Noooooooooooo!!! Godbeat losing a superstar

Please forgive the exclamation points in the title.

But enough already.

On the heels of Bob Smietana leaving The Tennessean, the impending departure of a religion-writing superstar rocked the Godbeat this week.

Ann Rodgers, president of the Religion Newswriters Association, announced that she’s leaving the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette after two decades.

In a public posting on her Facebook page, Rodgers wrote:

I will be leaving the Post-Gazette on Sept. 5 to become communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. I haven’t swum the Tiber, but they told me that 33 years of wading in it have saturated me enough to do this job. I am deeply grateful to the Post-Gazette for 20 years of unparalleled support for the religion beat and for me personally. I have the best team of editors anywhere in journalism. But I have covered the beat for 33 years, 25 of them in Pittsburgh, and it’s time for a new challenge. I look forward to a job where I can express my Christian faith, while serving a church that does incredible good in Western Pennsylvania and worldwide. My best to all of you. Stay in touch.

Folks, this is sad news for the religion beat.

Here at GetReligion, we have not critiqued Rodgers’ stories as much as those of some other writers because, quite frankly, there’s only so many different ways to say, “Another fantastic story!”

The Diocese of Pittsburgh reported on Rodgers’ appointment, noting that she is a member of an Anglican church — a fact that didn’t please everyone.

In a 2010 interview with Rodgers, former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey dubbed her “Pittsburgh’s queen of religion news.”

Over at The Deacon’s Bench, Deacon Greg Kandra — reflecting on news of Rodgers’ new position — noted:

She’s one of the best on the beat — and, really, part of a dying breed: a reporter who “gets” religion and has made it her business to understand it from every angle. At a time when the coverage of religion is often sorely wanting, and most writers don’t have a clue what they’re talking about — whether it’s Catholicism or Islam or evangelical Protestantism — Ann Rodgers was in a class by herself.

Rodgers reports that the Post-Gazette is looking to replace her. That will be difficult to do, obviously, but it’s wonderful news — in this age of newsroom cutbacks — that the Pittsburgh newspaper remains committed to religion news.

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So, is Benedict XVI lying about motives for his retirement?

So let’s say that The Telegraph prints a story from its Rome bureau about the interesting new statements by Pope Benedict XVI about events surrounding his historic decision to retire. The top of the story, logically enough, starts with Benedict’s own point of view:

“God told me to do it,” the 86-year-old former pontiff told a friend, six months after his decision to step down shocked the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.

God had implanted in his heart the “absolute desire” to resign and to devote himself to a life of prayer and reflection, Benedict told the anonymous confidante, according to Zenit, a Rome-based Catholic news agency.

“It was not because of any type of apparition or phenomenon of that sort,” he said, but instead the result of a “mystical experience” received during “a direct rapport with the Lord”. He said the more he sees the “charisma” of Pope Francis, his successor, the more he is convinced that it was “the will of God” that he became the first pontiff in 600 years to resign.

So far, pretty normal stuff — journalistically speaking.

However, later in the story the omniscient editorial voice of the newsroom added:

Benedict returned to live in the Vatican in May, saying that he would remain “hidden from the world”, devoting the rest of his life to prayer and theological study. His remarks will do little to dampen speculation about the more worldly reasons for his departure.

Although old and frail, he does not appear to be suffering from any specific illness, prompting speculation about his true motives.

Etc., etc. Now, you put these two sections of the news report together and you can get this kind of distressed remark from a faithful GetReligion reader:

“So, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is a liar?”

Actually, no, for at least two reasons — one journalistic and the other theological.

[Read more...]

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Interesting Rowan Williams apology: And important, too

Let us return, for a moment, to that interesting quote the other day from the former Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams. You may recall that he said, concerning public debates in the West about religion:

“Persecution is not being made to feel mildly uncomfortable. I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians or rather believers.

“I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We’re made to feel as if we’re idiots — perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up.”

Quite a vivid quote, that.

So, thinking about this journalistically, where is the bright-red line in the public square between “discrimination” or “hostility” and behavior that can truly be called “persecution”?

This is actually a pretty good question, in an era in which journalists are facing an increasing number of debates about how to cover hot-button topics — think Health & Human Services mandates, for starters — that are linked to debates about basic First Amendment rights, such as free speech, freedom of association and freedom of religion.

It is also interesting to note that Williams has issued a rather unusual clarification, or public apology, in a letter to the editor at The Guardian, about the fierceness of his recent statement. Here it is:

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Godbeat losing one of its best and brightest

Usually, we critique religion news here at GetReligion.

Occasionally, we report on significant developments on the Godbeat.

This is one of those times, although — as lightning fast as news travels in the social media age — many of you probably already heard this.

Bob Smietana, a regular GetReligion reader and commenter and the award-winning religion writer at The Tennessean, is leaving the secular news business.

Here’s the note that Lisa Green, Bob’s editor, sent to the staff:

He’s covered snake-handling preachers and mosque arson, lawbreaking charities and babies named Messiah. He’s introduced us to the guy who quit his job over 666 and the clergyman who says God doesn’t care if you smoke weed. And now I’m sad to announce that Bob Smietana will be leaving The Tennessean and taking his talents elsewhere. Bob has been our religion writer since 2007 and has been racking up awards all the way through – claiming first place just last month in the Tennessee Press Association contest for both feature writing (the snake handlers story) and best personal column, for his first-person account of his battle with diabetes. He has broken news both locally and nationally with his key connections on a passion-topic beat. He’ll be going across the railroad tracks to LifeWay, where he will be writing about research on church and cultural trends for Facts and Trends magazine. His last day with us will be Aug. 30. Please join me in wishing Bob well. We will miss him greatly. – Lisa Green

The snake-handling story drew praise from GetReligion, as did the diabetes column and a host of other Smietana bylines.

Bob’s impact on religion news has extended far beyond Nashville, as many of his stories have found a way to USA Today — also owned by Gannett — and Religion News Service, giving his work a strong national presence.

Bob shared his thinking with me:

It’s a big move. The reasons are mostly personal. Journalism is 24/7 right now and I can’t give it all my attention.

Being a husband and dad is my first priority. Am (I am) also excited about writing about religion research — am intrigued by sociology of religion.

Plus, (Ed) Stetzer and LifeWay Research do good work — respected by secular news pubs.

I personally consider Bob a friend, although he and I have sparred occasionally on this website. A time or two, we even have found it necessary to apologize to each other “off camera.” I attribute our few disagreements to the passion that we share for quality journalism and religion news.

Bob’s departure comes on the heels of USA Today religion writer Cathy Lynn Grossman taking a buyout earlier this year. If USA Today has hired a new religion writer, I have not heard about it.

And now Smietana’s impending departure leaves a big hole at The Tennessean — a newspaper that serves a city some refer to as the “buckle of the Bible Belt.”

Stay tuned.

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Intrigue in the wide, wide world of the religion-news beat?

For several days now, I have been very curious about an item related to mainstream journalism work on the religion-news beat.

The following appeared in the online column by Dr. Debra Mason of the world-famous University of Missouri School of Journalism, who is also the executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association of America.

The state of the religion beat in mainstream newsrooms is a subject of great concern at, for obvious reasons. Since day one, one of the major themes here is that — while it’s always possible to argue about issues of content, balance, etc., — the simple fact of the matter is that reporting on the religion beat is almost always 90-plus percent better on average when it is handled by professionals with experience and training covering this highly complex topic.

Don’t get me wrong. There is fabulous work done on topics linked to religion by a wide variety of reporters who take the subject seriously. All of that fantastic work at The New Yorker by the great feature writer Peter J. Boyer leaps to mind. Ditto for the work of veteran foreign correspondent Pamela Constable of The Washington Post.

Still, the wise editor strives to improve work on the religion beat by treating it like politics, science, sports, arts or any other serious news topic worthy of respect. A key part of that is seeking and hiring reporters who have demonstrated excellence on covering the beat in question — like religion.

So the state of the religion beat and the state of the tribe of religion-beat professionals is crucial. The state of the RNA is one piece of that puzzle.

That’s why Mason’s column — posted for RNA members — is so interesting.

It’s a good news/bad news letter. For example, there’s this:

Some of you may not know that earlier this year, a group of journalism students applied and were officially approved as a University of Missouri student organization called Mizzou RNA. It became the first student RNA chapter in the world and it’s thrilling to have it at this great School of Journalism.

A smart student from another university is exploring the potential of starting a second student chapter. If you are an educator member, please let me know how we might help you create a student RNA chapter at your college or university. Fueling a passion for the beat among today’s journalism students is vital if we are to continue the gains in professionalism and practice made in the past three decades.

Second, our membership committee, led by RNA member Sarah Pulliam Bailey (Religion News Service) with heavy lifting from RNA Board Member J.D. Kaleem (Huffington Post), held successful mixers in New York City and Washington, D.C. Some 90 people attended each of the mixers. The energy and outreach of these “under 40-year-olds” is inspiring.

Enthusiasm for the beat remains. The drive for new members breeds hope in me for the security and future of the beat and for RNA.

And the bad news?

[Read more...]

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Pod people: Have many Americans tuned out the press?

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions on same-sex marriage, I wrote two relatively quiet pieces that attempted to focus on specific journalistic issues linked to this significant victory for the cultural, moral and religious left.

One post asked if the mainstream press would ponder and investigate the degree to which the Defense of Marriage Act decision reflected a split among Catholics inside the court. I referred to the four Supreme Court justices who are known to be rather traditional, Mass attending Catholics — the four-vote minority in this better 5-4 split decision — and the two members of the court, including the author of the majority decision, who in previous media accounts have been shown to be both doctrinally progressive and “cultural” Catholics who are not highly active at the parish and sacramental levels.

Is there a religion hook there? A ghost?

The other post asked why The Baltimore Sun, in it’s package covering the decisions, did not address two major Maryland-specific elements of the story. No. 1: The voices of African-American churchgoers, a key constituency in all of the state’s debates about same-sex marriage. No. 2: The fact that Baltimore Archbishop William Lori is the chair of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ committee on religious liberty and, thus, one of the most important Catholic voices on issues linked to the potential impact of the same-sex marriage rulings on the lives of traditional religious believers and institutions.

Alas, each of these questions — so far — must be answered with the a simple “no.”

Truth be told, I have been surprised, so far, with how few readers on the left or the right have left any comments on why it is either good or bad for many mainstream news organizations to use a one-sided, advocacy approach (Yes, hello Bill Keller of The New York Times) when covering such an important story. I didn’t expect balanced coverage. I did assume some basic questions and issues would be addressed on both sides of the story.

The bottom line: Is this the new professional “normal” when covering hot-button issues linked to religion?

All of this entered into my discussions this week with Todd Wilken as we taped this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast. Click here to listen to that.

The lack of comments on these posts left me rather depressed. The implication is that that many GetReligion readers have simply given up and no longer believe that many, perhaps most, elite journalists are committed to focusing accurate, balanced coverage of the views and beliefs of “stakeholders” (there’s that term again) on both sides of these debates.

Bummer. And the more I pondered this, the more I thought about another recent story linked to public views of the press.

Did you happen to see the recent reporting on this national poll?

Only 23 percent of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to Gallup.

Continuing a decades-long downward trend, fewer than one-fourth of Americans have confidence in newspapers, according to a recent Gallup poll.

The percentage of Americans saying they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers dropped to 23 percent this year from 25 percent last year, according to a report on the poll, which was released Monday.

American confidence in newspapers reached its peak at 51 percent in 1979, and a low of 22 percent in 2008.

Now, that 23 percent figure is quite close — too close for comfort — to the growing army of Americans (.pdf here) who are either religiously unaffiliated or openly atheist/agnostic. Am I saying that this fact explains this anti-media trend? No way. But it could be a sign that the large mass of Americans who no longer trust the press, who no longer believe the mainstream press can fairly and accurately cover divisive issues, includes an unusually high number of religious believers, especially those who are active in local congregations.

Yes, there is a “political” angle to this:

[Read more...]

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Chicago photographer waits for new assignment from God

So, who has been following the drama that unfolded early this month up in Chicago, where the professional photographers at The Chicago Sun-Times were hit by the roller coaster of digital change earlier this month? To make a long story short, in the age of smartphones and digital video, the management decided to lay off the entire photography staff, award winners and all.

Who needs photos better than those that can be shot by reporters and bystanders?

Many people in Chicago continue to protest this.

When the whole thing started, a reader sent us a URL to a sad piece that explored the impact of this on one famous shutter star, a piece that put the spiritual angle right up front.

I saved the piece and then forgot about it. It’s still an example of how a news team — especially a niche news team like Poynter — can try to let a person’s voice speak to the heart of things. In the end, I thought the story fell one brave word short. Here’s the lede:

John White’s 44-year career at The Chicago Sun-Times has been rooted in faith and professionalism. It’s a career he refers to as “an assignment from God.”

Earlier this week, that career came to an end on what some photographers have called the darkest day in Sun-Times photojournalism history. The paper announced … that it had laid off its entire photojournalism staff and would rely on freelance photographers and reporters instead.

White — who has seen the paper go through many owners and changes — says he never imagined that his and his colleagues’ careers would end so abruptly. In a phone interview, the 1982 Pulitzer prize-winning photojournalist and teacher recalled a day that he is still “trying to make sense of.”

“This is what I remember hearing: ‘As you know we are going forward into multimedia and video, and that is going to be our focus. So we are eliminating the photography department.’ Then they turned it over to HR,” recounted White, who had already been doing video at the paper.

The journalism details are all there, a blow-by-blow description of the digital logic of our day. The photo department included 28 full-time staffers.

Up next: Classes in iPhone photography basics. It’s happened before and it will, sadly, happen again.

However, I kept waiting for the White’s voice to return.

[Read more...]

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It’s summertime, and GetReligionista life is complicated

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Yes, it’s summertime (sing along with the voice of my teen years in Port Arthur, Texas) and, to cut to the chase, the living ain’t easy right now for your GetReligionistas.

There is no reason to bother you with the details, but several of us are currently facing medical complications that will involve multiple trips to multiple doctors in the coming days. Add that to the fact that, as regular GetReligion readers will recall, Father George Conger continues to wrestle with the results of his spinal surgery last spring.

And then there is the usual summer travel thing.

At the moment, Bobby is in a minimal Internet zone down in Nicaragua and in the weeks ahead I will be making multiple trips to my beloved Southern Highlands (think Tennessee and North Carolina) as well as another multi-day teaching assignment, this time in St. Petersburg, Fla. (covering journalism material very similar to that used in my recent trip to Bangkok, Thailand).

All of this is to say that GetReligion will not be shutting down for a summer break. We’ve never done that, over the past nine years.

What we will be doing is slowing down a bit, with our posts coming at the rate of two a day instead of the usual three and sometimes four.

Weekends? As a rule, we try to offer three posts every weekend and I imagine we’ll pull off two — as in one a day — during the next month or so. But the site will never go dark and there will be something new every day, as usual. We might go a week without a podcast.

So be patient with us and, of course, keep reading. Keep following us on Twitter and retweets are always appreciated. Keep wrestling with Disqus.

Most of all, keep sending us those essential emails pointing us toward the good and the bad religion news in your local and regional newspapers. And it never hurts to send us the national and international stuff either, since we can’t see everything (especially when traveling).

Thanks for your help and understanding. We always appreciate the input.

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