(RNS) — Terry Mattingly has spent most of his life trying to get religion.
An Orthodox Christian convert whose father was a Southern Baptist preacher, Mattingly began working on the religion beat in the early 1980s, specializing in profiles of religious rock stars as a music columnist and copy editor for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette, not far from the University of Illinois, where he earned a master’s degree in communications.
He went to work for the Charlotte News and Charlotte Observer — where he once got a behind-the-scenes tip involving Jim Bakker of PTL — and then to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, before becoming a journalism professor and longtime writer of the nationally syndicated “On Religion” column.
A proud curmudgeon, Mattingly is known for his outspoken opinions and blunt criticism, as well as his loyalty and willingness to make friends with people he disagrees with.
“I don’t write people off. I don’t want them to write me off,” said Mattingly in a recent interview from his home in the mountains of Tennessee.
For the last 20 years, Mattingly has been best known as editor of GetReligion.org — a website dedicated to promoting and critiquing religion coverage in the mainstream media. He recently announced that the site — which launched on Feb. 1, 2004 — will shut down next month. No new content will be posted, though the site will remain online as an archive.
GetReligion was launched to do three things: promote religion coverage, especially stories from “God beat” specialists; to look for “religion ghosts” — stories where the role of religion has been overlooked; and to defend what Mattingly calls “the American Model of the Press,” driven by fairness and objectivity rather than by preaching to the choir.
Mattingly and the site’s writers still believe in the model, he wrote in a post announcing the decision to close GetReligion, but the algorithm-driven realities of the news business were “too much to overcome.”
“The reality in today’s America is that many, many readers have simply moved on,” Mattingly wrote.
He believes the site accomplished its goals of promoting religion reporting and highlighting religion stories that would have otherwise been missed. But the news business has changed so much, he said, that readers are no longer interested in the kind of journalism he wanted to affirm and protect.
“We’re not even talking about journalism the same way,” he said. “So how do I defend a business model that no longer exists?”
When he first launched GetReligion in 2004, with the help of Christian journalist Doug LeBlanc, Mattingly said there was no long-term plan. Instead, he was intrigued by the idea of blogging, which then was beginning its heyday. He was inspired by Andrew Sullivan, a former senior editor of The Atlantic whose “Daily Dish” made him one of the so-called blogosphere’s first stars.
“The whole idea that you go online with no set word length, and this was key — have hyperlinks to stories — convinced me that this could be done. I knew it would always be controversial, and it would make people mad. But I always wanted people to be able to just click a link and go read the story for themselves.”
The site’s name was inspired by a comment from former New York Times editor Abe Rosenthal, who once complained that journalists don’t “get” religion, which caused them to miss important stories. That comment, said Mattingly, reminded him of the southern phrase about “getting religion.”
“We wanted people to realize that if you don’t spot religion, you miss stories,” he said.
A host of religion beat professionals wrote for the site over the past few decades, including Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who would go on to write for Religion News Service and The Washington Post; retired Associated Press religion writer Richard Ostling; and longtime religion journalists Ira Rifkin, Bobby Ross and Julia Duin. One of the site’s most popular writers, especially in the early years, was Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, now a regular presence on conservative talk shows and editor of The Federalist.
Her stories about the trial of Kermit Gosnell, who was found guilty of murder for operating an abortion clinic described as “a house of horrors,” according to The New York Times, were some of the most read in the site’s history.
GetReligion was known for its hard-edged criticism of religion news stories, especially those written by reporters who didn’t specialize in covering religion. Mattingly said he tried to avoid criticizing reporters by name when finding what he thought was an error in a story — as he never knew whether the reporter or an editor was to blame.
“We know we can’t call them up and ask, ‘What happened?’” he said. “Because they can’t tell us. We have no idea who actually approved that error — I mean, every reporter knows what it’s like to have someone edit an error into your story.”
He recalled writing a story for the Rocky Mountain News about the secrecy surrounding rituals in the temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and having an error inserted in the editing process. The next day, Mattingly said, a wise city editor sent him out of town to write a story about chaplains at ski resorts while newsroom leaders figured out how to address the error.
“The switchboard at the paper melted down,” he said.
GetReligion was also known for its wide-ranging commentaries on stories from around the globe and for taking delight in finding well-done stories to highlight, especially those about surprising topics — like a feature about woman imams in China or a story about how the musical “The Book of Mormon” led one Nashville, Tennessee, man to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Or a group of churches from the 1970s that were inspired by the Beatles film “Yellow Submarine.” GetReligion also hosted a popular feature called “5Q+1″— a series of short interviews with religion reporters and writers.
If nothing else, Mattingly and his team of GetReligion contributors believe religion reporting matters. He worries about the current state of journalism — on the God beat and beyond — in the United States, where he believes pleasing the audience has become more rewarding than reporting accurately or quoting people with different points of view.
“In the South, we call it preaching to the choir,” he said. “Well, the internet set up a business model in which preaching to the choir was good business.”
Another concern: those religion ghosts, the stories that newspapers and other outlets miss because they don’t take religion seriously. He pointed to the role that charismatic Christians — in particular, Hispanic Protestants — played in Donald Trump’s 2016 electoral success.
Mattingly recalled looking at a map of Florida on election night that year and thinking that some of the areas Trump won had a lot of Hispanic megachurches. If more Florida papers valued religion reporting, they would have recognized that story sooner.
“That is the classic case of the religion ghost,” he said.
Mattingly said the GetReligion site will remain online. He hopes that eventually a university will take it over and preserve it as an archive of conversation about the religion beat at an important time in its history. He plans to also keep writing his “On Religion” column for the foreseeable future — and to promote the importance of religion reporting.
“Opinion is cheap,” he said. “Reporting is expensive. If you really believe that religion is just all opinion anyway, it’s easy to say, ‘We’ll just run a bunch of opinion pieces, and that’ll be the religion coverage.’