When the Dallas Morning News’ award-winning religion section, one of the country’s only stand-alone faith sections, folded back into the rest of the paper in January, 2007, due to insufficient ad revenue, observers in the field worried about the decline of religion journalism. Wrote Martin Marty: “We have reason to shed a tear” because, in his view, content produced for the web tends to focus on “outrageous or attention-grabbing coverage,” thus sidelining the more complex religion topics.

Just a few months before the section folded, however, the religion team at the DMN, including long-time religion reporter Jeffrey Weiss, launched its own religion news blog, DallasNews Religion. Today Weiss is a main contributor to the blog, along with fellow religion reporter Sam Hodges and former religion editor Bruce Tomaso.

Just as the paper’s religion section was once an industry standard, so now its blog may be leading the way for print-based religion reporters, who, willingly or reluctantly, are beginning to blog.

ReligionWriter recently phoned Weiss to talk about journalistic integrity online, time management and the filter-feeder nature of blogging.

ReligionWriter: How did the blog get started?

Jeffrey Weiss: The editorial board of the Morning News started blogging three or four years ago – very gingerly, as a toe-in-the-water kind of thing. Last year, it became clear the religion section was going away. We decided, “Let’s do it.” It was something our bosses wanted us to do, and, frankly, it smelled like the future.

RW: Were you positive about the idea at the time?

Weiss: I was reluctant because I knew it would take a lot of time. Was it going to be worth the effort? Would enough people be willing to be involved? Would we have enough material? I had no answers to those questions. But some of the energy that had been devoted to the section was now available for the blog, and, actually, it’s worked out pretty well.

RW: What’s your blog’s purpose?

Weiss: It has several. First, it gets information out to people who wouldn’t otherwise be able to get to it easily. We post a very broad spectrum of stuff, from intensely local denominational meetings to Supreme Court decisions. Some days I feel like a barnacle: A barnacle sits on its pier, filters the water, pulls out the best stuff and eats it. In my case, I post it.

But we also do exclusive content. When I write a long story for the paper, I will have reported fifty pages of notes and used about five. So I post the best of the stuff that didn’t make the cut.

The blog is also about interactivity. It’s a way to have a conversation, especially with the regulars. We have probably half-a-dozen regular commenters; I think of them as the two old guys in the balcony of The Muppet Show, tossing out their opinions. Frankly, a lot of the comments aren’t that wonderful, but every so often, I’ll get a thoughtful one, where someone has taken the topic, processed it, and provided valuable new content. That’s when I think, “Boy, am I glad we’re providing a space for this.”

RW: Who do you see as your main audience?

Weiss: Ultimately, we have no way of knowing exactly who is clicking on. I know a lot of other religion journalists read it, along with denominational leaders, local pastors, and at least one chaplain in


. So we have people from all over the world, along with a local crowd.

RW: Do you pay much attention to your site statistics?

Weiss: I pay attention in this regard: the effort has to be worth it. Ultimately, we’re a business, and there has to be enough readers that our advertising department can attract advertisers, enough to justify my time. That doesn’t necessarily mean huge numbers. We’re trying to figure out: Are there things we can do to boost the numbers?

RW: Can you tell us how many visitors you get each month?

Weiss: I’m not going to do that, but I can say the numbers are much larger than they were six months ago, and they continue to creep up.

RW: How do you plan to boost traffic?

Weiss: We are trying to put key words in the headlines and make the first line really substantial, because Google is starting to index the blogs a lot better. I’m thinking more strategically; now, for example, our blog is cross-posted at [the WashingtonPost.Newsweek.Interactive multi-contributor blog,] On Faith.

RW: Do you feel like you’re in a new field now — online journalism?

Weiss: Five years from now, the distinction between print and online won’t make any difference. Am I an online journalist? Of course. Am I an offline journalist? I’m that too. Are their differences? Yes, there are. The voice I use on the blog is different from the voice I use for the front page of the paper.

RW: How’s your blog voice different?

Weiss: It’s looser, much more conversational. I’ll use Internet abbreviations like NYTimes; I’m much less attentive to AP style. I am, however, pretty careful about not expressing opinions in controversial matters. I might write that something is “interesting,” and you’ll get analysis out of me if I believe something is illogical. But you’ll never find me writing, “I believe abortion is right or wrong.” But even there, the line is a lot blurrier than it was even five years ago.

RW: Is blogging, at the end of the day, all about opinion?

Weiss: There is no predicate to the sentence that begins “blogging is all about….” Blogging is whatever the blogger wants it to be. There is plenty of straight journalism blogging out there; look at Romenesko. Is that about opinion? It’s a link-o’-links. If there’s an opinion expressed there, it’s: This is what Romenesko thinks journalists ought to look at. Blogs ought to be giving you something you don’t get in dead tree content. But whether it is opinion or analysis or just additional content, it depends on the blogger and the audience.

RW: You don’t feel badly that the blog is not more personal or point-of-view driven?

Weiss: It probably does need more voice. The convention of online writing and reading is voice-ier than dead tree. I happen to like that; I find that somewhat liberating. But writing on a blog does not mean you give up the conventions of journalism.

RW: How do you manage the time pressures of blogging?

Weiss: If you’re not careful the blog will eat you alive. You have to be aware of what your responsibilities are and what your bosses expect of you. There are time when I have to tell myself, “Stop now. Go back to the story you’re supposed to be working on.”

On the other hand, an awful lot of what we post is stuff I would have been looking at anyways, like interesting things in my e-mail in-box. I figure I do an hour or an hour and a half a day on the blog, sometimes more.

Today, for example, there are three Supreme Court decisions that have religion angles. In the old days, when we had the religion section, I might have read the decisions and done a piece on them. But the Morning News, like most other newspapers, is doing less national news. So I might instead include the decisions in our blog’s weekly newsletter,


[See the published posting here.]

RW: If you had to break it down, what percent of your time goes to blogging?

Weiss: It’s hard to say, but maybe one-fifth.

RW: Do you feel you should be paid more for a 20-percent increase in your work?

Weiss: Don’t we all? You need to make sure you’re in tune with what your boss wants.

RW: What does that mean?

Weiss: If you’re expected to produce a certain amount of content for the dead tree, then your boss has to understand that blogging doesn’t come on top of that, it comes out of it.

RW: Will the DMN blog look the same in two years or five years? What’s ahead?

Weiss: I sigh deeply, because our horizon is so close. You might as well ask me how I think newspapers will look in fifty years: I have no idea. We will be trying some different things in the nearer future. We have pictures now, maybe we’ll have videos. We’ve talked about having regular features. You look around at other blogs, and ask what they are doing that you like. I’d be surprised if our blog looks the same in six months or a year. But exactly how it’s going to change? I have no idea.

Related Content from ReligionWriter:

“Blogs: Top Religion Reporter Says Blogging is Exciting, Draining and Obligatory”

“An Independent Muslim-American Press? Texas Entrepreneur is Making It Happen”

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