Thursday, September 17, 2009

Today's Journalism Pitting Religion Vs. Secular

Religion is Losing

It was said to be the largest gathering ever for a luncheon of the local Religion Communicators Council to meet and hear the new religion writer for the Austin American-Statesman. It also turned out to be a revealing look inside the local newspaper’s newsroom.

Joshunda Sanders took over the religion beat after long time Faith pages writer Eileen Flynn left to take care of her new baby and teach at The University of Texas. Coincidentally, in was the UT-Austin Graduate School that brought Sanders to Austin and the American-Statesman.

More than 30 Central Texans representing several faith traditions and denominations expected to learn Ms. Sanders’ approach to her beat. They got that and more. The attendees got a rare glimpse through the newsroom door.

“It’s rough in there,” Ms. Sanders said. “We’re doing more with less.” Sanders talked about the need to multi-task adding blogging and video to her duties as she attempts to stay up with correspondence and current trends in religion reporting.

“We don’t do to conferences,” she said. Recently, there was a national conference for religion writers. “We can’t let anybody go. We don’t have enough people to do what we are supposed to be doing which is covering Central Texas.” Sanders cited buy-outs and attrition in the reporting ranks over the past year, and she couldn’t rule out more in the future. Meanwhile, there is a hiring freeze at the newspaper, she says.

So, what does this mean to religious communicators? Competition. “Religion is special,” Sanders said, “But it’s [the beat] going away across the country.” Looking through the lens of an editor, can one justify not covering an important story of the day so that the religion writer can work on what might be considered a “feature” piece? Speaking of faith and religion, “It’s significant,” Sanders says, “but people love reading about crime. People love reading about the Longhorns.” So, religion stories must compete for space with all of the other secular stories.

Participants were asked with a show of hands how many were bloggers and how many were using social media? It is a telling and essential question nowadays for folks who want to share the word about their faiths. The traditional media may not have the time, the reporters, or the space. There are days when religion writer Sanders must be a “general assignments” reporter instead.

It should be said that the former religion writer Eileen Flynn also covered general assignments. Some of what may have been her best work were stories written when she rotated into New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Flynn continues to contribute a column to the newspaper’s Faith pages every other week.

So, even by job description, Sanders cannot be not a full-time religion writer. “At least I get to spend half of my time on religion,” She says.

Austin is a long way from the Bronx, New York where she calls home. After a bachelor’s degree from Vassar, she interned and worked for several newspapers nationwide, ending up at the San Francisco Chronicle. There, she began thinking about leaving journalism. She researched library schools and chose The University of Texas at Austin. She refers to her master’s in Information Science as “a back-up plan.”

© Jim McNabb, 2009

*Editor’s note: Not expecting much more than a luncheon, this writer didn’t bring a
camera. So, the picture is from his camera phone.

1 comment:

eflynn said...

Nice post, Jim. I hope the Statesman gives Joshunda all the time she needs to cover religion. Because religion cuts across all beats (including crime and the Longhorns), I think it's important to have someone focusing his or her energy on understanding the role faith plays in our world. Religion reporting involves a lot of feature writing, to be sure, but there are plenty of hard news A1 stories that come from this beat as well. As the Statesman religion writer, I only wrote for the faith page every other week. All my stories appeared on the news pages (Metro or A1). I was fortunate to have editors who saw religion as real news, not fluffy features. Hopefully, the AAS editors will maintain that attitude.

In any case, I'm enjoying watching the fresh perspective Joshunda brings to this beat!