For journalists who care about life on the Godbeat, the list of the dead and the missing in action has turned into a grim litany. Some religion-beat jobs have been killed, while others have been downsized, out-sourced, frozen or chopped up and given to reluctant general-assignment reporters.
Gentle readers, please rise for a moment of silence.
The Orlando Sentinel. The Dallas Morning News. Time. The Chicago Sun-Times. The Rocky Mountain News. U.S. News & World Report. The list goes on, especially if you include smaller newsrooms that have always struggled to support Godbeat jobs.
At least 16 major news outlets abandoned or reduced commitment to religion news as a specialty beat in recent years, according to the Religion Newswriters Association. Two of those empty desks -- at the Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe -- were recently filled.
"In the 1990s and early 2000s, the largest papers often had multiple religion reporters. That has disappeared, for sure. That is where the biggest cut for religion has occurred," said RNA director Debra Mason, who teaches at the University of Missouri.
"We suffer in the meantime, and one possible casualty is all our experienced, better writers. I do worry that the next generation of religion writers don't have any mentors or internships, etc., to gain experience."
Mason stressed that the religion beat is not being singled out. Sweeping changes in the industry, coupled with hard economic times, have been especially destructive in big-city newspapers that once had the resources to fund a variety of specialty beats -- from the arts to fashion, from science to religion. Also, high profits in the 1980s and into the '90s had inflated some newsroom staffs.
At the same time, Mason said she sees another trend. New forms of religion news and opinion can be found in a variety of settings online, including sites such as Politics Daily, The Huffington Post, Creedible.com, Read the Spirit, Immanent Frame, Religion Dispatches and the powerful Catholic weblog, Whispers in the Loggia. CNN leaders recently announced the creation of several specialty news sites, including a religion weblog. Beliefnet.com continues to evolve.
Dedicated readers have never had greater access to the work of journalists and public-relations professionals employed by major denominations and religious groups of all kind -- from Baptist Press to the Episcopal News Service and everyone in between. Alternative news sources have sprung up in cyberspace, such as the Stand Firm network for Anglican conservatives, The Wild Hunt for modern pagans, Orthodox Christians for Accountability and flocks of Baptist blogs -- from BaptistLife.com to SBCvoices.com -- representing establishment and independent writers.
The harsh reality today, according to Rocco Palmo, the man behind Whispers in the Loggia, is that all too often readers who care about religion face tough choices. Will they place their trust in traditional news reports that are, these days, often written by journalists who have little training to prepare them for the rigors of the religion beat or the opinion-based work of experienced insiders and scholars who may have ideological axes to grind?
"There are fabulous religion reporters who are still out there grinding away in the mainstream media, but they are an endangered species for sure," said Palmo. "I still think that basic, hard-news reporting is the gold standard and we need more of it. ... But most of what you see when you go online is commentary and criticism. You don't see that much original reporting being done. ...
"If anything, people like me are just trying to step in and fill the void."
Someone will have to do that because, year after year, religion keeps playing a vital role in shaping many of the world's biggest stories, from the streets of Iran to voting booths in America, from scandals shaking Catholic sanctuaries to mysteries unfolding in genetics research laboratories.
It's impossible to tell these complex stories accurately without grasping the role that faith plays in the lives of millions and millions of people around the world.
"Religion stories are the most exquisite stories to tell," stressed Mason. "I believe that we'll figure out how to effectively and efficiently tell stories about faith and values once this media transition is sorted out. The question is not whether or not we'll have religion news, but whether or not there will be anyone left who knows how to cover it."