5Q+1: Meet Tim Townsend in St. Louis

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.

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  • joye

    There is a huge ghost in this interview.

    How could you not follow up on the SnoCone mention?

    Seriously, I’m very curious to know if this was just an exaggeration or if there really is a religious SnoCone story in Mr. Townsend’s past.

  • Jerry

    Indeed, we need to know more about the SnoCone addiction. Even in darkest California there might be such things as SnoCones, but I, as a card carrying liberal Californian with my organic health food from the farmer’s market and new age religion don’t know about such vices. So my interest is stimulated.

    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

    Amen. Testify. Assuming a story is decent, my #1 next complaint is lack of context including historical context.

  • Dave

    Mr Townsend hits the nail on the head in his answer to Q2.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    The SnoCone reference is a joke, though it’s not inconceivable that someone could find a religion angle out of it at some point.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I noticed something here that bothers me about most MSM reporters when they list other publications they consult.
    “The National Catholic Reporter” is almost always at the top of their Catholic list. Yet, most Catholics –whether of “liberal” or “conservative” persuasion– agree that the Reporter is on the far left. In fact, many call it The National Anti-Catholic Reporter.
    Never have I seen listed, for example, “The Wanderer” as a counter-balance which is the weekly national newspaper of those who are strongly “conservative” or traditional Catholics.
    Yet it was “The Wanderer” that, long before the Boston Globe, was running stories about the “filth” (to use the pope’s word) that had invaded the Catholic priesthood and that the Church needed some serious purification in some quarters.

  • Peggy

    I was surprised Tim Townsend didn’t plug Ted Drewes instead, a local fave.;^D I guess he’s got sno cones and DQ onion rings on the brain. Was it close to lunch time when he responded?

    He’s been a thorough and fair reporter I have seen since I’ve been back in STL Metro. I am glad you’re giving him attention.

    I’d like to see if he posts a story (presumably fair-minded) in response to the NYT hit piece on Abp. Dolan, a STL native and auxiliary bishop here prior to Wisconsin and NYC.