Academic journal article Journalism History

The Founding of the Dallas Morning News' Religion Section

Academic journal article Journalism History

The Founding of the Dallas Morning News' Religion Section

Article excerpt

When the Dallas Morning News teamed up with Freedom Forum consultants to plan a new religion section, the process involved leaders of all faith groups in the city. The six-page section debuted in December 1994 and was an immediate success, winning numerous awards and drawing accolades from journalism organizations because it was a commitment by a major news organization to produce good religion coverage and help legitimize religion as an important news beat. The section encouraged other newspapers to either begin or to expand their religion sections. But in January 2007, the section was cut and allocated to several pages in the metro section, a victim of financial pressures affecting newspapers. This article tracks the planning and development of the section and how it fit the culture of the times.

The December 3, 1994, launch of the Dallas Morning News religion section was the culmination of years of conversations and months of planning and represented a convergence of history, timing, and cultural changes as well as a touch of serendipity. This combination created a synergy that one of those involved called "almost providential."1

When the six-page, stand-alone religion section debuted, reactions were overwhelmingly positive. The resulting publicity and awards that the section generated signaled that something new and important had happened in religion news in the secular press. The national interest within journalism circles resulted in the newspaper's editors and religion news staff being asked to speak at numerous journalism conferences and prompted media attention in other papers and journalism trade magazines. The section won first place for best religion section at the Religion Newswriters Association conference in 1995, despite publishing only four sections in 1994, and since then the section has continued to rank among the top three religion sections in the nation, garnering numerous awards. In March 2006, for the ninth time in ten years, it won the best religion section award from the Communicators Council, a national interfaith group based in New York. Since its launch, the section also has been named best in the country eight times by the Religion Newswriters Association, a journalism organization that focuses on religion reporting.2

Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters' Association,3 said in 1998 that the early press coverage and speaking engagements relating to the section's debut were among its most significant accomplishments:

One of the most important things about the Dallas section was that it got a lot of publicity. [Editors] appeared on lots of panels and people were talking about it. This was the first time in a long time that religion was on the docket for large, influential newspaper management groups. This was a key role that Dallas played. It put religion back on the news agenda again.4

Twelve years and one month later, on January 6, 2007, the section published for the last time. Religion news at the Dallas paper was now relegated to a page or a page-and-a-half inside the metro section, the same place it ran prior to the 1994 six-page section launch. Despite the success of the section in garnering awards and praise, it could not bear the economic realities of the newspaper industry in the 2000s, said Robert Mong, editor of the Dallas Morning News. "It was a hell of a section," he said. "We held out as long as we could."5

Mason announced the section cut in the Religion Newswriters' Association's newsletter. She wrote that religion coverage remained strong, despite section cuts in Dallas and other newspapers, but that revenue for these sections was weak. She continued: "This was, like many of the decisions in the news industry, an economic one. Commercial advertisers are not willing to buy advertising in religion sections and nonprofit religious groups can't afford the daily newspaper rate."6

Mong agreed that the failure to sell advertising was a factor, but he said the primary reason for the cut was the overall economic environment of the newspaper industry. …

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