Have you noticed more faith stories in the Free Press over the past seven months? Have you wondered why?
It’s because of a Free Press project to increase the coverage of religion — with the support of the local faith community.
The project, which started in March, goes back to spring 2018. That’s when Free Press editor Paul Samyn indicated the paper was looking for new ways to engage and connect with people in Winnipeg.
When I suggested one group the paper could serve better was the faith community, he agreed. But where, he asked, would they find the money to pay for it?
"What if I raise it?" I asked. Samyn and publisher Bob Cox said if money could be found, they would give it a try.
So starting in June last year, Cox and I made presentations to various faith groups, inviting them to provide financial support to increase reporting about religion in the Free Press.
The first group on board was Charleswood United Church. It was followed by the Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Winnipeg; the Islamic Social Services Association; the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Winnipeg and the archbishop of St. Boniface, Albert LeGatt; Equipping the Saints, on behalf of evangelical churches in the city; Manitoba Multifaith Council; Anglican Diocese of Rupert’s Land; McClure United Church; the Presbytery of Winnipeg, Presbyterian Church in Canada; River East Church (Mennonite Brethren); Trinity United Church; and the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Winnipeg.
Altogether, they contributed over $32,000 to pay for additional freelance writing about faith in Winnipeg.
In offering this support, the faith groups understood they weren’t buying coverage for themselves; it was about boosting reporting about religion in general. They also understood unfavourable news about religion would continue to be reported.
The results? Since March, there have been 134 local religion stories in the Free Press. That’s an average of 19 a month, up from eight or nine a month previously.
And not only that: these articles can be found throughout the paper — front page, local section, arts, business and on the faith page. And since they are already paid for, they are free for anyone to read online.
For Samyn, the project is working for the newspaper.
"It is serving the faith community, showing people of faith that the Free Press recognizes them and the contribution they make to the community," he said. "This is important to the Free Press, since it wants to be known as a place where the whole community gathers."
It’s also good for news coverage, allowing the Free Press to do a better job of covering religion in depth — "not just when controversies arise," he said in an article in Broadview magazine (the former United Church Observer).
"Faith remains a strong influence in public life. To ignore its impact on our national discourse would be to shortchange our audience."
As for the support provided by the faith groups, "at a time when religion is all too often dismissed, discounted and derided, faith groups see value in the province’s largest media outlet telling their stories to a broader audience," he said.
Of course, there’s something else in it for the Free Press, too. This newspaper, like others across Canada, is challenged financially. It needs to find new ways to cover the cost of producing journalism. This arrangement with local faith groups is a new and creative way to do that.
It’s also unique in Canada, and possibly in the U.S., too. I’m not aware of any other daily newspaper or other media outlet receiving support from the faith community to report about religion.
In other words, what the faith community has here in Winnipeg is something special — something you won’t find anywhere else.
If you like it, let Samyn know; he’s always interested in what readers have to say. If your place of worship or faith group has news or stories of interest to the wider community, tell us; use the email address below.
And if your faith group or congregation isn’t among the sponsors, maybe you can encourage them to sign on.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.