While it's tempting to dismiss this interest as a short-term phenomenon, the fact is media interest in religion is booming.
"Magazine publishers see that whenever they put a religious topic on the cover, newsstand sales go through the roof," notes Steven Waldman, Beliefnet co-founder and editor-in-chief, adding the interest includes a variety of faiths. "September 11 certainly triggered more interest in Islam and the popularity of the Dali Lama raised interest in Buddhism, though for the most part coverage tends to track the population as a whole, which is mostly Christian."
Mark DeMoss, president of Duluth, GA-based The DeMoss Group, represents Christian clients and notes that some religion-dedicated magazines are facing challenging times due to declining ad rate bases. As a consequence, DeMoss says about 95% of his current outreach is to mainstream outlets, though he points out that much of the coverage is no longer being done by religion writers.
"A lot of the religion stories about the candidates are being done by political reporters who don't understand religion that well," he says. "There's a lot being written about evangelicals, for example, by reporters who don't really know who they are."
But Debra Mason, executive director of the Religion News-writers Association, as well as a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, says more religion beat writers are being brought on to add a second-day perspective to stories, such as the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy.
She also says outlets now realize that although the ad dollars to support dedicated religious sections may be declining, the public's interest in all things spiritual is not.
"Every editor in the country knows that the religion writer gets more mail than anybody else, hands down," she adds.
But even with the public clamoring for more religious content, DeMoss says reporters still need a solid news hook.
"Sometimes that may be shining light [to] a new trend or... focusing on innovation by churches," he says. "We saw a lot of coverage of churches [that] had installed credit-card kiosks so people could give that way instead of putting a check in an offering plate."
Waldman adds that religion coverage is also adding a lot more news that consumers can use. "The material that works best for our audience has a self-help element to it," he adds. "So it's less about academic issues and controversies, and more about how faith and spirituality can help people in their daily lives."
- Dedicated religious sections are facing a squeeze, but you can find spiritual angles to mainstream stories as a way to get client coverage
- Christian radio and TV continue to surge, so develop a market-by-market approach for reaching producers at these outlets
- Look for self-help angles, tips, and trends that show how faith can help people in their daily lives