Every year or so, editors are asked to sit patiently while market researchers dissect thick reports about what consumers say they want to see in their newspapers.
That was already true back when Harry Moskos was editor of The Knoxville News Sentinel. But he immediately noticed something strange, when handed the executive summary of one late-1980s survey.
Two words near the top of the subjects valued by readers caught his attention -- "religion" and "family." Yet the professionals interpreting the data offered zero suggestions for improving coverage of those subjects.
"I remember saying, 'Look at that.' ... Those words just jumped out at me, primarily because I knew people in Knoxville tend to see those subjects as connected," said Moskos, 76, in a telephone interview. He recently ended his 60-year journalism career, with most of that work in Albuquerque, N.M., and Knoxville, Tenn.
Of course, he admitted, the fact he noticed the words "religion" and "family" also "says something about the life I've lived and how I was raised" in a devout Greek Orthodox family. "I just knew we had to do something ... to respond to that interest among our readers," he said.
Thus, Moskos asked his team to create a section on faith and family life. As part of that effort, he asked -- at a meeting of Scripps Howard editors -- if the newspaper chain could start a national religion-news column.
That's how -- 25 years ago this week -- I began writing this "On Religion" column for the Scripps Howard News Service. At that time, I was the religion reporter for one of the chain's major newspapers and then I continued this work while teaching, first in a seminary, then in two liberal arts colleges and, now, as director of the Washington Journalism Center.
Through it all, I have been amazed that many people still think religion is a boring, unimportant subject that can be relegated to the periphery of news coverage. The late Associated Press religion writer George Cornell once noted that -- year after year -- at least half of the items in that wire service's global list of the top news events have obvious ties to religion.
And what about that journalistic mantra, "Follow the money"? When hundreds of thousands of sports fans -- spending millions of dollars -- head to stadiums or face their televisions, news organizations respond, big time. What happens when millions of religious believers -- spending billions -- do the same? Not so much.
"Usually, where people put their time and money, that's where their interests are," Cornell told me in 1982. "Newspapers' attention and space are supposed to be geared to people's interests. Right?"
The other big mystery, for me, is why professionals who lead newsrooms rarely seek out experienced, even trained, religion reporters. Discussions of this topic often reference a religion-beat opening Washington Post editors posted in 1994, noting that their "ideal candidate" was "not necessarily religious nor an expert in religion."
Please note the word "ideal." Try to imagine editors saying their "ideal" candidate to cover the U.S. Supreme Court would be someone who is not an expert in the law. How about similar notices for reporters covering politics, education, sports, science and film?
"The religion beat is too complicated today for this kind of approach to be taken seriously," said Russell Chandler, who covered religion for years at The Los Angeles Times. I interviewed him for "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," from Oxford Press.
"If you don't have experience you have to pay your dues and get some. Then you have to keep learning so that you get the facts right today and tomorrow and the day after that," he said. "I have never really understood what this argument is about. It's like saying that we want to sign up some people for our basketball team and we don't really care whether or not they can play basketball."
This logic also rings true for Moskos, who noted that he once interviewed five skilled sportswriters when seeking someone to cover University of Tennessee football -- a quasi-religious subject for locals. Why not take that approach to religion news?
"If you send somebody out to cover the Oak Ridge National Laboratory," he concluded, "you'd better find yourself a journalist who knows something about science. ... If people are going to get the job done covering religion then they need to find some journalists who know a thing or two about religion."