The Statesman's Faith-Based Initiative
With circulation continuing to slide and the media world a throbbing mass of confusion, the Austin American-Statesman is turning to the heavens for help. The paper has launched its own faith-based initiative, including an expanded weekly Faith section and a new emphasis on God-infused stories throughout the paper. Even the Sports section tossed up a Hail Mary with an in-depth report on how UT football players pray before games, breaking the news that cornerback Aaron Ross "prays for a good game."
"We think there is almost a hunger for knowledge and wisdom of matters spiritual," said Statesman Managing Editor Fred Zipp.
Newspapers around the country have expanded religion coverage in recent years, in part to counter the lingering perception that papers are run by heathen, commie-luvin' atheists. That can mean anything from in-depth stories on Muslims in America to features like the Statesman's lengthy article a few days ago on Kristin Armstrong, which theorized that readers would be fascinated to learn more about Lance Armstrong's ex-wife's "musings on various quotes of Scripture."
Beyond karma points, religion coverage comes with a built-in advertising base churches and groups eager to advertise underneath articles on holy topics which is another reason newspaper executives have been eager to get down on their knees. And that seems like a cozy fit with the Statesman's editorial philosophy, in more ways than one.
Almost all of the Statesman's big newsroom pushes these days including sections devoted to cars, homes, and "style" carry a similar advertising-friendly focus, leaving the distinct impression that the sales geeks are calling the shots at the paper. The Life section, home to Faith, already reads like a Macy's flyer on most days, with sections devoted to fashion, food, and health and fitness. Meanwhile, news stories on local music, film, books, TV, and radio i.e., topics that can't pay their own way are relegated to the briefs section or tossed into an online blog.
Zipp says that advertising is only a "minor factor" in choosing editorial projects, although it's impossible to deny the cozy relationship in these troubled times. "There is no question. [T]here is a type of advertising we would like to attract to the newspaper and a type of content that corresponds to that advertising, and we work together with the ad department to come up with something that works," he said.
Within the dusty confines of newsrooms, religion coverage is a hotly debated topic. Many serious-minded journalists feel that newspapers should enforce a separation of church and state. Reporters are taught to be skeptics, which naturally clashes with the concept of blind faith. But ignoring religion also seems out of whack to many in the industry, considering the number of people who believe in God, in one form or another. "If [religion] is an element of a story that helps people understand what is going on, it should be there," said Aly Colón, head of the Poynter Institute's reporting, writing, and editing group. "I think there is heightened awareness in more journalists that religion plays a role and, in some cases, a significant role in how people make decisions and carry out their lives."
Executing religion coverage, however, is notoriously difficult for newspapers. Locally focused stories often read like excerpts from a church newsletter. And once a paper works through the token "diversity" stories, it's easy for coverage to come across as pandering to Christians, reinforcing the stereotypes of a monolithic, one-religion community while either alienating or insulting people of other faiths.
The Statesman was one of several papers that beefed up the heaven beat in the wake of 9/11, apparently in the belief that the terrorist attacks made everyone feel closer to God. But the zeal for religion coverage eventually fizzled. "It had drifted into a narrow segment of the spiritual universe," Zipp said. "We felt we were not adequately reporting the wide tapestry of beliefs." So religion coverage is now "faith" coverage.
As part of the new faith push, Statesman religion reporter Eileen Flynn has developed several strong stories, including features on a locally based Muslim Web site and churches using charge cards to raise money. But many of the paper's faith-related explorations are not so much news stories as tributes to faith. (Kristin Armstrong has faith and runs marathons. Wow!) And, in typical fashion, the lead story of the Feb. 3 Faith section was a feature from The Washington Post on a Virginia pastor so much for the local focus.
In many ways, the Statesman's Faith coverage appears to be behind the times. After years of expansion, several large newspapers have recently cut back on religion coverage, including The Dallas Morning News, the grand poobah of celestial coverage. "The problem is drawing high-paying retail advertising," said Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association. "For whatever reason, newspapers have been slow to figure out how to make money from God."
The strategy also forgets that the most devout readers long ago wrote off newspapers as liberal scum. "Evangelicals typically avoid or do not consume mainstream media," Mason said.
While focus groups invariably say religion coverage is swell, the stories tend to appeal to an older audience at a time when the best newspapers are desperately trying to figure out how to attract younger readers. "We need to have younger people reading if we're going to be [a] viable business and provide public service deep into the 21st century," Zipp said. "But we can't subject every decision to a veto because it doesn't appeal to a particular group of readers."
Of course, young readers will be shocked to learn that the Statesman editors even know they exist. No matter what the editors say, it's hard to argue one thing whatever they're doing, it's not working, at least in terms of getting people to pay for the rag. According to its latest Audit Bureau of Circulations filing, the Statesman's average Monday-through-Saturday paid circulation slid to 170,631 for the six months ending on Sept. 30, down from 176,604 for the same period a year earlier, suggesting the paper may need more than faith and prayer to reverse its fortunes.