Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Free Press continues to keep the Faith

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We're back!

To the Saturday newspaper, that is. It was three years ago that the decision was made to move the Faith page to Sundays. Now we're back in the spot the faith pages have traditionally occupied in newspapers across North America.

For some readers, this will be a welcome change. When the decision to move to Sunday was announced, some people told me they were sorry; as Saturday-only subscribers, they would no longer have access to the Faith page. Now they can enjoy it on Saturdays once again, although the web has, in fact, made the whole concept of publication dates superfluous -- you can read it online anytime you want.

But which day the page appears in the paper is not the most significant thing for me. What is significant is the fact that the Free Press still has a faith page at all.

The fact is, coverage of faith by the media is in decline across North America.

In the 1990s, when I first became interested in how the media covers religion, interest in the subject was booming. In the U.S. in particular, newspapers were increasing their religious coverage. The best of all was the Dallas Morning News, which had a six-page religion section and four full-time reporters assigned to that beat. On the broadcast side, ABC World News Tonight made history when it hired Peggy Wehmeyer to cover religion, becoming the first U.S. national TV news show to employ a full-time religion correspondent.

Those days are gone. Budget cuts saw ABC shut down its religion beat eight years ago, and the number of reporters who write about religion full time in the U.S. has shrunk drastically -- the result of cutbacks as the newspaper industry tries to survive. Not even the award-winning religion section at the Morning News was safe; last March that paper closed it down, too.

The reason given for the closure was finances -- like most newspapers today, the Morning News is struggling to stay afloat.

"For reasons I don't entirely understand, we could never build even a modest advertising base for the stand-alone section," said editor Bob Mong. "I can assure you, no paper in the country tried harder than we did to garner such support."

Religion coverage in Canada never reached the same lofty heights as in the U.S., but there was increased interest in the subject on this side of the border, too. Today, however, only six Canadian newspapers employ full- or part-time religion reporters.

So why is the Free Press keeping the Faith page? Like the Morning News, it could justifiably claim that it's not making any money off it. Each week there are maybe only a few small ads from churches or other organizations. It's not like in the old days, when churches could be counted on to advertise worship services.

I posed that question to Free Press editor Margo Goodhand. "So much of our news coverage today appears to be driven by police officials and politicians, or from within public institutions like the courts, school boards and city hall," she said. "What I really like about the Faith page is the way it allows us to stand back and view things from an entirely different perspective."

The issues and the people on the Faith page "are not your usual news subjects," she went on to say, adding that "it's rare to have a 'regular' news reporter ask questions of morality, spirituality, ethics or humanity. But these questions belong in a community forum like the local newspaper as much as they belong in our world today."

When the paper set out to revamp the old Perspective section, "we looked hard at what we had in there, and what we wanted to keep. And there was no question that keeping the Faith commentary was integral to the new FYI."

People of faith can be grateful for the newspaper's commitment to covering religion, particularly during this time of severe cost-cutting and downsizing in the media. But the responsibility for a vibrant Faith page doesn't rest solely on the shoulders of the Free Press. It depends on readers, too. If you appreciate what someone has written, let them know. If you disagree with an article, or have more to add to the discussion, send a letter to the editor. If you have a story idea, tell the Faith page editor.

And if you have ideas for how the Free Press could improve the page, send an email to Goodhand. Her e-mail address is margo.goodhand@freepress.mb.ca.

 

jdl562000@yahoo.com

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 31, 2009 H13

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