St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend is leaving the paper for the Pew Research Center. He’s the third religion reporter at a daily to leave in recent weeks: Ann Rodgers is leaving the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette to become the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh’s communications director, and Tennessean religion reporter Bob Smietana is heading to Christian publisher Lifeway.
“In journalism, we all know that three examples make a trend,” Bobby Ross Jr. writes, wondering “why no one wants to cover the religion beat anymore.” That may be overstating the case a bit, he allows.
Last fall, Pew reported that nearly 20 percent of Americans said they were unaffiliated with any religion. At the time, Huffington Post religion reporter Jaweed Kaleem told Poynter that stat didn’t mean his job had suddenly gotten 1/5 easier: “If one in five adults is a quote ‘none,’ then absolutely you have to achieve a sense of parity in your reporting and cover every kind of religion or lack thereof,” he said.
A Pew poll released last year said only 19 percent of Americans thought journalists were “friendly” toward religion.
But is religion reporting on the downswing? Is it even correct to say there are fewer staff jobs reporting on religion? The Post-Gazette plans to fill Rodgers’ spot, Executive Editor David Shribman told Poynter in an email, and the Post-Dispatch will fill Townsend’s spot, Editor-in-Chief Gilbert Bailon said. Tennessean Executive Editor Maria De Varenne says her paper is “looking to fill the position in the future.”
But Nancy Haught, who reported on religion for the Oregonian, told Poynter in an email she’d been laid off.
“My impression is that coverage of many topical beats, including science, environment, and health as well as religion, have been cut back at many papers as staff and news hole have shrunk,” Pew’s Alan Cooperman wrote in an email to Poynter, adding that “there is still a lot of good reporting” and noting Religion News Service in particular.
That service is based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, which is also home to the Religion Newswriters Association.