Richard N. Ostling was a longtime religion writer with The Associated Press and with Time magazine, where he produced 23 cover stories, as well as a Time senior correspondent providing field reportage for dozens of major articles. He has interviewed such personalities as Billy Graham, the Dalai Lama, the late Mother Teresa, and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI)


The Religion Guy wishes to underscore increasingly obvious aspects of 21st Century America: 

One: Religion is in crisis.

Two: The media are in crisis.

Three: Media treatment of religion is in crisis.

Therefore, as disbands this week, something like this website has never been more needed.

Will anyone again provide informed running assessments of this complex and emotion-laden journalistic beat? Please note that my question has also been raised this week by Kenneth Woodward, The Guy’s toe-to-toe competitor for two decades as the Newsweek and Time religion writers during the newsmagazines’ heyday.

Starting February 13, The Guy will be posting new analytical articles at Religion Unplugged, but on the way out the door feels urgency to reflect on the three points above.

The third, how the media handle — and mishandle — religion, has been amply documented most every day on this very website, so we turn to the realities facing the other two. Feel free to explore the 20 years of that work in the GetReligion archive in the future.

On number one, U.S. religion’s Great Depression is apparent anywhere you look, whether survey data on the rising unaffiliated “nones” or church groups’ own yearly counts on Sunday School enrollment, weddings, baptisms and funerals. Fellow religion writers can add many more particulars.

Gallup has invaluable data on cultural mood swings from polls that have posed the same questions across so many years. Since 1973, Gallup has asked Americans whether they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in a wide list of social institutions. Public trust has been tumbling across the board in the 21st Century, so that only the military and small business now command confidence from majorities (and the military numbers are now headed down).

Asked about “the church, or organized religion,” 60% expressed such confidence as recently as 2001, but the 21st Century undertow and sexual abuse scandals have taken a toll, pushing this down to 32% as of last year. In 2001, 58% of Americans said religion was “very important” in their lives, vs. 46% in 2022. More dramatically, 55% thought religion was “increasing its influence on American life” in 2001, compared with only 22% by 2022.

The remaining point above brings us to the unprecedented turbulence in U.S. media. Gallup reports that thus far into the 21st Century, confidence in newspapers has dropped from 36% to a mere 18%, and with TV news from 34% to an even more dismal 14%. Artificial Intelligence fakery will doubtless worsen public trust.

We could go on at length about the reasons. But there’s widespread acknowledgment that masses now perceive news outlets as slanted, designed to scratch their particular audiences’ ideological itches, not non-partisan and fair-minded information sources. Pew Research Center and other surveys show distrust toward the “legacy media” hits unprecedented and damaging highs among Republicans and conservatives, and thus with many churchgoers.

Then there’s the business aspect afflicting the print media, which vastly outshine cable and broadcast news in religion coverage, while the Internet is a zoo of partisanship, confusion and misinformation even as it supplants print. The journalism recruiting site WorkUp and the Pew Research Center have compiled the following unnerving statistics.

U.S. daily newspapers numbered 1,748 in 1970 but only 1,260 by 2020. Newsroom staffers totaled 114,000 in 2008 but only 85,000 by 2020. Their cumulative print plus digital circulation is estimated at 28.6 million daily and 30.8 million Sunday, the lowest since 1940 when the U.S. population was smaller by 199 million.

Of course, COVID-19 was ruinous, causing the death of 300 newspapers and the loss of at least 6,000 journalism jobs. The advertising revenue of publicly traded news organizations fell 42% between the second quarter of 2019 and one year later. Big Tech dominates online advertising.

One supposed solution was media purchases by plutocrats who do not need or expect to make much of a profit. But patience plummets when annual losses hit eight figures at such esteemed titles as the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and Time magazine. The New York Times examined the carnage at those three shops (behind paywall) on January 18.

Which suggests and perhaps demands that the news business will become a non-profit charity living off donors rather than subscribers and advertisers. National political news will always win coverage despite shrinking Washington bureaus, and likewise for entertainment, business, and sports. But non-profits could save shrinking state and local coverage that threatens American democracy, and boost specialty beats such as religion.

The 153-year-old Salt Lake Tribune, known for Peggy Fletcher Stack’s prize-winning religion writing, switched to a non-profit basis in 2019. In 2022, the Chicago Sun-Times, whose predecessors date back 180 years, was absorbed by the Second City’s public radio company. Years before, public radio rescued online news sites in New York City, Washington, D.C., and southern California.

For much more on this phenomenon, see this slightly skeptical article, this U.S. State Department report and principles that guide the 400 newsrooms in the Institute for Nonprofit News. The respected Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press is pitching in here. Here’s hoping.

Finally, a point of personal privilege.

Before The Guy moves to Religion Unplugged to work with colleague Clemente Lisi, he must pay tribute to an inimitable, longtime colleague in the challenging task of religion coverage, a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid turned Episcopalian turned Eastern Orthodox parishioner.

That would be Terry Mattingly, my editor on this site since the first Guy Memo in November 2014, with this familiar sort of headline: “Let’s stop and ask a few questions about religion and that Republican romp.” The boss continually strengthened these weekly Guy Memos with an editor’s skill, lots of extra URLs and an amazing awareness of anything breaking anywhere at any hour. I still expect to get plenty of emails from him.

Mattingly beavered away at major metro newspapers and in 1988 launched his long-running “On Religion” column that, thankfully, will continue at the 300 or so newspapers served by the Andrews McMeel (Universal) syndicate. That includes Religion Unplugged and the weekly “Crossroads” podcast will continue as well, stored at the GetReligion archive,, Lutheran Public Radio, Religion Unplugged and through Apple podcasts.

It took a curious sort of courage for a journalism professor and columnist to take on the task of running a media-criticism shop, and over these 20 years Mattingly’s pointed prose has ruffled some friends’ feathers — though note that his darts named no names, with names used only in the laurels. But let it be said that no expert is more devoted to the journalistic visibility of this oft-neglected journalism topic (ghosts, anyone?), to its significance, to its success, and to its highest standards.

Thank you, Terry, for everything.

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