Pod people: What was top 2013 story for Pope Francis?

I am sure that GetReligion readers will be shocked, shocked to know that the Godbeat professionals in the Religion Newswriters Association selected the election of Pope Francis Superstar as the top religion-news story of 2013. It goes without saying that Pope Francis was also named Religion Newsmaker of the Year.

Click here to read the official RNA release about the Top 10 stories of the year.

Faithful GetReligion readers will also be shocked, shocked to know that I understood the logic of the RNA vote, but had a slightly different take on the top news event or trend in 2013.

And finally, GetReligion podcast patrons will be shocked, shocked to know that host Todd Wilken and I dissected all of this material, and more, in this week’s “Crossroads” episode. Please click here to listen to that.

So here is my logic about this No. 1 story vote.

Of course I understand that the election of Pope Francis produced more headlines and glowing ink over the last year than any other religion-beat story. In terms of mainstream news coverage, the election of the charismatic, yet walk-his-talk humble, pope had to be one of the most powerful earthquakes in this past year’s news — period.

But stop and think about it.

How long has it been since the occupant of St. Peter’s throne resigned his post? That would be 600 years or so, right? Thus, one could make the case that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI was one of the most important stories in Catholicism, and thus, Western Christianity in, well, decades — at the very least. Try to imagine the long-term ramifications of Benedict’s astonishing exit.

So how can a story be one of the most important stories in Western religion in DECADES and not be the most important religion story of the YEAR?

I know, I know. Pope Francis was the religion-news earthquake of 2013 and that’s that. The resignation of Pope Benedict XVI finished in second place.

Well, I have one more angle I would like readers to pause and consider. Here’s how I put it in this week’s “On Religion” column for the Universal Uclick syndicate:

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More personnel changes on the Godbeat

Here at GetReligion, we don’t generally report the news. We critique media coverage of the news.

But when significant developments occur among Godbeat pros, we try to share that information with our faithful readers. That’s because we believe that it matters who’s covering the religion beat — and who isn’t.

Lately, we’ve had a number of these inside baseball developments to pass along, including the departures of three Godbeat stars: Bob Smietana from The Tennessean, Ann Rodgers from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Tim Townsend from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Our posts prompted the Poynter Institute, the  journalism think tank, to report on the state of the Godbeat (including confirming that The Oregonian laid off its religion and ethics writer, Nancy Haught). Poynter’s story, in turn, inspired more reflection at GetReligion, which drew Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher into the discussion over at The American Conservative. And Dreher’s column, of course, gave us a reason to consider that age-old question, “Do religious leaders really want quality religion coverage?”

OK, is everybody caught up now? Because the roller-coaster ride continues.

In a few of the posts mentioned above, we noted that Cathy Lynn Grossman, longtime religion writer for USA Today, took a buyout earlier this year. If USA Today has hired someone to fill Grossman’s post, we don’t know about it. But we can tell you where Grossman landed.

Many thanks to RNS for letting us know personally about Grossman’s new gig:

Meanwhile, another religion writer at a major newspaper — Rose French of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune — is leaving the Godbeat.

Poynter reports:

Rose French and Brad Schrade, husband and wife, are leaving for jobs at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Schrade — along with Jeremy Olson and Glenn Howatt — won a 2013 Pulitzer for their series of reports on the increase in infant deaths at daycare homes in Minnesota.

French will join the Atlanta newspaper’s education team as an enterprise reporter. In a memo cited by Poynter, Star-Tribune managing editor Rene Sanchez said:

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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 GetReligion.org, 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?

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Scared ‘journalist’ hides in a church, lives to write about it

A few weeks ago, a Twitter post from Tim Townsend, the award-winning religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, caught my attention.

The tweet linked to a Gawker.com piece titled “Journalism is not narcissism.”  The enlightening essay concludes:

The extent to which we train a generation of young writers to become robotic insta-memoirists is the extent to which a generation of stories from the wider world does not get told. The real tragedy of journalism-as-narcissism is not the general pettiness of the stories it produces; it is the other, better stories that never get produced as a result.

I was reminded of that piece this week when I came across a Religion Dispatches post headlined “A Journalist in Church, Hiding in Plain Sight.”  I forwarded a link to the article to my fellow GetReligionistas with a one-word subject line: “Weird.” (And yes, I acknowledge the irony of writing a first-person blog post related to this.)

My boss replied to my e-mail with this note:

A great example of a non-hard news item that we should write about.

It’s linked to the religion beat, period.

So here I am, assigned to make sense of this “journalist” who hides in a church and lives to write about it.

Let’s start at the top:

I’ve often wondered why I hid from them that day. It was two years ago and a rousing Sunday service was winding down at the Portuguese Language Missionary Pentecostal Church in Queens. The pastor, a fiery sermonizer who looked the part of an insurance salesman in his oversized metallic gray suit, had just asked the congregation’s baptized members to approach the front of the church and form a tunnel, through which the unconverted (não crentes, as Brazilians call them) could walk and feel the power of the church’s faith.

As the first of several women approached the gauntlet of cheery Christians, their heads downcast in perhaps shame or contemplation, I double-timed it down the church’s back hallway to the shoddy bathroom. For several tense minutes I waited, until it was safe to once again hide in the back row.

While cowering in the bathroom, and later in my seat, I rationalized my disappearing act on purely journalistic grounds: I was only there to observe. Yet my rapid heartbeat hinted at something else: fear. Fear of being found out, of being asked straight out if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior—I had not and still have not.

Maybe I’m missing something here, but wouldn’t the better journalistic approach be to carry a notepad, introduce yourself as a reporter and ask if it’s OK to hang out in the back and see what the church is all about? Isn’t that what journalists do? 

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#RNA2012: Outside a Mormon temple wedding

In a couple of recent posts — here and here — I’ve already highlighted some of the excellent Godbeat journalism that claimed prizes in the Religion Newswriters Association’s annual awards contest.

If you haven’t checked out the winning entries, I’d encourage you to do so. For regular readers of GetReligion, many of the honorees’ names will read like a who’s who in religion news. Among those names: Dan Gilgoff and Eric Marrapodi of CNN’s Belief Blog, David Gibson of Religion News Service and Tom Breen (formerly) of The Associated Press.

Another familiar name from the Godbeat: Peggy Fletcher Stack of The Salt Lake Tribune. 

This past weekend, Stack was busy covering the 182nd annual LDS General Conference, so she didn’t actually make it to the RNA annual conference in Bethesda, Md., just outside the nation’s capital. But she was recognized as the Cornell Religion Reporter of the Year, which honors religion writers for the nation’s mid-sized newspapers.

Stack produced a truly fascinating story on Mormon weddings dividing families when some loved ones are forced to wait outside the temple. The top of the story, which I missed when it was published in June 2011:

You see them on Salt Lake City’s Temple Square nearly every day. They pace nervously or stroll aimlessly, staring down at the tulips or up at the spires.

They are nottourists or templegoers. They are parents, siblings, cousins and friends of Mormon couples being wed inside the LDS sanctuary. But, for one reason or another, they are not allowed to view the ceremony.

Maybe they are Catholic, Lutheran, Jewish or atheist. Perhaps they once were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Or maybe they are current Mormons who fail to meet all the faith’s belief and behavior standards for a “recommend” to enter into the temple.

Stack demonstrates her expertise on Mormonism with a story that provides theological insight and historical background. At the same time, she writes in a way that makes sense even to a reader not as well versed in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She quotes a variety of sources, from church spokesmen to those who have married inside the temple — without certain key relatives joining them.

Moreover, Stack places the weddings in the context of a changing society:

Part of the problem has emerged in recent years as society has moved weddings from the sacred to the secular, says Brigham Young University sociologist Marie Cornwall. Marriage was once a church-centered celebration, given that most people’s religious and secular communities were the same. Now they
aren’t.

Many of today’s weddings no longer are seen as a holy event before God and witnesses, she says, but rather as a chance to bring everyone together to celebrate the newlyweds.

“Everyone now has relatives who are not religious,” she says. “So weddings have become more and more part of the market. Couples are spending huge amounts of money for celebrations to include all their friends.”

When I clicked the link to Stack’s winning entry, I couldn’t stop reading, which is always a good sign.

Congratulations to Stack and the rest of the RNA winners!


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