Expansive Religion Section p.17

By: Julia Duin

Dallas Morning News offers weekly six-page section
with three staff writers and a stable of freelancers sp.

THE DALLAS MORNING News has thrown a can-you-top-this gauntlet to newspapers across the country in the form of a novel six-page religion section.
Unveiled last Dec. 5, the weekly section involves three staff writers, a section editor, a researcher, designer, part-time copy editor and a stable of freelancers.
No other paper in the nation has a section of such scope, as only a handful of papers even have two full-time religion writers. Only 50 to 60 papers have even one.
Its backers say sports sections get this breadth of coverage every day and, thus, religion, which consistently outdraws and out spends sports by billions of dollars every weekend, should get equal treatment.
Feedback about the Dallas section has been overwhelmingly favorable.
“It is one of the most positive section launches I’ve ever seen,” said executive editor and senior vice president Ralph Langer.
In an era where some dailies have been gutting their prize-winning religion pages, the Morning News’ sophisticated product has gotten extra attention.
“People are really happy that we are approaching religion coverage like we cover business and sports,” says section editor Sharon Crigsby. “All the most critical issues of our time have religious components.”
“I’m very pleased, very pleased,” managing editor Bob Mong said. “People really like the fact the paper is paying more attention to the subject.”
The new section has color on the front and back pages, and a range of relentlessly ecumenical topics. One week’s section, in mid-March, included a book review on a secretive Catholic brotherhood in New Mexico, an article describing local classes for nonobservant Jews, a profile of former surgeon general nominee Henry Foster’s Baptist faith, and a short calendar of the week’s religious highlights.
That was just page one.
Page Two profiled a local house of worship, listed personnel changes among local clergy (helpful in sorting out Dallas’ 3,500-plus houses of worship), and a quote-of the-week from a local clergy person. Also listed were the month’s holy days, including fetes for Buddhists, Baha’is and Zoroastrians. In addition, there was a weekly planner listing religious meetings, special events and speakers.
Page Three was a “good works” page, usually profiling someone involved in helping the needy.
“We think there’s a hunger for news that explores the spiritual life of the community,” Mong notes. “When you look at stories with religion themes, you often find there are a lot of bridge builders in your community working to solve problems. Every issue isn’t just one conflict after another, but they are actually issues being addressed by people working in good faith trying to deal with these complexities.”
Other pages included local and guest columnists, letters to the editor and wire stories from Religious News Service. Page Six listed extensive religious TV programs in Dallas and previews visiting religious artists and
musicians.
A “Literary Spirit” column announced religious best sellers and combined excerpts from religious magazines, with informed commentary. Material for this page came from staff elsewhere in the paper, who have seminary or religious education backgrounds.
“I feel we’ve gotten a lot of cooperation paperwide, especially from the metro staff,” Grigsby added. “I’ve been involved in a lot of sections and start-ups since 1980, and nothing has ever been greeted like this from within and outside the staff.”
Planning for the product took two years.
In August 1993, Mong and Langer made the pitch to publisher Burl Osborne for expanding the religion coverage via a comprehensive section.
In early 1994, the paper conducted a readership poll about peoples’ attitudes and religious involvements, and by June, they were convening 60 members of the religious community to critique the paper’s religion coverage.
Meanwhile, the Nashville, Tenn.-based Freedom Forum First Amendment Center had published a wide-ranging report, “Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media,” co-authored by Los Angeles Times religion writer John Dart and former Southern Baptist Convention president Jimmy Allen.
“We were trying to figure out how to bridge the gap,” Allen said, “and looking for a pivotal pilot project with a pacesetting news organization. We were also looking for a newspaper in the Bible Belt that had a natural religions audience and a good tradition of religion reporting.”
The two connected and Allen helped convene the 60-member panel.
“The News was doing an unusually good job but they were missing a great deal,” Allen said.
“I was very pleased they brought the religious community in as full partners with them. There’s a paradigm shift going on in newsrooms as to how important religious news is in this country,” he added.
Allen is now consulting with other newspapers interested in beefing up their religion product.
“People who want to engage the reality of increasing the effectiveness of journalism have to deal with how we’ve been neglecting the religious dimension of the news,” Allen said.
“One good [religion] writer masks a lot of neglect. People assume there is a coverage that is quality, but you need a number of people out there to cover the [religion] news around the city,” he said.
The paper will test readership figures when the section is more established, Langer said, “but we’re getting a lot of feedback, so we’re certain it’s getting a lot of readership.”
As for ad revenue, Langer said, “We didn’t expect there’d be significant sales connected with this subject, but there have been more than we expected.”
The Jewish community is happy with the improved coverage, said Hanne Klein, past director of the Dallas chapter of the American Jewish Committee.
“They’ve certainly given us a lot of ink,” she said.
“Anyone reading that section can tell there’s an active Jewish community in Dallas, Texas.”
The next step, she said, “is for, perhaps, meatier coverage, and the Dallas Morning News is aware of that and knows they need to move in that direction.”
Mong concedes the section needs more depth, as only one of the three staff writers has any religion writing background.
George Mason, a moderate Southern Baptist cleric who served on the panel, said the Morning News’ effort is “widely appreciated,” with some reservations.
“They have all the best intentions in the world,” he said, “but they don’t have a working knowledge of what is going on globally in the denominations. They don’t see the liability of not having a resident expert there. They need a top-flight quality religion editor whose decisions won’t be undercut by management.
Still, he said, “I give these people an A- in effort. This is light years down the road,” compared to other papers.
The News has given the section a travel budget, allowing staff to cover diverse events, such as the National Religious Broadcasters meeting in Nashville, and a church of snake handlers in Kingston, Ga.
“We’re in the early months of this,” said Mong, “and the more we do this, the better we’ll get at it.”
“People are really happy that we are approaching religion coverage like we cover business and sports,” says section editor Sharon Crigsby.
“All the most critical issues of our time have religious components.”
Formerly a religion reporter for the Houston Chronicle, Duin earned a master’s degree in religion from an Episcopal seminary near Pittsburgh in 1992. She is city editor of the Daily Times in Farmington, N.M.
?(Formerly a religion reporter for the Houston Chronicle, Duhn earned a master’s degree in religion from an episcopical sminry near Pittsburgh in 1992. She is city editor of the Daily Times in Farmington, N.M.) [Caption]

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