Religion used to be an up-and-coming beat not so long ago when the likes of Pat Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Bakker, the Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul II and Muslim fundamentalists regularly graced our pages.
Editors looked long and hard around the country to hire journalists who specialized in that complex topic. A number of us went into the field, hoping that religion reporting would be the success story of the 1990s as business reporting had been in the 1980s.
Instead, it has become a Rodney Dangerfield of beats, drastically losing ground on newspapers that used to devote space and personnel to the subject. Editors are sending out signals that the religion beat is peripheral to decent coverage.
Since mid-1990, 10 major newspapers - the St. Petersburg Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Sacramento Bee, the Seattle Times, the Rocky Mountain News, the Arizona Republic, the Miami Herald, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury-News - have had openings on their religion beats.
These are good papers. They all have filled the posts (some with part-time people) from within. To be fair, some editors consider the beat a plum assignment they wish to award to an insider. Others treat religion as a beat not worth hiring a specialty writer, for - it is a beat "anyone" can do. It is a news beat that gets misplaced in the features section even though it should be on the news side with education, the environment, the military, and medicine.
This is not a promising outlook for religion writers who want to transfer to other papers or - such as I myself - want to re-enter the field after getting a graduate degree.
We cannot totally blame the downscaling of the beat on the economy or the fact that our industry is on the ropes. The Religion Newswriters Association, an organization that works to advance the standards of religion reporting in the secular press, has argued for years that religion is a specialty beat that demands a journalist with some expertise to cover it.
But who is listening?
Not the Arizona Republic. Their former religion writer, Kim Sue Lia Perkes, had an award-winning religion section before she left the beat to cover Arizona politics. The section now is a shadow of its former self.
When I talked to a top editor there, he implied that economics was not a problem but he wanted to hire someone in graphics before tackling religion.
When I called him a few months later, none of my calls were returned until finally another editor informed me they had no intention of hiring a religion writer any time soon.
The Oregonian, the Northwest's largest newspaper, is similarly discouraging. When I told some editors last December that Billy Graham was having a crusade there in September 1992, and wouldn't it be nice if they had a full-time religion writer, they admitted their religion coverage was shoddy but said that hiring a religion writer "was not a priority." They gave excellent coverage to Graham when the time came but they have more than 300 people in editorial. Isn't there room for one religion writer?
There is a saying that people spend millions on sports but billions on religion. …