RNS as a nonprofit + Patch-like religion hubs

As several media outlets consider the move towards nonprofit journalism, Religion News Service recently took the plunge with a $3.5 million three-year grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. RNS, the only nonreligious service covering religion and ethics exclusively, becomes a nonprofit tomorrow under Religion News LLC.*, a new parent company over Religion Newswriters Association.

Kevin Eckstrom says that while most religious subscribers have held on during recent cutbacks, about 25 to 30 percent of daily newspapers unsubscribed to the service in the last five years. The news service also dealt with reduced staff over the past 4-5 years, especially since Newhouse News Service shut down in 2008. Eckstrom says that while content will not change under the move, it will expand from three to four and a half employees and seek funding for multimedia journalism, Jewish beat coverage and theme story coverage of areas like Islam in America and religion and politics.

Eckstrom, who has been at RNS for 11 years and editor for five, will move to an office at the National Press Club while reporters Daniel Burke and Adelle Banks will work from home. I recently spoke with Eckstrom about RNS’ changes, future Patch-like religion hubs and what to expect from mainstream religion coverage during the industry changes.

How do you feel about all the changes?
It’s been a rocky ride. It’s been a good ride on the other hand because we have really good staff and we’ve had really good owners. It’s been frustrating to try to keep up the same quality and quantity with fewer people. By being forced to pick and choose the stories I think they’ve gotten better. Lean times force you to make choices.

Do you think more media outlets will try to move to a nonprofit status?
It doesn’t work for everybody. The scrutiny that the IRS conducts is extremely heavy. It took us much longer than expected to get approval. You will see more of it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a panacea for the industry.

How do you differentiate your service from the Associated Press or religious publications? Do you see the AP as competition?
Historically we have, but that’s changed last couple of years. The AP has resources and reach that we will never be able to have. If you’re an RNS subscriber, you can count on getting anywhere from 25-35 stories a week and you won’t find that consistent, knowledgeable coverage in other places. We’re trying to reach people on the Huffington Post, in USA Today, Christian Century, Christianity Today, so we have to write for a pretty broad audience.

People seem less interested in their particular region and self-identify more with maybe their hobbies or interests. Are people interested in broad religion stories simply because they are religious?
We never had a public following before, but that changed when we started to put stuff online. We’re on Facebook and Twitter, and we have the religion news round-up and an e-mail subscription. Judging from the subscription lists, readers tend to work in religion, have an interest in it, are religious themselves or they’re part of the new atheist crowd. Judging from the comments, Catholics tend to comment on Catholic stories and evangelicals tend to comment on evangelical and general Christian stories. We get a lot of people interested in ethics.

If newspapers are cutting off your services, what does that mean for religion coverage in the mainstream media?
You’re not seeing it regularly. Sometimes it’s in metro, sometimes it’s on A1, sometimes it’s in living. It tends to revolve around controversy, scandal or celebrities, and it gets superficial. When you’re not doing it all the time, you’re joining the herd on some big sexy story. That being said, there are a lot of people who are writing about religion online. I worry sometimes about the lack of professionalism where it can devolve into people in their pajamas spouting off. Their version of truth is different from everyone else’s but there’s no editor to tell them that. The online universe is a beast that needs to be fed constantly and is never satisfied.

Part of your plan is to create 20 local community-based websites for local/national religion coverage, which sounds like Patch.com.
It’s kind of like if Patch.com and RNS got together and had a baby this is what it would look like. The idea is to create religion coverage where there isn’t anyone already. The entire state of New Jersey and places like Wyoming and New Hampshire do not have full-time religion reporters. Some of the content will filter up to RNS, and some RNS content will filter down.

Who will contribute to the sites or edit them?
Each of the seven or eight sites will be run by a full-time veteran journalist who will rely on freelancers edit the content, post it, do sales and marketing and raise support on the local level. We already have a person to oversee the whole thing. I don’t know if it’s public yet, but it’s someone who is well known to RNA and to the beat in charge of orchestrating the whole thing.

You’re starting these in the coming year?
We’re hoping to have the first test run in Columbia, Missouri in partnership at the folks at University of Missouri as a laboratory, starting it by the fourth quarter of 2011. Ad revenue will be a part of what we do, but you can’t run a business off of ad revenue online.

As part of your online strategy, do you worry about competing for traffic with your subscribers when you post stories?
That’s a good question. We want to build an audience. When people are reading our story on Huffington Post, we’re happy they’re reading our story period. We wish people are reading it on our site. We know not everyone knows to find us and we’re not able to put everything on our site. We’re trying to build the brand, the audience and the visibility.

You’ve mentioned a push towards multimedia. Will you hire someone to do that or will you hope your current reporters do that?
The plan is to have a semi-full time multimedia editor to figure out how to tell stories in a visually and audio. The model would be NPR, the gold standard in how to tell stories in various formats. We’re not going to give our reporters a Flipcam and tell them to do video and give us an 800-word story because it’s not realistic.

What kinds of religion stories do you think people want to see through multimedia?
The way we’re thinking about it initially is not that there is print content, video content and audio content. There’s content and it comes in different forms as companion pieces. Maybe you pull together the best 2-3 minutes for audio excerpts from an interview. Instead of producing a fancy eight-minute piece, throw up a couple YouTube clips from previous speeches.

You seem to be producing more 2-300-word briefs instead of a few longer pieces.
Before, we had at least three pieces and it had to be at least 350 words long. We felt like it was a straightjacket. We’re able to cover more things and give it the length it deserves. I noticed that when I read the paper, the briefs were three paragraphs when our briefs were seven or eight. Shorter is probably what people are going to read anyway.

With your D.C. presence, are you concerned with a potential political filter?
D.C. makes a lot of sense because there are so many institutions here and so many stories that traditional media might not cover. For example, we were writing about the chaplains in “don’t ask don’t tell” six months before other outlets. Obviously CT did that, too. There are other stories here related to religion and international affairs, the Supreme Court and the budget. We’ll probably always have a Washington presence, but we’re so virtual that we’ll be in New York and we’re looking at possibly being in the Chicago area. It would be hard to write a lot about religion and moral values and national priorities from somewhere other than here.

*Updated per Ann Rodgers’ comment below.

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5Q + 1: Michelle Boorstein at her Post

Covering religion in Washington DC takes an extra measure of precision, and Washington Post reporter Michelle Boorstein regularly takes that level of care when covering the intersection of religion and politics. With all the scuffles over the economy, foreign policy and other current debates of the day (birth certificate anyone?), religion can easily get lost, but Boorstein keeps finding interesting angles that illuminate current political affairs.

Of course, Boorstein covers more than church-state affairs. She has covered everything from Pope Benedict XVI’s visit, to Muslim-American affairs to Anglican property disputes (and more). You can track her work through a nifty little RSS feed and over at On Faith’s Under God blog.

Boorstein, who has been covering religion for The Post since January 2006, grew up in a conservative Jewish home outside Boston and attended religious school until college. She lived in Jerusalem before she received her master’s in Near Eastern Studies. See what she has to say about GetReligion’s five questions:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I’m not the type who has a totally comprehensive, scientifically-conceived, superduper RSS feed. I try to scan a range of sources: Christianity Today and its blogs, Religion News Service updates, World magazine, Deepak Chopra and Oprah, The Forward for Jewish stuff, altmuslimah for Islam and gender/women’s issues. Love to read anything by Michael Gerson and Paul Vitello.

(2) What is the most important religion story the MSM doesn’t get?

I’m torn about this premise that the mainstream media doesn’t, as a group, “get” religion. In a climate where people can easily disappear into an information hole of the like-minded, I actually think the MSM is emerging as the most reliable, un-invested voice — no dog in the fight. (Now you can hear the sound of someone climbing off their soap box. Another sound of a chip being removed from a shoulder)

That said, two stories we should do much better on:

There isn’t nearly enough reporting on how governments from statehouses to the White House are using religion. Who are the most important lobbying forces? How are issues of faith driving campaigns in 2011? Does the Obama White House give real resources to their faith offices or is it more small-potatoes stuff?

The contemporary American family is becoming increasingly a spiritual mish-mosh. When you take a bunch of seekers and mutts and mix them repeatedly, how does that play out in marriages? In parents’ ability to pass on a cohesive spiritual belief system to children? Religion and family.

(3) What’s the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

The debates about Islam and government across the Middle East and North Africa by the next generation of Muslims. I am hopeful in this era of cutbacks that I, and other Post reporters, will be able to direct resources into this in a smart way. The subject is often described in a silly, black and white way when it is nuanced in dozens of directions. I’m also dying to see how this subject will play out in the 2012 elections in the United States.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
I’m going to skip this question because I think anyone reading this blog knows the answer. Preaching to the choir here.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

A web site whose purpose is to organize factors that might help predict the end of the world (floods, Israeli peace, etc) had an ad for a 30-year mortgage. This came up with some reporting about the California-based ministry that believes the world will end May 21.

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5Q+1: Adelle M. Banks at your service

We spend a lot of time here emphasizing the importance of considering religion when journalists cover a beat (ghost anyone?). But there are reporters out there who dig for and pounce on those religion angles, either in national news stories, denominational news or maybe in an entrepreneurial story.

Adelle M. Banks is one who uses words carefully, strives to be objective, and finds the next angle, among her other reporter qualities. She is the senior correspondent at Religion News Service, a Washington-based wire service owned by Advance Publications that covers religion and ethics for secular and religious publications. RNS’ staff also includes editor Kevin Eckstrom, senior editor David Anderson, and national correspondent Daniel Burke and international correspondents.

Before she started at RNS in 1995, Banks worked at The Orlando Sentinel, the Providence Journal and upstate New York newspapers in Syracuse and Binghamton. A native of Rhode Island, she graduated from Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She was a third-place winner in the Religion Newswriters Association’s Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year contest in 1997 and was a finalist last year in the association’s Supple Religion Writer of the Year contest.

We asked her to weigh in on our usual 5Q+1.

Where do you get your news about religion?

I read numerous sources, starting with The Washington Post. I usually check out USA Today, including the Faith & Reason blog, and The Gazette in Colorado Springs and its “The Pulpit” blog. I also read Baptist Press and Associated Baptist Press. Articles in publications like Christianity Today, Charisma and Christian Century are also helpful, along with news releases from various organizations, both denominational ones and groups that care about religious matters. And, of course, reading Religion News Service’s daily roundup of news, which appears on our website, is a daily ritual.

What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Instead of one particular story, I’m more concerned about the sweeping generalizations and stereotypes that sometimes come with stories about religion. Despite our 24/7 news cycle, nuance is often needed to explain that groups of people ranging from evangelicals to African-Americans to atheists are not monolithic.

What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I’m curious about what will come of the new commission formed by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, following the conclusion of the three-year investigation of prominent ministries by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa and his staff. It may be a little while before they come to any conclusions or recommendations, but I wonder if there might be some interim steps that lead to the so-called “self-reform” that Grassley was seeking. Though both the ECFA and Grassley say they want to avoid additional legislation, it would be really dramatic if this work ends with churches having to file more information with the Internal Revenue Service, as other nonprofits do.

Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Religion touches so many of the topics journalists cover today–from the economy (houses of worship receiving less money even as more people seek their assistance) to the environment (the growth in the past decade in evangelicals going green) to education (the goal of some African-American churches to mentor youth and help them improve academically). Sometimes religion is the whole story and sometimes it’s just a piece of it. Even if journalists aren’t experts on religion–and most aren’t–it’s important to know who the go-to people are or how to find them.

What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

The story I immediately think of is not funny but is ironic. As national leaders reacted to the tragic shootings in Tucson, Ariz., with calls for more civility, evangelical public relations executive Mark DeMoss announced that he had just ended “The Civility Project” he started two years ago because only three members of Congress signed on to its three-point pledge for people to be civil to those with whom they disagree.

Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I think good religion coverage is needed now more than ever. Despite the declines in newspaper staffs and the loss of some excellent reporters at our nation’s publications, we need to continue to support and improve this beat–whether it’s online or on the printed page.

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5Q+1: Elizabeth Tenety, On Faith’s new editor

Last month we told you that David Waters had transitioned out of his role at the Washington Post‘s On Faith website to return to Memphis.

Waters still blogs for Under God, On Faith’s daily religion blog, but the site has gone under some recent changes and will continue to adapt under a new editor. Former Newsweek editor Jon Meacham is no longer co-moderator (*updated: as of this week), and the site is no longer connected to Newsweek . Sally Quinn, who founded On Faith, is still involved, writing columns and and representing the site.

Now Elizabeth Tenety serves as editor of On Faith. She formerly was producer of Divine Impulse, On Faith’s video interview series. Here’s more from her bio:

She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.

She also happens to be a Navy wife.

You can follow On Faith on Twitter, watch some videos, read its contributors, add the RSS feed to your reader. We tend to focus on the news parts of the site, which Tenety, Michelle Boorstein and other Post reporters post on the Under God blog and on the Twitter feed. We put Tenety to the test of GetReligion’s 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I get religion news from the same places where I get my regular news — msnbc.com is my favorite source for breaking news, NYTimes/Wapo for political and national coverage and an eclectic blend of blogs for everything else in between. I think religion journalists easily identify faith angles in everyday news, so I tend to find the “religion ghosts” in stories more interesting than straight religion news. Drudge and HufPo are my guilty pleasures. My really guilty pleasure is Gawker.

RNS’ daily religion roundup is the best source out there for easily entertained religion nerds like me — and for journalists who want to be sure they have a handle on the news landscape each day. Also: People.com has a surprising number of stories that mention religion or faith — take a recent interview with Matt Damon on ‘Hereafter’ as an example.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

I think mainstream journalists are still struggling to understand how religion is impacting the Tea Party movement. How can a movement promote fiscal responsibility and smaller government as top priorities if a majority of its members say they are part of the Christian conservative moment? Is smaller government a religious value? Are “constitutional conservatives” making a religious argument?

As the Tea Party evolves, journalists will continue to grapple with it. The religion angle is not as obvious as in previous incarnations of the Christian right, but more polling and an election may help us to better understand. At On Faith, our panelists provided a diversity of responses on the question of the tea party’s religiosity — <a href="http://onfaith.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/panelists/samuel_rodriguez/"Samuel
Rodriguez called it the “secular wing of the GOP” — but Jordan Sekulow said “social conservatives lead the tea party.”

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I’m really interested in how churches–and individual believers — deal with modernity in their midst. For example, a few weeks ago the web lit up with coverage of Stephen Hawking’s comments on God. One headline read “Stephen Hawking: God was not needed to create the Universe” (I did not read the book so I’m not sure how accurate that headline is). Nevertheless, atheists pounced on the “proof” and religious apologists took to defending God’s necessity or questioning the usefulness of Hawking. I suspect a number of people — at least those in the middle of the spectrum of belief — saw the headline and thought, “Hmmmm, wonder if that’s true,” and moved on, contemplating the ability of their tradition to cope with such questions. Do believers and religions deal with challenges by a return to orthodoxy or do their beliefs take on a modern adaptation? Something in between? This trend is interesting to me on the level of individual believer and religious institution.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

It is important for journalists for understand the role of religion in our world today because the world doesn’t make sense without an understanding of religion. Top stories at the Post recently included “Man arrested in alleged plot to bomb Metro stops” and “Tea party leader: Get rid of Muslim congressman.”

If we don’t understand how religion motivates people then we can’t understand the news. On a basic level, religion deals with the most profound questions one can ask: Is there a God? What does He want? How shall I live?

As we know, what people believe about God and human nature impacts what they believe about politics. Are we sinners by our nature? Are we essentially good? Is America “blessed” or “ordained” by God? Can government nudge us to righteousness or is the individual struggle for virtue the highest good? The answers to these questions have tremendous impact on values, policy and the headlines.

5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

Not a recent story — but an MSNBC story from last year asked if women who want to have large families (aka, more than two children) are “addicted” to having children. Mollie called the post a “train wreck.” I think it’s also a commentary on how quickly our society is changing and how an innocent attempt to explain a phenomenon, when not executed respectfully, can alienate readers. And, of course, GR had a field day.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I think the MSM — and indeed, democracy — is in trouble if large chunks of the country viscerally distrust us. The religion beat is an opportunity for mainstream journalists to cover issues that matter to readers who may (rightly or wrongly) feel marginalized or misrepresented by our media organizations. Fair coverage — reporting that is balanced, uses accurate language and explains without condescension — is a chance to narrow the gap between the “media elite” and “real America.” And for a great take on the media elite, watch this 2008 video by my Post colleagues.

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5Q+1: How Jeremy Lott is Real Clear

Get ready to add a new website to your daily reading list. So far at least, the Real Clear Religion website, a sister site to Real Clear Politics, is producing some quality religion news aggregation. Real Clear Religion editor Jeremy Lott explains the new site in a blog post.

Religion is serious and silly, scandalous and sublime. Religion writing ought to reflect this reality. Too often, it doesn’t. That’s a problem because religion is vitally important to billions of people the world over. It gives them a way to think about making sense of things, forming families, helping others, and helping themselves.

RealClearReligion.org aims to change this. We want to improve religion writing by highlighting the best of it, by giving interested parties a daily shortlist of news and commentary that they really ought to check out. We will cover religion in itself and religion as it influences those things that we can’t avoid: religion and science, religion and culture, religion and commerce, religion and politics.

Now that you have added the site to your bookmarks or RSS feeds and maybe “liked” the site on Facebook, we wanted to pick Lott’s brain about religion news.

First things first, here’s a short bio: Lott is the author of three books, most recently William F. Buckley (part of Thomas Nelson’s Christian Encounters series), and the recognized ghost for the autobiography of former Maryland governor Marvin Mandel. Lott, who is also associate editor of Real Clear Science, has worked at a number of think tanks and magazines, including the Cato Institute and The American Spectator as well as for, hold on to your hats, GetReligion. He lives in Fairfax, Va., and Lynden, Wash., and does not own a dog.

We’ve asked Lott to respond to our usual 5Q+1.

Where do you get your news about religion?
The short answer is everywhere. The long answer is, well, longer. The way the Real Clear websites work is that there’s a beta phase, where you, the editor, update a website regularly as if you had an audience. And then, at some point, you launch and start to attract an actual audience.

The beta prepares you for the launch in some ways. You get a good feel for what’s out there, what you should be reading regularly, what’s available in a pinch to round our your list ‘o links. But the dynamic also changes when you have readers. Then, people begin to forward and lobby for links.

I think that’s a good thing because, one, I can only read so much, and, two, it’s good to get readers involved in the process. Anybody should feel to drop me a note at jlott@realclearpolitics.com, though please don’t take it badly if I don’t answer.

One of the things that I find infuriating is when I read a good piece in a print periodical and then can’t find it online to link to it. Come on, publishers, get with the 21st century! Information wants to be free! Or at least, I want it to be.

What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
So many choices! I think the Ground Zero Mosque story stunned my fellow journalists because they don’t understand the deep ambivalence that many American have toward Islam. Bill O’Reilly said on The View that people objected to the mosque because Muslims killed Americans on 9/11. That was just beyond the pale. Rather than argue with him, two of the co-hosts walked off the set. There’s a great way to encourage constructive dialogue.

I’m way more of a dove than most Americans about Muslims, but I also do not buy this “religion of peace” line that George W. Bush turned into official US government policy. Islam is a religion that’s capable of peace, certainly. Sometimes for long historical stretches. But 9/11 and the riots that happen every time somebody threatens to draw a picture of Mohammad argue otherwise.

What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
I think the Glenn Beck-Mitt Romney story will be fascinating. Here you have the Tea Party that has just taken over American politics. It consists largely of conservative Protestants and Catholics but one of the big icons of the movement, Beck, is an unabashed Mormon.

Will Beck decide to back Romney out of solidarity or go against him for ideological reasons? If he opposes Romney, how will his fellow Mormons react? If he backs him, how will his largely evangelical audience react? Evangelicals have historically been extremely anti-Mormon. Could that change? We’ll find out.

Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Trying to understand the world today without taking account of religion is a fool’s errand. You literally cannot make sense of much of history, including recent history, unless you are willing to grapple with the role played by religion. It’s like walking through a busy train station with a bag over your head.

What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
My favorite story recently was about how Rev. Terry Jones got a free car for agreeing not to burn a Koran. This, of course, invites the obvious jokes about opportunism. Religious leaders of the world should know that there are literally thousands of your books that I will agree not to burn if you buy me a Can-Am Spyder Roadster.

But I do think that it also hints at the right kind of solution to some of our social conflicts. True, the Ground Zero Mosque folks — sorry, the two blocks from Ground Zero mosque folks –rejected Donald Trump’s overture. But just before 9/11 this year I had a piece in AOL News that argued mosque opponents should create a “move the mosque” fund. If thousands of people offered them tens of millions of dollars to move the building, say, eight blocks, it would be harder to say no.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

Don’t get too attached to that idea of mainstream media. It’s all changing, and faster than you think.

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5Q+1: Manya Brachear as Chicago’s ‘Seeker’

During my five years in the Chicago suburbs and a summer internship at a Sun-Times-owned paper, I began to understand just how complicated Chicagoland is to cover. Covering religion in the country’s third largest city is no small task, and religion reporter for the Chicago Tribune Manya Brachear tackles it head on.

Manya Brachear joined the Chicago Tribune in June 2003, covering the papal transition from Rome, the Dalai Lama’s visit to Chicago, debates about gay clergy, interfaith dialogue and religion in American politics. We regularly read her work here at GR.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State University and masters’ degrees in journalism and religious studies from Columbia University. She also has written for Time magazine, The Dallas Morning News, Beliefnet.com and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.

You can follow The Seeker blog, her Twitter feed and Facebook page. We’ve asked her to respond to our usual 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I do the same as all my colleagues: read a variety of blogs and reports from other news outlets. But more importantly, I stay in touch with the community and count on them to let me know when news is brewing. The Tribune now has a hyper-local focus. Localizing national stories just isn’t enough. There needs to be a local person who is driven by faith to do something extraordinary–either extraordinarily good, bad or odd to make into the paper. That simply requires keeping my ear close to the ground and pounding the pavement. Yep, all those old-school cliches you learn in J-school are still what work best.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
I don’t think the mainstream media fully grasp the way religion can motivate people to vote a certain way, act a certain way, lead a certain way. I also don’t think they understand the importance of wading into the messiness of religion, evidenced by how easily they move religion writers–trained professionals specifically fitted to wear those waders–to other beats. Powerbrokers get away with nonchalant God talk because reporters either don’t want to offend or don’t want to cover a debate that has no clear right or wrong resolution. We need to hold everyone accountable when they insert God into the equation.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
There’s been so much focus on objections to the Park 51 mosque, but many other faithful people besides Muslims are vying for rights and getting turned away. Religious discrimination on all fronts has become more acceptable but also more debatable. As some non-profits fight for the right to hire on the basis of religion and still receive federal funding, those who are excluded from applying are alleging discrimination. Meanwhile, religion bashing, which often sounds an awful lot like hate speech, seems to have become acceptable. The Chicago Tribune ran a front page story on September 11 about how three Muslim teenagers who barely remember the events of 9/11 have been teased and taunted as terrorists. I can see how one can argue that the story’s timing was or wasn’t appropriate, but those adults who responded by insulting the teens, calling them liars and suggesting they should just accept it, either missed or proved the point of the story. I look forward to watching how society, including official agencies such as the United Nations, law enforcement, FCC, religious institutions and the mainstream media, address the phenomenon.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Religion motivates people whether they know it or not. Doctors, politicians, philanthropists and business leaders often rely on their faith to guide their actions, sometimes more often than they admit or realize. Furthermore, religion also answers the question “why?” for many people. “Why?” is one of our five Ws. If we journalists fail to understand what drives everyone around us, we fail to answer the “why?” and thus fail to do our jobs.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
The atheists’ bus campaign that appeared on the side of Chicago buses cracked me up. Not only did the ads sponsors use the very evangelization methods they scorn, the ads revealed that even atheists are divided along liberal and conservative lines and vary in degrees of fervor. While some secularists simply seek to promote an ethic of goodwill, others want to dish out what they’ve been taking all these years. While doing my High Holiday reporting, I was reminded of the joke in Jewish circles that three Jews need four synagogues. But after seven years on the religion beat, I’m finding that joke applies to every religious denomination, including the atheists.

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5Q+1: Bruce Nolan, five years after Katrina

Whenever I see Bruce Nolan’s byline, I think of Bruce Almighty, thanks to a post Bobby wrote back in June. On screen, Jim Carrey’s character Bruce Nolan acts as a television reporter who plays God for a bit.

In all seriousness, though, the real journalist Bruce Nolan has done some solid stories down at the The Times-Picayune in New Orleans. In case you didn’t hear, there was this thing called Hurricane Katrina, and then another thing called an oil spill.

Nolan’s job has been to dig out religion angles out of what initially seemed to be a natural disaster story and a corporate blunder story. Here’s a sample: Katrina anniversary services as a litmus for the emotional status of the region, collective prayer as a response to the oil spill, seeing the spill theologically as a “sin” against creation, a Jewish social justice training program uses post-Katrina New Orleans as a laboratory, and Katrina radicalizes (and psychologically damages) an Episcopal bishop.

Nolan has spent his entire career at The Times-Picayune, something few reporters can claim. After stints as a reporter, suburban bureau chief and assistant city editor, in 1994, he asked for a six-month sabbatical to get back to writing and cover religion. “After six months everybody liked what was happening, so this long sabbatical just rolls along,” he said.

“Like other reporters of a certain age, I’ve done a lot of laps around the sexual abuse track; kept score in the culture wars and written a lot of clergy profiles and obits,” he said. “In August of 2005, however, I was aboard a Times-Picayune delivery truck that, having participated in a convoy ferrying employees out of the flooded city, doubled back and re-entered. That was the first day of the last story of my career–which story has lasted five years now and still insinuates itself into almost everything we do here.”

Reflecting on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, we’ve asked him to answer our usual 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?
From the usual places, probably. I have Google Reader, (an RSS feed reader) stuffed with colleagues’ blogs and wires, among them: David Gibson, Rocco’s Whispers, John Allen, Pew, RNA headlines, the RNS blog, Christianity Today, and more. I scan incoming newsletters from churches and synagogues. But the most fascinating stories are the ones that arise outside institutional structure-the ones you don’t recognize at first as religion stories: I mean the baseball Little League for Christian families; the medical school students’ organizing a year-end memorial honoring the people whose corpses they have dissected (true!) This is where you see religion working itself in the most innovative ways–which make for the most interesting news stories.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?
A couple of things come to mind. It feels like 1) the whole culture is very near some kind of tipping point on gay marriage and 2) I sense a growing secularization, or at least a growing appetite to find meaning outside organized religion. But more basically, here’s something I think lots of colleagues may recognize: It’s the slightly awkward feeling you get when you tell an editor that in response to some community crisis–a drought; a devastating plant closing; a storm or a massive oil spill–people in the community by the thousands are responding by … praying. Think the evening of 9/11,–but also, much smaller events as well. In lots of newsrooms, that won’t make the cut.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?
Since Aug. 29, 2005, we in New Orleans have had a lot on our plate locally, so brawls over sexual abuse, same sex marriage, Manhattan mosques and President Obama’s secret faith don’t get real purchase here. However, it has been immensely interesting to watch faith groups pitch in on the rebuilding of New Orleans, each following a command heard slightly differently, according to their tradition. We’ll keep watching that.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?
Because faith-and everybody believes something–is the way we interpret the world, period. What was the meaning of the hurricane? Am I supposed to assist? Who shall I choose as a spouse? Who shall I vote for? Is this immigration policy just? How do I know? Basic stuff.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?
So a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into this bar, and … Oops, wrong cue. Let’s give irony a try. This is Louisiana, home of U.S. Senator David Vitter, one of the most vocal family values champions in that body-before and after he was exposed as a regular customer in a prostitution ring. Perhaps you have someone similar near you. They seem to be proliferating, no?

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?
Okay, these are hard times. The old struggle to get religion news in the newsroom hierarchy of values endures, with new challenges: not enough bodies; new technologies to learn, you know the drill. But there’s a lot of wisdom out there; some best practices worth studying; smart colleagues to consult. The hive is trying to work this out. If at all possible, try to make it to the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Denver in late September. And one more piece of irony: I can’t make it this year. I’ll miss you, but catch you later.

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5Q+1: Joshunda Sanders on sacred and secular

Today I remembered why I like Joshunda Sanders’ Of Secred and Secular blog so much. She often teases that local angle out of a national issue, or finds something fresh locally.

For instance, she posted something today about how University of North Texas professors are studying the faith of Katrina survivors. This was no press release re-write; She interviewed the professors about how factors like age, previous religious experience and church attendance play a role in the faith of the survivors.

Sanders is the religion reporter at the Austin American-Statesman, where she has worked for five years. The Bronx, NY-native began her newspaper career in 2000 after she graduated from Vassar College as a Hearst Fellow with the Hearst Newspapers Corporation. During her fellowship, she moved every six months for two years and worked at the Houston Chronicle, The Beaumont Enterprise, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the San Francisco Chronicle.

She was a features writer at the San Francisco Chronicle between 2002 and 2005. She returned to Texas to write for the Statesman and to attend library school at the University of Texas at Austin, where she earned a master’s of science in information studies in 2009.

She has covered the public safety/cops beat, education, and breaking news at the Statesman before she was promoted to the religion beat in 2009. She has been visiting area churches, speaking to local church leaders about trends, and blogging up a storm since then.

Joshunda also writes creative nonfiction and her essays have appeared in several Seal Press anthologies, including “Secrets and Confidences: The Complicated Truth about Women’s Friendships,” “Homelands: Women’s Journeys Across Race, Place, and Time,” and “Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.” She is also a lecturer at the University of Texas School of Journalism this semester.

Sanders will join the flock of religion reporters headed to the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Denver September 23-25. Anyone else going?

If you haven’t already, you should add Sanders’ Of Sacred and Secular blog to your bookmarks/readers and follow her on Twitter. We asked her to weigh in on our usual 5Q+1.

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

I have over two dozen RSS feeds in Google Reader that range from Reuters’ FaithWorld, to Spiritual Politics to more obvious choices like USA Today, Washington Post and the New York Times Religion pages and blogs. I also check the Associated Press wires daily and look at the daily roundups from the Religion News Service to see what’s happening around the country and around the world. I also love magazine writing, so when I have time, I scan some of the religious magazines, like Christianity Today or Tablet, along with the more secular ones, like Newsweek, to get a sense of whether there are trends happening that I’m not necessarily looking at, but need to file away for the future.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

It’s hard to say. I have compassion for mainstream media outlets at a time when blogs and micro blogs keep changing the print and web landscape for writers and readers, exposing us to constant deadlines, competition to have “attitude” like blogs and the expectation that we will also be fair, breaking news and absolutely correct 100 percent of the time right out of the gate. That said, I think the identity crisis that Christian denominations find themselves facing is something we’re not quite getting at, probably because it’s such a vast story. From the Catholic Church’s rising immigrant population to mainline denominations figuring out how to retain young members as older ones die in what seems to be an increasingly non-denominational church world, the identity shift is one that we’re still in and who knows how long it will last. But, like I said, I think that’s a challenging to story to write and stay on top of with all of the expectations for reporters to produce across media platforms.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I’ll be looking closely at the issue of clergy health locally to get a sense of whether national denominational efforts have trickled down to Austin, which is known as a fit town full of runners and cyclists and people who are concerned with their overall wellness.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

I used to be a cops reporter, a features writer and for a very short time, an education writer. Each of those positions sometimes offered trend stories that affected a large audience in theory, but in practice, none of the stories I’ve worked on up to this point (10 years as a reporter, five years at the Statesman) seem to have resonated with readers in the same way as stories about belief, non-belief, tradition, faith and spirituality. I think religion resonates for people because folks in our society have been trained only to talk about religion in private (kind of like their ideas about sex or money, I suppose) but the web and the 24/7 news cycle gives people an anonymous forum for discussing their thoughts about faith. That’s a good and a bad thing, but the best thing about it is that people have access to so much information about all kinds of things that allow them to put in context the things we experience on an everyday basis. Insofar as religion or faith or agnosticism affects the way that people live their lives or conduct themselves as public officials, this is tremendously important for journalists to understand in as nuanced a way as possible.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

As a native New Yorker who once worked briefly in the World Trade Center as a college intern, I loved the Washington Post piece that interviewed apathetic New Yorkers about the Cordoba House/Park51 debate, which has become more of a political joust than a meaningful discussion about what turns a prayer room a mosque, how we decide what truly makes President Obama or anyone a “real” Christian or Muslim, and why it’s impossible for us to identify people as Islamophobes without being labeled socialists.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

I think it’s amazing that mainstream media still has writers devoted to religion coverage and I think it’s a privilege to be counted among that group. In my case, I actually write on other topics as part of a slim staff, but most of the time my editors are gracious enough to let me blog and write about religion, which I have come to love. I don’t know that readers understand fully the statement that the presence of religion writers sends about the organizations that are still committed to the coverage–that religion is still worth talking about because it touches all of the important areas of our lives whether we are believers or not. I’m probably biased because I work for a newspaper, but while I think it’s important to give writers, editors and content producers at news organizations constructive criticism, I also believe it’s important to affirm the religion writers who get it right or try their best, and I think that’s the incredibly valuable service that
GetReligion provides. So, thanks for that!

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