Trends in Religion Coverage

Publishers of the nation's three major newsweeklies -- Newsweek, Time and U.S. News and World Report -- have long known that covers featuring Jesus create "a buzz" that helps them outsell most other covers.

Yet the firing of U.S. News and World Report religion specialist Jeff Sheler earlier this year leaves only Time magazine with a fulltime beat writer after more than 13 years in which all three newsweeklies had fulltime religion reporters or editors. Until 2002, both Time and Newsweek had had fulltime religion writers for over 50 years.

Other cuts have hit the newsweeklies hard as well, including reductions in bureaus and correspondents that religion writers often used to expand the number of religion stories published.

"The cuts at the magazines have hurt," said Kenneth Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek and religion reporter there for over three decades. "If you look at them, there's a lot less religion being run now. A lot less."

Sheler, 54, of Portsmouth, Va., was part of U.S. News and World Report's latest round of layoffs last June. He worked for the magazine 23 years, 14 of those on the religion beat that he pioneered there as its first fulltime religion specialist.

Recently elected as president of Religion Newswriters Association, Sheler remembers some of his editors' skepticism when the magazine ran his first religion cover story in April 1990. The cover on "The Last Days of Jesus" detailed research and debate about the historical Jesus.

The newsstand sales figures from that issue "blew everyone's mind," Sheler said, and at the time it was the second all-time highest selling issue, second only to a cover featuring Hitler. Over the next two years he wrote eight cover stories.

"In the 10 years I worked at U.S. News before covering religion, I can only remember one religion cover, and that was when the pope died…so it was a tremendous increase in the space and attention devoted to religion," Sheler said.

Newsweek also lost its fulltime religion writer when religion reporter Kenneth Woodward retired in 2002 to become an essayist and contributing editor after 38 years at the magazine.

Now, the only fulltime religion reporter at a national newsmagazine is Time's David VanBiema, on the beat for over four years. VanBiema, whose actual title is senior writer, is asked to write on other topics from time to time, but his primarily focus is faith.

New definitions of news

Sheler's dismissal and Woodward's retirement are only the latest changes in how newsweeklies cover religion, although most other changes have more to do with the nature of newsmagazines in general than the beat itself.

When Time magazine was founded in 1923, its first issue included a topic heading of "religion." Time founder Henry Luce was given credit for bringing high visibility to religious leaders by putting them on Time's covers. Newsweek and the magazine now called U.S. News and World Report, both founded in 1933, followed Time's lead and included religion in their mix of news.

But all three newsweeklies tended, in their first 40 years, to cover religion as hard news, reacting to events around the world. Time and Newsweek first hired dedicated religion reporters during World War II, but even then those journalists' focus was on events and institutions.

"News magazines these days do not feel obligated to be like a newspaper," said VanBiema. "Newsmagazines feel they can do stories they are interested in at this point. It's more of an opportunistic thing and less of a beat thing."

Although Woodward says he stopped denominational coverage 30 years ago, Time magazine's transition was more recent. At U.S. News, Sheler's focus was on in-depth, big-picture stories that were reported and written by himself.

Sheler's style of religion coverage "was the direction that Time later went," said Richard Ostling, religion reporter for Associated Press and Time's religion specialist for over two decades.

Fewer collaborations

The collaborative writing and reporting process that is a hallmark of news magazines has changed as well-for all beats. Ostling and Woodward agreed that at least through the 1980s, Time and Newsweek each had extensive bureaus and correspondents to help report a story. Many bureaus are now closed or have fewer journalists. Ostling said Time's writing staff is half as large as it was in the early 1980s.

Even so, VanBiema said other reporters often help on the Time stories he writes, particularly cover stories.

At Newsweek, Woodward said more stories now are written and reported by one person.

Specialist or not?

Editors at newspapers and newsmagazines have long debated the merits of specialists vs. generalists. But for now, two of the three newsmagazines appear to prefer having religion coverage parceled out to "generalists" - writers who cover a variety of topics. But others say religion-with its many possibilities for inaccuracies and lack of context-requires a specialist who recognizes the potential pitfalls.

"I think it matters a lot because it's such a difficult field. I would contend it's one of the most challenging fields that is covered in journalism," said Ostling. His successor at Time, although he did not start out a specialist, agrees.

VanBiema said having a designated religion reporter helps put the topic as an agenda before the editors and prevents it from being a totally random and reactive story.

But at U.S. News, Sheler's former boss Sara Sklaroff said she has some "incredible generalists" who will maintain its level of religion news.

"There's no way there will be a significant change in the amount of religion news we cover," said Sklarof, the education and culture editor who oversees religion coverage. "We're certainly going to cover it just as much as we always have."

Used by permission. Copyright 2003. Religion Newswriters Association.