St. Louis may be best known for its Gateway Arch, but for GetReligion regulars, perhaps it’s best known for Tim Townsend. We’re regularly reading reports from Townsend, who has been the religion reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since June 2004. He also writes a news analysis column, called “Keep the Faith,” and oversees the newspaper’s faith blog Civil Religion. He previously covered personal finance and consumer news for The Wall Street Journal.
Townsend came to St. Louis with a long resume that keeps growing. He holds master’s degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Yale Divinity School and has taught religion journalism at Webster University in St. Louis. He is a fellow with the “Problem of Evil in Modern and Contemporary Thought” project at the University of Notre Dame, and has been a Gralla Fellow at Brandeis University and a fellow with the “Covering Islam and Muslims in America” program at the USC Annenberg School for Communication.
In 2005, Townsend won the Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. His book Evil Will: An American Pastor’s Battle for Nazi Souls at Nuremberg & The Ancient Alliance Between the Divine and the Damned is forthcoming from William Morrow. We asked Townsend to weigh in on GetReligion’s 5Q+1.
(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
I read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal every day (in print – yes, I’m old) – not necessarily just for religion news, though I obviously do pay attention to that – but to just make sure I know what else is going on in those two papers’ worlds and how that information might have a broader connection to religion. I also try to check out the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times online. I’m a big context and history person and I think pointing out the broader ripples of any story I’m writing is really important for readers. I also read a lot of local religion publications – the St. Louis Review (St. Louis Archdiocese), the Jewish Light, the Pathway (Missouri Baptist Convention), and the Lutheran Witness (LCMS). And then some national denominational stuff – National Catholic Reporter, Our Sunday Visitor, the Christian Century, the Forward. And of course local and not-so-national religion blogs, including GR, the Revealer, PoliticsDaily, Beliefnet, the Seeker, the American Muslim, Whispers in the Loggia, On Faith.
(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
Since I’m a card carrying member of the mainstream media, I’m not really sure how to answer that. But I think a story that needs more attention in quarters beyond MSM religion reporting (where many of us do cover it) is the struggle of the American Muslim community in the nearly 10 years since the September 11th attacks. Some have done it very well. Andrea Elliott at the NYT comes to mind. I’ve been in the unique position of having watched and reported on the attacks on the World Trade Center from a couple blocks away as it was happening, and then moving to the Midwest to report on the American Muslim community’s challenge of trying to live a normal life in the attacks’ aftermath. It’s not an easy thing to cover, but there are so many good stories to be had there, especially among children who were 10 or 12 at the time, and spent their teenage years coping with the difficulty of what it means to be a Muslim in this country. Those kids are now entering adulthood and their experiences as teens are going to be formative for our country.
(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
Not just as a religion story, but I’d say the story of immigration is so important, and always has been, in this country. Each generation seems to forget that we were all immigrants at some point, and the tension in that is such great journalistic fodder. It’ll be fascinating to see how the power shift in the Catholic church, for instance, shifts from northeast to the south. I think we’ll be able to use religion as a mirror to tell stories about the browning of America over the next 25 years (I know you only asked me to look about a year or two.) Also: SnoCones.
(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Because it’s everywhere. One of the great pleasures of my job is that I can write about anything, because everything bumps up against religion. That spectrum is evident in GR’s posts. I’ve written about religion and sports, religion and business, religion and politics, religion and entertainment, religion and SnoCones. I’m in a unique position in my newsroom because I’m the only religion specialist we have. That gives me a great perspective on how other reporters approach (or, more likely run away from) the religion angle in a story. A lot of reporters are a bit scared of religion – the third rail of the newsroom – and probably some feel lucky that I’m there to answer any questions they have on deadline. In the same way, I’m scared out of my mind to look at an earnings report on deadline, so I feel lucky there’s a business reporter nearby to calm me down. I’m also lucky to have the kind of position in the newsroom where I feel like my editors and reporter colleagues value whatever knowledge I bring to the paper and our readers.
(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
A local pastor pitched me a story yesterday about what he called “the onion ring of hope.” I wondered first if it was something about being gluten-free, or possibly Obama-related. It turns out some guy nearly ate a Dairy Queen onion ring, but then saw that it resembled a “do not” symbol and it reminded him of the pledge he made to his daughter to stop eating crappy food. He was auctioning off the onion ring of hope on eBay to help raise money for a local ministry organization. That’s A1 material, baby!!
BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
Just that I hope it exists 10 years from now. Two great practitioners of the beat – Eric Gorski and Michael Paulson – left recently for other journalism jobs, but there are still a ton of religion reporters out there, hoping the beat survives. I’m one of those who’s out there hoping. So I’m heading out to Dairy Queen for an order of onion rings.