Decline of religious journalism in secular media inspires new approaches

CBC Radio recently cancelled its long-running program Tapestry, which focused on spirituality and religion. Photo: JHVE Photo
Published May 1, 2024

First in a two-part series

In late 2023, CBC Radio cancelled its long-running program Tapestry after host Mary Hynes announced her retirement. The weekly radio show focused on spirituality and religion—one of Canada’s last remaining religious programs in English-language secular media.

“Whenever a host retires, we take the opportunity to review our programming schedule and consider how we can best serve Canadians with a range of content, while also being aware of other program offers and of course our financial realities,” Alison Broddle, senior director of audio and podcasting for CBC News, told the Anglican Journal.

“We fully intend to continue this type of programming on both CBC Radio One and through our podcasting content,” she added, noting that “connecting with people about spirituality in their lives is part of the mandate” of existing programs such as The Sunday Magazine. Hynes did not respond to an interview request.

The end of Tapestry takes place amid a protracted decline of religious journalism. Journalists who have reported on faith and spirituality told the Anglican Journal past decades have seen a drop in secular media’s coverage of religion. That trend, they say, parallels religion’s declining importance for Canadians and changes in the media themselves. Yet they also see reason for hope in a revival of secular religious journalism, driven by new reporting models and the continued importance of spirituality for Canadians.

John Longhurst, faith reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, is to his knowledge the only remaining journalist in Canada’s English-language secular media focused on religion. Longhurst works as a freelance contractor. The paper treats him like any other reporter, he says, but he is not a staff member and does not receive a salary or benefits. Instead, he finances his work through online crowdfunding and donations from faith groups.

“Currently the Free Press is the only [secular] newspaper that dedicates any resources to covering [religion] in an intentional way,” he says. The Winnipeg Free Press, he points out, is in a somewhat unique position as one of the country’s last remaining independent daily newspapers.

Changing media environment

In 1998, Longhurst organized Canada’s first national conference on faith and the media, which he says took place in a completely different media environment.“We had religion journalists from across the country … It was recognised as an important part of what almost any major media outlet would cover in their community,” he says.

Longhurst does not ascribe the decline in coverage to any deliberate anti-religious sentiment. “I just think that most people consider it to be irrelevant,” he says. Statistics Canada’s 2021 census found more than one-third of people in Canada report no religious affiliation, more than double the proportion 20 years ago.

Longhurst also points to a long-term trend of media downsizing and cuts. “The first place that the media cut when they started struggling financially was what I call the ‘soft’ beats … Religion was one of those beats that was considered soft and not important enough to try to hang onto.”

Joyce Smith, associate professor at Toronto Metropolitan University’s (TMU) School of Journalism, has noted similar trends. Raised Roman Catholic but currently a nondenominational Christian, Smith previously worked at the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail.

She recalls urging editors to cover faith issues more. A common response was that employing a religion reporter would mean laying off someone in sports or business.

“It was funny to me that they thought that was outrageous,” Smith says. “Unfortunately, we’re getting to the point where there’s no one to lay off to make space for a specialist on religion.”

Decline of the church page

Longhurst and Smith note the disappearance of the “church page”, once a mainstay in secular Canadian newspapers. Paid for by advertisements from local churches, the page included columns from local clergy and even accounts of sermons.

“It’s relatively recently that those sections or those pages started to disappear,” Smith says.

Shifts in religious coverage reflect larger structural changes in Canadian society and backgrounds of journalists, she adds. Churches were often part of governing structures and many journalists came from Christian traditions.While there is still coverage on Christianity, Smith says, it now tends to be more critical, reporting on the church’s role in residential schools or sexual abuse by clergy.

“These are really important stories and they need to be covered,” Smith says. But only covering religion in cases of conflict is a problem, she says, comparable to a business section covering only failed businesses.

Faith still pervades news

Despite organized religion’s decline, spirituality retains an importance for many in Canada.

In 2019, Statistics Canada found 68 per cent of the population reported having a religious affiliation and 54 per cent said religion or spiritual beliefs were important to the way they live their lives. Thirty-seven per cent said they engaged in solo religious or spiritual activities at least once a month, while 23 per cent said they had participated in a group religious activity at least once a month in the last year.

Meanwhile, Longhurst says, “issues related to religion keep creeping back onto the government’s agenda” such as medical assistance in dying, abortion rights and parental rights in education.

Religion also features in local news. Longhurst recalls writing about a Winnipeg collective that gathers food and distributes it to food banks. More than 50 per cent of food banks they supplied were found in churches or places of worship. “You just can’t talk about hunger and poverty in almost any community without thinking about the way churches are responding,” he says.

At TMU, Smith teaches a course called Reporting Religion. Each week she asks students to focus on how religion shows up in other beats, such as sports or business.

“It’s very hard to find any copy of a newspaper that doesn’t have religion in it, even though it won’t be under a religion banner,” Smith says.

Alternative models

Many journalists who wish to report on faith are turning to different models, such as Longhurst’s self-financing as a faith reporter. Each year, he raises between $20,000 and $25,000 through crowdfunding and from readers and faith groups.

For religious organizations that fund their own media, many are facing similar downsizing and budget challenges as secular media, Smith says. Canada’s increasing diversity is also making itself felt among younger journalists, which can affect reporting on religion. Smith recalls looking at applications to the School of Journalism after 9/11. “We would have people writing in saying, ‘I’m a Muslim and I desperately want to help improve the reporting of my community.’”

“It’s slow, but there is more diversity in newsrooms,” she adds. “With that has to come a bit more diversity and understanding of religious traditions and worldviews as well. That can only be a good thing.

The second part of this series will focus on podcasts and other relatively new media.


  • Matthew Puddister

    Matthew Puddister is a staff writer for the Anglican Journal. Most recently, Puddister worked as corporate communicator for the Anglican Church of Canada, a position he held since Dec. 1, 2014. He previously served as a city reporter for the Prince Albert Daily Herald. A former resident of Kingston, Ont., Puddister has a degree in English literature from Queen’s University and a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Western Ontario. He also supports General Synod's corporate communications.

    [email protected]

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