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After 25 years, familiar religion-beat questions

By Terry Mattingly Modified: April 24, 2013 at 10:29 am •  Published: April 24, 2013

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 (Tenn.) 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 Knoxville and in Albuquerque, N.M.

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 turn on their televisions, news organizations respond, big-time. What happens when millions of religious believers -- spending billions -- do the same? Not 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?"

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