Uncertain future for religion reporting in the USA

By Ecumenical News International
April 6, 2009

News coverage of the religious landscape in the United States has in recent years gained visibility because of increased interest in issues related to religion but now faces an uncertain future, given a state of flux in US journalism, say prominent religion journalists - writes Chris Herlinger.

"The religion beat is suffering collateral damage," reporter Michael Paulson, who covers religion for the Boston Globe newspaper, told members of the Religion Communicators' Council (RCC), an interfaith professional association, at its annual meeting, which took place in Boston from 26 to 28 March 2009.

During a panel discussion, Paulson along with Rachel Zoll, who covers religion for the Associated Press news agency, and John Yemma, the editor of the Christian Science Monitor, told of frustrations and discouraging trends ranging from the reduction of staff to all-out elimination of sections devoted to religious reporting in US newspapers.

The journalists noted that The New York Times now has only one reporter covering religion at the national level, instead of two, while the well-respected Dallas Morning News ditched its weekly section on religious news which many observers considered the best in the field.

The problems of religious coverage hinge on what is happening to US journalism as a whole.

Metropolitan areas are losing newspapers which are cutting back on their news coverage because of declining advertising revenues and loss of readers. Many blame what is taking place on the availability of "free news" on the internet.

In recent weeks, the city of Denver, Colorado, saw one of its daily newspapers close completely, while the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in Washington, stopped its print edition.

"There is a crisis in print," said Martha Mann, the president of the Boston chapter of the Religion Communicators' Council.

The story of what has happened to the Christian Science Monitor is another case in point. The journalists' panel took place on the day the Boston-based national newspaper, renowned for its international coverage and dedication to analytical stories, published its last daily print edition.

The newspaper will continue to put out a weekly print edition but move most of its coverage to the Web. Unfortunately, said Yemma, the Monitor's editor, "the traditional newspaper model is untenable."

He noted that his newspaper had 50,000 paid subscribers but 2 million visitors monthly to its Web site, where stories can be read for free.

Asked by an RCC member what council members could do to help journalists, Paulson said, "Buy a copy of the newspaper."

Chris Herlinger, a New York-based correspondent for ENI, is a member of the New York City chapter of the Religion Communicators' Council.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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