Religious Content Gets a Boost

By: Dave Astor

As “Your Angels Speak” launches March 18, it appears there’s a trend toward more usage of spiritual features despite budget constraints at many papers. Reasons range from the events of Sept. 11 to the realization by editors that readers want the material.

“There are an awful lot of religious people out there,” said “Your Angels Speak” creator Guy Gilchrist, whose weekly feature has an inspirational message and art.

Self-syndicated “Ethics & Religion” columnist Mike McManus said two-thirds of Americans are church or synagogue members, though attendance at services returned to pre-Sept. 11 levels after a temporary uptick.

“Your Angels Speak” is starting with about 25 papers (a good number in a bad economy), including many big ones.

“It’s a very positive response,” said Lisa Klem Wilson, United Media vice president and general manager. “Sept. 11 has definitely focused people more on spirituality.”

Gilchrist feels media outlets are catching up with reader interest in spirituality that’s “always been there.” When he created “Your Angels Speak” six years ago, there wasn’t much syndicate interest. Instead, it existed online and on thousands of prints sold by Gilchrist.

Religion News Service Sales Manager Claudia Sans said business has improved for RNS since Sept. 11. Its clientele of about 100 secular newspapers grew only slightly, but the list of other secular and religious subscribers rose 10%, to 140. These include Web sites, broadcast outlets, etc.

“People started realizing religion is a news story,” Sans noted. “And they want to know more about other religions.” She said a number of RNS clients publish a recently launched column by Akbar Ahmed, who writes from a Muslim perspective.

RNS is owned by Newhouse News Service and marketed to American papers by Universal Press Syndicate.

Tribune Media Services (TMS) launched “God Squad” in November, and it now has about 20 clients. Rabbi Marc Gellman and Monsignor Thomas Hartman write the Q-and-A column, which doesn’t focus only on Judaism and Catholicism. “It’s important after Sept. 11 for a column to appeal to all faiths,” said TMS Sales Director Doug Page.

‘Bobo’s Progress’ To ‘Wildwood’

King Features Syndicate offers “Wildwood” by Dan Wright and Tom Spurgeon. Editor in Chief Jay Kennedy recalled that when the strip was called “Bobo’s Progress,” he noticed some papers running it on religion pages. He suggested it become more faith-focused, and the cartoonists agreed. The comic was relaunched about a year ago as “Wildwood” (with philosophical Bobo bear becoming a pastor), and the client list soon jumped from 50 to nearly 100, including church newsletters. “All syndicates are looking for new markets,” noted Kennedy.

Wright received nearly 100 positive letters for every negative one since the comic became more spiritual. One reason: “Wildwood” tries, first and foremost, to entertain. “It’s very important that the strip not turn into a platform for proselytizing,” he said.

Though Wright once worked for a Christian publishing firm and Spurgeon was a seminary student, Kennedy noted that their comic’s spirituality is more general than Christian. He said a strip focusing on one religion would be a “harder sell” — perhaps bothering some readers of other faiths.

Indeed, Johnny Hart’s occasional Christian references in “B.C.” have irked some papers and readers, but Creators Syndicate President Rick Newcombe said Hart’s mail is at least 90% positive. He added that the list for Mike Morgan’s “For Heaven’s Sake” comic has held at 40, but the list for Carey Kinsolving’s “Kids Talk About God” feature has risen to 40 from about 35 since Sept. 11.

Page said Billy Graham’s TMS column list remains steady, and he hadn’t heard of any paper dropping it after reports Graham made anti-Semitic remarks while with President Nixon in 1972.

McManus reported a slight rise in the 45-paper list for his column, founded in 1981. Wilson said usage of George Plagenz’s “Saints and Sinners” by clients of United’s Newspaper Enterprise Association package is always “solid.” DBR Media Executive Editor Diane Eckert said usage is good for “Phone Home, It’s Me — God,” started last summer after clients of DBR’s package asked for a religious feature.

A number of features, including Randy Cohen’s “Everyday Ethics” column, have some faith-related content without being religious per se. And, said John Stickney, New York Times Syndication Sales Corp.’s marketing communications manager, “Randy’s list has grown since Sept. 11.”


Precedent For Abby Action


Little Or No Drop In Reader Letters Expected

Jeanne Phillips, co-author of “Dear Abby,” isn’t the first advice columnist to alert police to the possible criminality of a letter writer. In fact, Phillips told E&P Online that her mother — the original “Abby” — quietly contacted the police several times when more involved with the 46-year-old column. But Phillips’ recent action received more publicity than other cases.

“I was shocked the police department kind of betrayed the confidence,” said Phillips, noting that she didn’t expect the Milwaukee authorities to announce to the media that she was the one who notified them.

Phillips, who said she didn’t consult her mother before making this month’s decision, previously notified police several years ago after receiving a letter from a man saying he had been hired to do a contract killing.

Everyone queried by E&P Online believes Phillips’ action will have little or no impact on the number of readers seeking advice.

“Most people would still write to an advice columnist,” said Houston Chronicle Deputy Managing Editor Susan Bischoff. “I would be very surprised if this had a chilling effect.”

“If it sparks a trend for the criminal element of America to no longer write advice columnists, we can live with that,” deadpanned Alan Shearer, editorial director and general manager of the Washington Post Writers Group.

WPWG advice columnist Carolyn Hax added that readers can always write anonymously. The Milwaukee man — 28-year-old Paul Weiser — apparently gave Phillips his name and address.

In his letter to Phillips, Weiser discussed his fantasies of having sex with young girls. He was subsequently arrested on charges of possessing child pornography.

‘I Made the Right Decision’

Phillips said she agonized before alerting police, but now feels “I made the right decision.” She said children could have been in danger, and that Weiser knew he needed help. “He has a conscience,” Phillips said.

Phillips said response to her action has been “overwhelmingly” positive.

“I think she did the right thing,” commented Shearer. “I haven’t read the letter she received, but clearly it bothered her.”

“I give her credit for seeing the need for action and taking it,” added Hax.

Bischoff said she understands the right to privacy and confidentiality, but “I would never second-guess someone who thinks she might be protecting a child. For me, the hot button is children and children as victims. Jeanne is a very solid journalist, and I know she didn’t do this lightly.”

The former American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors president added that the Chronicle once received an essay-contest entry from a child talking about being abused. ‘We made the choice to report it,” she said.

Universal Press Syndicate is backing Phillips “100%,” said Director of Communications Kathie Kerr, who added that Universal has received no complaints from the 1,200 “Dear Abby” clients.

Jane Kirtley, Silha professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota, said an advice columnist and reader have a relationship more akin to therapist/patient than reporter/source. So she noted that it’s difficult to judge what Phillips did in the context of journalism ethics.

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