John Longhurst, a columnist for the Winnipeg Free Press.

Winnipeg Free Press partners with faith communities to put religion back in the news

By 
  • January 9, 2020

Whether Canada’s faith life is hidden, secret or just ignored, it represents a rich vein of news for any enterprising journalist, as far as Winnipeg Free Press columnist John Longhurst is concerned. 

But persuading a daily newspaper to mine the city’s churches, synagogues and mosques for news is a tough sell in the era of declining ad revenue, newsroom layoffs and papers going out of business.

Longhurst has found a way around that by convincing Winnipeg’s faith communities to financially support in-depth coverage of faith news. Fourteen of Winnipeg’s most prominent faith groups — including the Archdiocese of St. Boniface and the Archdiocese of Winnipeg — put together $32,000 to fund freelance journalists covering religion in the Manitoba capital.

The result has been an average of 19 religion stories a month in the Winnipeg Free Press since last March, more than doubling the output of faith-based articles in the paper that publishes six days a week.

It’s a remarkable turnaround in Canadian daily media. Whether it’s newspapers, TV networks or wire services, there isn’t a single full-time religion beat reporter left in Canada. 

The idea for religion-funded religion reporting began when Free Press editor Paul Samyn told Longhurst the newspaper was looking for new ways to reach deeper into the community, engage more readers and thereby capture more subscribers. For the Free Press and all newspapers in Canada advertising revenues have shrunk, making them ever more dependent on subscriptions to keep the lights on.

A 2018 study by Carleton University’s Dwayne Winseck found that Facebook and Google soaked up 37 per cent of all advertising dollars in Canada. Facebook alone pulls in more ad revenue in Canada than all of Canada’s newspapers combined.

“This is a time that’s ripe for experimentation, because newspapers and all news organizations are in such dire conditions right now,” said journalism professor and director of the Estlow International Centre for Journalism and New Media at the University of Denver Lynn Schofield Clark. “They’re looking for all kinds of models for sustainability.”

Reader-funded journalism and foundations that bankroll investigative projects have stepped into the breach, but to the best of Clark’s knowledge, Longhurst’s effort to pass the basket among Winnipeg’s churches is a first in North America.

Faith communities aren’t getting flattering puff pieces in return for their investment, said Longhurst.

“We apply the same journalistic standards. In other words, nobody gets to read the copy before it goes out. We ask the questions that we think people are interested in hearing about. This isn’t softball.”

What the faith communities are getting is a newsroom looking for religion stories. The city desk has asked Longhurst to follow up on local news with a religion angle. 

“They are beginning to see us (Longhurst and fellow freelancer Brenda Suderman) as sources of copy, as people who can follow up stories with religious angles,” Longhurst said. 

The photo desk wants to know what religion stories are brewing so they can illustrate them. Longhurst and other freelancers have been invited to pitch religion stories to Free Press editors. Longhurst scours church newsletters, websites and bulletins searching for stories.

Recent Free Press religion stories have included a Church-sponsored “death cafe” at Halloween to get people talking about their end-of-life plans, a profile of Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon when he was named president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and a Shabbat service for Christians to promote Christian-Jewish dialogue.

While the faith communities might be hoping for positive stories about themselves, there are better reasons for financing faith journalism in the secular media, said Clark.

“Religious organizations have an interest in what’s going on in the public life of our societies, the fabric of what we do on a day-to-day basis. Based on that, it makes a lot of sense for religious organizations to also see themselves as part of what’s going on,” she said. 

To the extent that “fake news” and poor quality journalism undermine communities, faith communities have a stake in making sure quality journalism is available, Clark said.

“There have long been ties between the mission of the public good and religious organizations,” she said. “There’s a tendency for us to think of religious organizations as always operating out of self interest. I think historically that’s definitely not true. If it weren’t for religious organizations we wouldn’t have most of these universities, certainly not the one I work in.”

Longhurst hopes daily newspapers in other cities begin to see the value of what’s happening in Winnipeg. 

“All these papers used to have religion beats, but now none of them do,” he said. “They just pull up some wire copy. So, could we export it? Think of how many faith communities there are in Toronto.”

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