In the past year, financial challenges have prompted cutbacks in religion coverage in newspapers.
The Dallas Morning News eliminated its religion section in early January. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution folded its Faith and Values section into the Living pages. The Wichita Eagle plans to cut its religion editor position, and other newspapers are removing their religion beats.
"In a time of flat revenues, we simply could not generate the advertising to break even on the section," said Bob Mong, editor of The Dallas Morning News. "I don't think any paper in the country tried harder than we did over the years."
Mong helped develop the religion section in 1994, but sees more potential now for online reporting in blogs and newsletters. The Dallas Morning News website has seen more page hits on its religion blog than it did for its religion section online, he said.
"I like the idea of a section. I obviously believed in the section approach to give the subject more visibility," Mong said. "It had a very strong and loyal readership, but there came a time when we simply had to make some difficult choices."
The media industry posted nearly twice as many job losses in 2006 as in 2005, according to the outplacement company Challenger, Gray, and Christmas.
"Unfortunately, with a lot of the cutbacks in newspapers right now, the religion beat is seen as expendable," said Charles Overby, who heads the Freedom Forum. "Eliminating religion reporters is, at best, an economic advantage that could cause longer term problems."
Overby, a former newspaper editor and part of USA Today's management, said he has seen religion coverage improve over the past five years and hopes the trend will continue.
"The tendency of newspapers is to look at the quirky aspects of religion. The truth is many readers are just looking for mainstream coverage," Overby said. "That's not church bulletin coverage, but it is recognizing that faith is an important part in many lives."
Advocates for religion sections have argued that separate pages put religion on par with sports, business, and entertainment. But eliminating religion sections could actually improve religion coverage, according to some journalists.
"I'm never very excited about the way daily newspapers have covered religion," said Doug Underwood, author of From Yahweh to Yahoo!: The Religious Roots of the Secular Press. "To really do a good job of this, you need to integrate religion coverage and put it in the rest of the coverage; take it out of the Saturday page ghetto."
Since the election of President Bush and the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, elite magazines such as Harper's and The New Yorker have expanded their religion reporting. In 2005, a committee devoted to bolstering The New York Times's credibility recommended expanding religion coverage.
"Usually we see increases in religion news when it's connected to political power," said Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association. "It served as a wake-up call for these publications."
Fox News added its first religion correspondent in January, and CNN hired a faith and values correspondent in 2005.
"I'm not necessarily discouraged when I hear some of these trends are affecting how religion appears in newspapers," Mason said. "Newspapers are in the midst of the most radical transformation they've faced in recent history, and religion is caught in the middle, just like other beats."
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Several blogs, including Dallas News Religion, Get Religion, EPA Blog, Confessions of a Recovering Pharisee, Unfair Park: The Dallas Observer Blog, and, of course, CT Weblog have covered the Dallas Morning News's dispersal of religion coverage.
The Austin Chronicle discusses the state of religion news coverage and the launch of its own Faith section.
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