What? The press overlooked key Catholic stories in 2013?

First of all, I would like to stress that I had already decided, several days ago, to write the following post in praise of John L. Allen, Jr., and his relentless focus on the Catholic-beat news missed by so many other scribes.

That’s my story, friends and neighbors, and I am sticking to it.

In other words, I am not writing this post today because of the rather stunning announcement — almost universally cheered in religion-news land — that that Allen would be leaving the progressive National Catholic Reporter and signing on with The Boston Globe for several projects linked to religion-news reporting, with a heavy emphasis on Catholic coverage (duh). I was going to write this post last week, but I was still out on the road due to family issues down South.

One of the keys here is that Allen, while writing for a newspaper with a distinct editorial point of view, has always been known as a reporter who focused on providing waves of accurate information, which takes time and expertise, as opposed to merely offering an endless stream of editorial opinion, which is rather inexpensive and primarily serves the needs of a niche readership. It is to the credit of NCR leaders that they allowed Allen to do what he did, for so long.

Yesterday, I praised the Globe team for making a strategic move that is oh so logical, yet one that many mainstream news editors reject. They treated religion like a serious news topic and hired an experienced, trained, respected reporter to cover it. Trust me, newsroom managers, there are more than a few other skilled religion-beat pros available out there — old and young — in Internet land who are more than willing to do this work.

Anyway, I was pleased to see this tweet from Allen himself:

So back to our delayed subject for today. It focuses on one of Allen’s newsy journalistic rites:

It’s an “All Things Catholic” tradition to dedicate the first column of the new year to the most under-covered Catholic stories of the previous 12 months, which in the past has always seemed a good use of time given the sporadic and often radically incomplete coverage the church typically draws.

This year, however, it feels a little silly to be talking about Catholicism as under-covered, given the astronomic media interest generated by the resignation of Benedict XVI and the rise of Francis.

You think? Perhaps you noticed that tsunami of ink in the past year? If there is a Pope Francis effect, it primarily exists in newsrooms.

But, Allen rightly notes, that doesn’t mean that the mainstream press didn’t miss important Catholic coverage.

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What can we say? Boston Globe hires John L. Allen, Jr.

For several decades now, I have been telling mainstream newsroom managers that all they have to do to improve religion-news coverage is to approach the beat the same way they approach any other major news beat that they respect, such as politics, sports, politics, education, politics and, of course, entertainment gossip.

What’s the magic formula? Here is what I had to say in a 1995 lecture to the editors of Scripps Howard newspapers:

So, you’re a manager in a newsroom and you’ve decided to improve religion coverage. What can you do?

There are only three ways that editors show what they think about a subject: what kind of reporter covers it, how much coverage it receives and where the stories appear in the newspaper. Thus, the solution is obvious: hire one or more quality journalists who are committed to covering religion and give their work the kind of display that is granted to subjects editors consider important.

Religion is a stunningly complicated beat, with dozens of major and minor religious groups and institutions dotting the intellectual and emotional landscape. Buddhists don’t talk, pray or do business like Baptists. Catholics and Pentecostals have totally different concepts of what it means to be a “charismatic” leader, except, of course, for Catholics who also happen to Pentecostals. It’s impossible to navigate these waters without a working knowledge of the charts.

So with that in mind, faithful GetReligion readers will join me in celebrating this tweet:

 

In recent years, your GetReligionistas have sadly published more than a few “black flag” notices marking the closing of a religion-beat job in a major newsroom or the departure of a skilled Godbeat veteran from active duty in the news biz. Every now and then, we can cheer when a Cathy Grossman, after an exit from USA Today, is able to make a much-deserved comeback in a shop like Religion News Service.

So now we need to ask, what is the opposite of a black flag?

Obviously, a white flag represents surrender.

That’s not what people who care about solid religion-news reporting should be feeling after that tweet from Allen, who — while writing for the progressive National Catholic Reporter — has won wide respect on both sides of Catholic sanctuary aisles for his informed and accurate coverage.

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Any reporters out there still studying Pope Francis?

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This whole GetReligion operation, as regular readers know, exists to look at the good and the bad in the mainstream media’s attempts to cover religion news, events and trends.

Thus, we spend very little time focusing on essays published in advocacy journalism outlets.

Thus, we spend very little time focusing on coverage in religious publications that grind out news and information about individual religious flocks.

Thus, we spend very little time focusing on first-person journalism, since that often — but not always — is linked to journalism produced in a more “European,” opinion-driven style (see rule No. 1).

However, there are always exceptions to the rules. One of the most common exceptions is when we find first-person essays that are directly linked to the state of religion news coverage. There are also times when we come across a piece written by a world-class expert on some aspect of religion that we simply cannot imagine religion-beat professionals, and those who appreciate the subjects addressed by religion-beat professionals, would not wanting to read.

That is the case with the National Catholic Reporter piece that ran the other day by — naturally enough — the omnipresent John L. Allen Jr.

While armies of reporters are following each and every symbolic Vatican move made by Pope Francis, Allen hopped a plane and headed over to Buenos Aires to produce a piece with this logical headline: “Who Francis may be based on who Bergoglio was.”

It contains all kinds of information and quotes from real people who have watched the this quiet man for decades. Allen lets them talk, which means that when it comes time to sum up their words into observations and predictions about the new pope, it is highly likely that readers are going to believe him.

Religion-news junkies are going to want to read it all, but, in particular, I thought GetReligion readers would appreciate a few passages in which Allen shreds some of the early attempts to pin a simplistic label on Francis.

… It’s clear that despite the insta-hagiography that always surrounds a new pope, Bergoglio was hardly a cultural icon in Argentina before his election. He kept a low profile, and many Argentines say they’re getting to know him only now along with the rest of the world. …

It also seems clear that Bergoglio wasn’t perfect, despite the fact that it’s hard right now to find many Argentines willing to say so out loud. For instance, vocations to the priesthood have been falling in Buenos Aires on his watch, despite the fact they’re up in some other dioceses. Last year the archdiocese ordained just 12 new priests, as opposed to 40-50 per year when Bergoglio took over. (For the record, people say that Bergoglio did his best to support his priests and seminarians, taking a special interest in seminary life.)

The future pope also certainly had his critics. Some conservatives grouse that he was too committed to the social gospel and not enough to proclaiming the faith; some liberals saw him as an enemy of liberation theology and social emancipation. Others say Bergoglio could come off as fairly inscrutable and a bit “political.”

More than once, I heard a version of the following quip: “I didn’t know what he was really thinking … he is a Jesuit, you know!”

And the ultimate takeaway from this first-person study? Here are two of Allen’s conclusions, in abbreviated form:

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