus due to the Internet taking over how news is produced, distributed and funded. Every beat is feeling the pain, as reporters in all specialties -- and above a certain age -- are losing their jobs. Whole newspapers have gone online only, or cut back to only a few days a week. Not only have religion beat reporters been shed like autumn leaves, all sections of the typical newsroom have been hit with layoffs and buyouts, including one Chicago newspaper that ditched its entire photo staff in one swoop.

Looking back, perhaps the worst cut of all was the closing of the six-page Saturday religion section at The Dallas Morning News, which had been rated as the country’s best for years. That was nixed in 2007 and its writers reassigned to other beats. At its peak, this section had four full-time religion reporters plus an editor, assistant editor, copy editor and a page designer. By the end of 2009, not one of these people remained. Word on the street was that the section wasn’t selling enough ads to pay for itself.

Happily for beat reporters, the electrifying papacy of Pope Francis has made the beat sexy again for the multitudes. When you see Francis’ image on the front covers of The New Yorker, Time magazine and The Advocate all in the same month -- and in Rolling Stone a month later -- know that lesser publications all want Francis-related stories and just might hire the right journalists to produce them.

Witness the Boston Globe’s recent surprise hire of John Allen to head up its new Catholic section. Also promising is the decision at The New York Times to move Michael Paulson -- a former Globe reporter with oodles of knowledge on the Catholic beat who had been the politics and religion editor for the Times metro section -- to national religion reporter status.

Further down the line, in terms of market size, results have been mixed. As of late last summer, some of the religion beat’s most experienced hands decided it was time to move on -- marked by flurries of black flags at GetReligion. These were accomplished veterans who have years of institutional knowledge and contacts in the beat. Some had major questions about whether their jobs would still be there a year from now and wanted to control their exit rather than having someone else hand them the pink slip.

A few were replaced with experienced religion writers. One is Peter Smith, who left his post at the Louisville Courier-Journal for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which has a tradition of solid religion reporting thanks to long-time scribe Ann Rodgers. Mark Kellner, news editor at The Adventist Review and freelance religion columnist at The Washington Times, started reporting this month on religion full-time for The Deseret News. And The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wasted little time in filling the shoes of departing writer Tim Townsend with that of Lilly Fowler, a writer for a Los Angeles-based nonprofit who has an master's degree in religion and has freelanced for Religion News Service (RNS). The Minneapolis Star-Tribune has replaced its departing religion writer with Jean Hopfensperger, their philanthropy/non-profits reporter.

And a year ago this month, The Orange County Register hired Cathleen Falsani, who made her mark at The Chicago Sun-Times for her knack at interviewing celebrities from Bono to Barack Obama to Melissa Etheridge about their beliefs. She was brought on as a full-time faith and values columnist, only to be laid off Jan. 16 when the Register axed several dozen reporters.

Religion-beat jobs are either vacant or dead at The Nashville Tennessean, the Oregonian, the Washington Times (which laid me off in 2010 and has yet to find a replacement) and many other newspapers such as The Sun-Sentinel in Ft. Lauderdale, the New Orleans Times-Picayune and USA Today. The Seattle Times re-assigned its religion reporter, Janet Tu, to the Microsoft beat. With few exceptions, their replacements have been either no one or overworked GAs who produce uninformed and simplistic coverage.

One of the most egregious examples of leaving a crucial desk vacant is my old stomping grounds (back in the 1980s) at The Houston Chronicle, a Bible Belt city that has only just replaced its last religion reporter, Kate Shellnutt. In 2012, she left a cadre of outside bloggers to take her place. These days, Allan Turner -- who has been at the Chronicle since 1985 -- tells me that he is covering religion, along with some other beats. That’s 180 degrees from the days when the Chronicle employed two full-time religion news writers.

The major television networks still have no full-time religion reporters, with the exception of Lauren Green at Fox News. Religion & Ethics Newsweekly has been faithfully doing important work for PBS for 17 years, but that program remains dependent on major funding from the Lilly Endowment and a few smaller grants.

Cutbacks in newspaper staffs have been a boon for RNS, which has become a major player in the secular media.

Its stories are picked up by newspapers that need something fill the space once filled by the work of a staff religion writer. Under the leadership of Kevin Eckstrom, RNS is breaking more stories than ever, has brought on some good bloggers and made a few solid hires, the latest being Cathy Grossman, lately of USA Today. They pay freelancers $300 an article, which is actually considered good pay these days. Yet another sign of the times.

Things weren’t looking as rosy a few years ago when the wire service lost 25-30 percent of its daily newspaper subscribers and had to reduce staff. With the help of a $3.5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, it became an affiliated non-profit of the Religion News LLC (a parent company of the Religion Newswriters Association) in 2011, which gave it the money and time it needed to expand.

The Lilly grant also helped fund several daughter religion sites in cities and states in which the religion-beat is dead. The long-term plan is to have 20 of these Patch-like sites. Currently there are five in Columbia, Mo; Hartford, Conn., Toledo, Ohio; Spokane, Wash., and Wilmington, N.C., all under the name of FAVS (for Faith And Values) Click here for more information. However, these writers also have to raise funds, sell ads and sponsor local events. The idea is to have them become self-sustaining, but none are at that point yet. Still, they have provided a very decent alternative in smaller cities that otherwise would have no one covering religion news.

The writers who remain on the beat are having to appeal to as wide an audience as possible because of the trend in people subscribing only to Internet feeds that interest them.

Thus, specialists have had to get current with the fast-growing ranks of the "nones," which, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, are an estimated 19.6 percent of the American population. Their numbers have ballooned in recent years, as have the numbers of outspoken atheists, creating an interesting conundrum for religion-news specialists because coverage of the non- or anti-religious gets tossed in the lap of the religion reporter. On one level that's logical, but, still, stop and think about that for a minute. How many stories do sports writers produce about people who hate sports? Do fashion writers cover those who hate fashion?

The religion beat has always been a catch-all, as writers are often expected to cover culture wars issues such abortion, euthanasia and bio-ethics. These topics are very tough to write about, which is why decent religion/ethics reporters should be worth their weight in gold.

Instead, many newspapers have let the beat fall by the wayside, allowing some interesting new kids on the block have sprung up, all of them multi-religious, non-sectarian sites. One is “A Journey Through New York Religions,” a site headed by Christianity Today senior writer Tony Carnes that aims to map, photograph and profile every religious site on New York’s 6,375 miles of streets. New York is “post secular,” the site proclaims, meaning the religious faith is more alive than ever in the city’s boroughs. The site had 11.5 million viewers as of the end of 2013.

Then there are the multi-religious sites like Beliefnet.com, which was founded in 1999 by Steven Waldman and Robert Nylen. It had several years of soaring popularity until it went bankrupt in 2002. It recovered, then went through a few ownership changes and has never recovered. Much of the talent went to the newer Patheos.com, founded in 2008 out of Denver, which took a more scholarly approach to explaining religions. It’s holding its own, executive editor David Charles told me in January, and he hopes it will start turning a profit soon.

The largest of all is HuffPost Religion, which lured Jaweed Kaleem from the Miami Herald in May 2011. The opinion-and-news site has one reporter, two editors and a "fellow" who has intern-like duties. Senior religion editor Paul Raushenbush was an ordained American Baptist minister who’d been an editor at Belief.net. His job came about when he emailed HuffPost founder Arianna Huffington, suggesting her new web site include a religion page. The Huffington Post puts out an enormous amount of articles, tweets and links on everything from Pete Seeger’s most spiritual moments to Muslim girl superheroes. But this company still doesn't pay its bloggers. And then there is the news vs. advocacy issue. The bottom line, more and more often: Opinion is cheap and reporting is expensive.

Of course, there are markets for articles about religion on various other blogs in this online age. But CNN’s Belief Blog, founded in 2010, which has two editors and draws a lot of its news from CNN staff around the world, only pays $100 per post. (In this case, a "post" is not just a quickie blog entry, but a multi-source 800-word story.) Why the religion blog has been assigned such a small freelance budget is a mystery, as CNN’s education blog pays three times that amount for freelance work.

Other specialties, such as investigative reporting, have gotten a better leg up from private foundations in the growing world of non-profit news. Jack Shafer’s piece on the "new Medicis" who are funding non-profit journalism didn’t mention any benefactors backing religion news. It’s nearly impossible to find a secular group willing to pay big bucks to investigate religion even though those of us on the beat know there’s plenty of dirt out there along with religion angles to local, regional, national and global news.

The bottom line, as I have experienced it: A gig economy isn’t an option for people who need to bring in more than 25K a year, which is about what a year of full-time religion freelancing will net.

There are secular markets that pay at least $1 a word and will buy an occasional religion piece, such as The Washington Post Sunday Magazine and the Style section, to which I sold 13 stories, most of them 1,750-3,000 words, over a two-year period. New owner Jeff Bezos is on record saying that he wants to expand the magazine, so there may be more freelance opportunities there. I’ve also sold one piece (about female Catholic priests) to More magazine, a high-circulation glossy for 40+ women and am working on a second assignment. I have also done some religion news blogging for The Wall Street Journal (as recently as this week). Former San Francisco Chronicle writer Don Lattin has gone the diversity route by writing for Wired magazine’s Hotwired website. In other words, there are non-traditional markets out there.

For now, religion reporting is growing on blogs and specialist sites where the reporter can cultivate a personal brand that’s immediate, participatory and heavily interactive. Think sites such as the Wartburg Watch that’s run by two women that aren’t reporters, but which comes up with a lot of good material on abuse in the evangelical Christian world.

Currently, it’s impossible to make a freelance living working for these kinds of sites. The hope is that this too will change with the journalistic times.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article includes some additional information added since it was first posted, in part based on helpful emails from readers. We appreciate and encourage these kinds of contacts!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Julia Duin, formerly religion editor of The Washington Times, is earning her master's degree in journalism at the University of Memphis. She also has a Master of Arts (Religion) from the Trinity School for Ministry, an Anglican/Episcopal seminary in Ambridge. Pa.

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