Taking one for the team (updated)

The e-mail came across my computer screen last week. The title of the note from Debra Mason, the highly respected executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, was cheery enough:

New contests expand recognition

Mason wrote:

In a time when the religion beat is challenged, adding new contests may seem counterintuitive. After all, fewer journalists are covering religion full-time and fewer media outlets pay the contest entry fees.

Yet, in times like these, we need more recognition and reward for quality religion news, not less. Examples of poorly written religion news — nearly always produced by general assignment or non-specialist reporters — are easy to find. But as an association, we need to shine the light on the journalistic jewels that may get little notice, despite their creativity, eloquence and accuracy.

The RNA Board, after recommendations from the Contest Committee, this fall approved the largest expansion of contests in RNA’s history. We are growing from eight contests last year to 19. More importantly, we’ve added significant categories that were missing in past years, such as blogging, documentaries, books, TV news magazines, magazines design, online only publications and other categories.

Up until that point, Mason’s note made perfect sense. Journalists love contests. What we lack in salary and benefits, we make up for in certificates and plaques. Our brother-in-law can keep his fat Christmas bonus. We journalists are perfectly happy with a box of candy canes and fifth place in third-day spot news coverage of weekend natural disasters in Division 15 of the state press contest. (I say this, tongue firmly in cheek, as someone who both enters his fair share of contests and has served the last few years as a judge for the Sigma Delta Chi Awards.)

But the next part of Mason’s note surprised me:

The contests for the first time open up the awards to a classification of members who were in recent years eligible as active members but ineligible for our contests, namely, members at publications that only cover religion (but which are for-profit commercial ventures or otherwise financially independent of any denomination or religious group). Now Christian Century, Tricycle, Tikkun, The Forward, Islamica, Christianity Today and hundreds of other publications are eligible for the magazine category contests.

Read that again. It’s a significant development. And not necessarily a positive one for those of us, such as your GetReligionistas, who value the secular Godbeat and consider it crucial.

What that change tells me (and I could be wrong) is that the RNA, which long has prided itself on being an organization for religion journalists, not religious journalists, no longer can support itself on mainstream journalism alone. Rather, it must hold its nose and take one for the team by inviting certain less-offensive religious publications to pay its contest fees and keep the organization going.

Now, just to be clear, this is no criticism of the publications suddenly eligible for RNA contests. I write freelance stories for Christianity Today, and my fellow GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey serves as CT’s online editor. In my experience, CT’s editors are every bit as committed to quality journalism as my editors in my Associated Press days — and every bit as talented and professional.

The journalism produced by religious publications matches and sometimes exceeds that in mainstream newsrooms. My own publication, The Christian Chronicle, competes with Oklahoma’s major dailies in the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists’ annual contest and does quite well, especially considering the tiny size of our staff.

Maybe I’m wrong and this isn’t about the money at all. Maybe this change reflects a belated recognition by the RNA of the excellent caliber of journalism produced in the religious media.

Somehow, though, I doubt it.

If that were the case, RNA would open more than just the magazine category to such journalists. It would let my friend Robin Russell, managing editor of the United Methodist Reporter, compete in the prestigious newspaper categories. It would open up the entire hen house to all journalists who write about religion and let the work stand on its own, rather than make statements about the funding mechanisms of certain publications. (I should note that I have no idea whether Russell would want to compete in RNA. I just brought up her name because she is an example of someone doing excellent journalism in the denominational press and someone honored by RNA during her secular reporting days.)

As its website notes, RNA was founded in 1949 to advance the professional standards of religion reporting in the mainstream media and to create a support network for religion reporters. It’s difficult to do that if you don’t have the membership base or funding to survive. Sometimes, you hold your nose and take one for the team.

Updated: RNA’s Debra Mason responds to this post. Be sure to see her comment below.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    Are we giving up? Are we finally retreating to our castles? Will the Christian story every be told to the world?

    Those are the questions this news sparks. What was once a vibrant part of the media is alas, gone. The Christian media will tell their story. The secular media will tell theirs and never will the two cross again.

    How do we bridge the divide?

    David, Red letter Believers, “Salt and Light”, http://www.RedLetterBelievers.com

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog/ Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Even if this move was forced by fiscal concerns, I think it is long overdue. Some of the best religion reporting is happening in the religious/denominational publications, and if the RNA is going to survive and thrive it should open itself up more beyond the “MSM” (a term that is becoming ever more fuzzy and contentious). The future of religion reporting is on the Internet, and increasingly produced by organizations outside of the traditional mainstream media.

    • http://getreligion.org Bobby

      Some of the best religion reporting is happening in the religious/denominational publications, and if the RNA is going to survive and thrive it should open itself up more beyond the “MSM” (a term that is becoming ever more fuzzy and contentious).

      Do you see any value in a group/contest specifically for secular religion writers? Does it not hurt the MSM Godbeat if you remove or water down one of the few outlets for recognizing excellence in that realm?

      • http://www.facebook.com/jason.pitzlwaters Jason Pitzl-Waters

        I think the “hurting/watering down the MSM Godbeat” horse has already left the barn. I keep thinking of joining the RNA, but then I wonder what it would really do for me, especially since I’m not a “MSM” journalist. Then I think of all the Pagan-related coverage in the MSM this year, and wonder what good did the RNA really do?

  • Bob Smietana

    Would the Chronicle be eligible for the RNA award — given the independent nature of the Churches of Christ?

    • http://getreligion.org Bobby

      Good question. We are financially independent. We receive our funding from advertisers, subscription fees and individual reader donations. But we are a denominational publication for a non-denomination. :-)

  • Debra L. Mason

    Far from holding our noses, RNA is delighted with these contest changes. As is often the case when people surmise things that have no bearing in truth, it would have been prudent–as a site that attempts to uphold journalistic values and practice–to have checked some facts before posting. (And what does a two-year-old video about a completely different job I hold as a professor at Mizzou have to do with this story?)

    True, the expanded contests offer more media a reason to join RNA. Membership is a bargain at $50 for active members and by joining, you’ll be encouraged via training and networking and yes, contests, to practice the kind of journalism this blog post lacks. See “membership” at http://www.RNA.org. For the complete contest rules, see http://www.rna.org/?page=contests

    Here are the facts regarding RNA’s expansion of its contests:
    –This was not a fiscal decision. In fact, contests cost us money and have never, ever, in the past 14 years that I’ve had any administrative role at RNA, made money. They generally cost us more than we bring in in entry fees.
    –This had a lot to do with ethics and fairness, by making sure ALL our members were eligible for contests. We changed our membership categories a few years ago and some of us have been troubled that newly eligible active members were not eligible for any of our contests, which since our first contest’s founding in 1954 have only been open to “secular” newspapers and more recently, radio and television media. By not opening up the contests to these other groups, we were creating a second-class citizenry in our active membership and that was unfair and unethical, in our view.
    –Regarding the membership changes themselves: As RNA professionalized with full-time staff 11 years ago, we realized other professional journalism associations–such as education writers (EWA), environmental writers (SEJ), health care journalists (AHCJ) and others–all allowed active membership to commercial media outlets that covered only one topic, similar to the way National Catholic Reporter or Tikkun each cover one particular religion. This seemed an obvious, potential growth area for RNA–back in the early part of this decade. An executive director would have been nuts not to pursue membership expansion. The bylaw changes that opened up active membership took effect in 2008, after more than four years of strategic planning activities, board votes, and a full membership vote. At the time, RNA’s membership was at an all-time high, not in any sort of last gasp. (Our membership still numbers about 500, with the vast majority as active members.)
    –The contest changes were part of a larger overhaul to allow more multimedia and online news sites. We made some preliminary changes last year to include multimedia but planned bigger changes this year, which were achieved.
    –Some of us were bothered that religious PR professionals reward contest categories that RNA did not have (such as documentary and books), so these changes in part rectify the viewpoint that journalists should be rewarding individuals excelling in those categories, not PR people.
    –We have always drawn the line in our membership at media outlets affiliated–either editorially or fiscally–with a specific denomination, diocese or church or temple or mosque. The reason is that those who work in the “secular” media (a term I dislike as it is often used pejoratively) often report on these organizations and many times, communication staff share duties at these denominational outlets and thus, are sources. If your paycheck comes from a religious organization, you are eligible for associate membership at RNA only and not eligible for our contests.
    –Plenty of awards exist for these denominational/diocesan/religiously owned media, via the Evangelical Press Association, Jewish Press Association, Catholic Press Association, and Associated Church Press. Conversely, there was a perception that some commercial media outlets that cover only religion did not have adequate contests to recognize and reward their work.
    –The expanded contests included expansions for non-religious television and daily commercial newspapers. They also include expansions for the first time to online-only media. And, finally, the changes helped clarify some contest categories (such as the Supple Award), which had been confused by entrants for many years.

    As an association of editorially independent, mostly commercial for-profit media outlets of all sorts, we maintain our mission of helping journalists cover religion with balance, accuracy and insight. Although the media industry itself is very much in transition with cuts in the religion beat at smaller, commercial media outlets–engaging, creative reporting on religion still thrives. The beat is far from dead. The creation of religion content verticals at The Huffington Post and CNN are among recent examples that this is so.

    These expanded contests are intended to shine a light illuminating that the beat is very much alive.

    Debra L. Mason
    Executive Director, Religion Newswriters

    • http://getreligion.org Bobby

      Debra, thank you for your response. I had hoped that this post might generate some feedback from RNA folks. I am sorry that you feel like the post failed to uphold journalistic practices and values. I know that you understand the opinionated nature of a weblog such as this. While I won’t apologize for the post itself, I do regret your concern over the video. Honestly, we must have an art element with every post and that was the best I could do. I found the video online and thought it portrayed you in a positive light, and it does mention your position with the RNA, while, as you point out, it’s mainly about your Mizzou role.

      This was not a fiscal decision. In fact, contests cost us money and have never, ever, in the past 14 years that I’ve had any administrative role at RNA, made money. They generally cost us more than we bring in in entry fees.

      A source had suggested to me that the RNA board’s discussion of the contest changes was lively and that this was a money-making move. Now, that source certainly could be mistaken. But that statement, coupled with the 2009 link that I included in my post, gave me reason to question the financial angle. This is from that RNS item referencing attendance at the 2009 RNA annual meeting:

      On his blog, “Articles of Faith,” Michael Paulson, Pulitzer Prize-winning religion reporter for the Boston Globe, said the religion beat at newspapers is “suffering a serious reversal of fortune.”Paulson points out that the San Francisco Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times and the Dallas Morning News have both recently cut, or cut back, their religion coverage, and that the religion beat has disappeared from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Orlando Sentinel, the Palm Beach Post, the Grand Rapids Press, the Chicago Sun-Times, the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Newsday.All of that was evident by the attendance numbers here this week. Kevin Eckstrom, editor of the Religion News Service and president of the Religion Newswriters Association, said attendance was half that of last year’s conference in Washington. (Eckstrom said that in years when the RNA conference is held in Washington, attendance is higher than normal.)Last year, 40 exhibitors staffed booths outside the conference ballroom, hoping to attract the attention of journalists. This year, there are 15. Travel budgets are down, both inside newsrooms and among faith-related companies and non-profits. But the fact remains that there are simply fewer reporters covering religion.

      So, I still find it difficult to believe that money is not a factor here. Even if the contest does not make money itself, it would seem that allowing more media to enter would inspire more people to join RNA (and to take advantage of the reduced rates for member entries). And more contest categories and eligibility will mean more winners, and those who win typically are more apt to pay to come to the annual meeting and awards banquet, meaning larger crowds at the conference. That sounds like a fiscal decision to me. But as I freely acknowledged in the post, I could be wrong.

      • Debra L. Mason


        The RNA board discussion on the contests was minimal (and centered on categories of books to allow), the vote was unanimous and the contest committee recommendation was unanimous. Whomever your source is, is wrong. There was no controversy or dissent when these changes were presented to the membership meeting in September, either.

        Regarding actual contest revenue, for every contest entry, about half of the contest entry fee goes toward the honorarium to judges, creating plaques, and shipping entries. The rest of each entry fee contributes to the winning prize money. Although some associations certainly do make money from their contests, we never have–and in fact we lowered the entry fees for our members by creating an early bird rate. We’ve always preferred to use contest revenue to subsidize the cost of offering contests with smaller entry numbers (ie the broadcast contests, in which numbers have always been low since their creation six or so years ago) and to offer actual prize money with the award–rather than to skim off some of the contest revenue to fund the expensive administrative and advertising costs for the contests. You are welcome to continue to believe money was the reason, but I’m the one who has been closely watching the contest budgets these past 11 years.

        As to our finances as a whole, we exceeded last year’s attendance at our 2010 Annual Conference and our conference revenue exceeded our estimates. Furthermore, the blog post you referenced cites a number of exhibitors for our 2008 Washington DC conference. Our exhibitor numbers are limited by our hotel space and the peculiarity of our conference space in 2008 allowed us to have more exhibitors than we had ever had before–and more than we will ever have again, most likely. In addition, our Washington DC meetings are always our biggest, because of the high number of journalists in the area, making it a very unfair comparison, with all due respect to the cited blog’s author. Regarding our finances, we have in excess of $400,000 in reserves and received a $250,000 grant to the foundation this summer to extend our Lilly Scholarships programs. All of our event sponsorships for our 2011 conference are reserved and we already have $30,000 toward 2011 RNA Annual Conference Scholarships.

        I suppose what is most troubling about this post is the insistence on a stereotypical frame–a “secular” v. “religious” media divide–that good journalists should, one hopes, move beyond in the search for truth.

        Are we so jaded that no one can believe we’ve acted out of ethics to allow all RNA active members to enter our contests? Are such stereotypes so entrenched that we interpret motives without considering the evidence–or RNA’s obvious need to react to the online platforms that have changed how we define “media”?

        GetReligion’s predictable insistence on oppositional framing, though ever-so-civil, is the reason I stopped reading this blog a couple of years ago.

        I only chose to respond here after a member alerted me of the post and I was outraged by its inaccurate insinuations and lack of reporting. Such stale media narratives are the very reason RNA’s contests are needed more now than ever before.

        Debra L. Mason
        Executive Director, RNA

        PS: For the first time, GetReligion.com is eligible to enter the RNA commentary contest–a category of contest we’ve discussed adding for more than 15 years, but made absolutely necessary with the growth of independent, online-only religion blogs. Despite my gripes here, you have my assurance that RNA judges will give this blog fair handling should the GetReligion powers-that-be choose to enter.

        • http://getreligion.org Bobby

          Debra, If you stopped reading a couple of years ago, I can’t take the blame for that. I joined GR in March. However, as I said in my response to Kevin, I can take the blame for this post.

          I would encourage you to reconsider not reading this site and to join the discussion at GR, as you have today. Certainly, we have many readers who disagree quite often with our posts and aren’t afraid to say so.

          I do appreciate your response and feedback.

          • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

            Bobby makes a good point, here. Even posters at GetReligion disagree with one another, but we make an effort to respectfully engage with one another. It’s hard to find blogs that take journalism seriously, much less religion journalism. GR has, in some ways, given religion journalists a little water cooler, and I would hope more could join.

        • Jerry

          Debra, you are complaining about GR “oppositional framing” when that is the purpose of GR – to hold the media’s feet to the fire. I sometimes disagree with their choice of stories and have hit the ceiling once or twice when I detected bias on their part, but the media does need a critic. To oppose media criticism is to put yourself in an untenable position and, in fact, calls into question other parts of your posts, at least in my mind.

          Instead you should be supporting GR’s efforts while holding their feet to the fire when they err.

      • Jerry

        Bobby, why do you need an art element with each post? Yes, one is most often helpful, but I really think you should use artistic judgment about when none is helpful as well.

        • http://getreligion.org Bobby

          Jerry, we need the art element to help illustrate the story and for aesthetic purposes. In the best cases, we can find free images or videos directly related to the post. In other cases, we have to stretch a bit. In this case, since Debra was mentioned in the beginning of the post, I thought a video with her in it was helpful. Obviously, she disagreed.

  • Kevin Eckstrom


    “But as I freely acknowledged in the post, I could be wrong.” Um, yeah, you’re wrong. Totally and completely and utterly wrong. Were you part of the RNA board discussions? No. Were you part of the discussions at the RNA membership meeting? No. Did you call anyone at RNA to find out before spouting off, uninformed, about these changes? No.

    I’m a past president of RNA, and remain a member of the board, and I can tell you that “holding our noses” and expanding our membership to “certain less-offensive religious publications to pay its contest fees and keep the organization going” is completely and totally and absolutely 100 percent wrong. What’s worse, it’s insulting.

    Does anyone at GetReligion actually GetReporting 101? Does anyone over there bother to gather the facts?

    Here’s my beef with GetReligion generally, and this post specifically. Y’all are more than willing to criticize us in the Fourth Estate for not doing our jobs, or not doing them well enough, or not doing them to your high-minded satisfaction. But yet y’all are no better. In fact, it’s worse because you don’t do the basics that any college freshman would be expected to do in an Intro to Journalism class.

    GetReligion would do well to get some facts straight before spouting off uninformed nonsense. TMatt, you all should know better.

    • http://getreligion.org Bobby

      GetReligion would do well to get some facts straight before spouting off uninformed nonsense. TMatt, you all should know better.

      Kevin, If in fact I spouted off uninformed nonsense, the nonsense was mine and mine alone. Tmatt and the rest of the GR team had nothing to do with this post. This was my opinion and mine alone, based on my experiences writing for secular and religion media. Given the comments I have received, if I had it to write over again, I would phrase some of it differently. I wish I had focused on the issues and not gotten into motivations, especially without consulting more than one source. I do know better than that. I apologize that the post came across as insulting. That was not my intention, but I can see in retrospect why you would feel that way.