Yo, Globe: Why settle for fog when you have a better option?

So I had a meeting the other day with a former GetReligionista and, within minutes, the topic of the conversation turned to a subject many religion-beat professionals (past, present and future) have been discussing in recent weeks: Now that the folks who run The Boston Globe have John L. Allen, Jr., what precisely are they going to do with him?

In a way, this is a variation on one of the big questions looming over our age, journalistically speaking.

At the heart of the debate is an agonizing economic equation that is driving many old-school journalists crazy: Opinion is cheap; information is expensive. Some people word the second half of that equation differently: Opinion is cheap; reporting is expensive. The end result is usually the same, as far as I am concerned. And, of course, freelance opinion is the cheapest option of all. We’ve been on this foggy road (yes, that fog) for quite some time now.

Allen, of course, is a great reporter whose years of work — while at the liberal National Catholic Reporter — was taken seriously because he relentlessly provided waves of new information from high-quality voices on all sides of Catholic debates at the local, regional, national and global levels. He was working at a publication with an obvious point of view, but he kept producing real reporting, even in his columns and works of analysis.

Now Allen is at the Globe, which is a mainstream newspaper that, one can only hope, remains committed to coverage built on the classic American model of the press, with journalists striving (yes, often imperfectly) to achieve high standards of accuracy, balance and fairness. Some professionals continue to use the word “objectivity” with a straight face. However, the Globe team has also talked about starting its own online publication about Catholic news, period. What approach would that start-up use?

Allen has started work and is producing a wide range of material. I thought his mini-feature on the style of Pope Francis — which was for some reason labeled “analysis” — was especially delightful, as a quick overview of symbolic details that add up to a larger whole.

The headline: “New reality in Vatican: Surprise, it’s the pope!” Basically, the idea is that it’s getting harder to predict where Pope Francis will, literally, show up. Here is a key slice:

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is a member of a Vatican council that oversees the Synod of Bishops, a summit of Catholic prelates from around the world. The council meets every so often in a building a few blocks from St. Peter’s Basilica, and the practice has been that it passes conclusions to a papal aide without getting face time with the boss.

In October, however, Francis decided to walk down the Via della Conciliazione, the broad Roman street leading away from the basilica, to join one of their meetings. It was an act akin to the President of the United States heading over to Congress to sit in on a meeting of a House committee – i.e., something almost inconceivable to anyone accustomed to the usual protocol.

Francis spent six hours over two days with the council. Aside from his presence, what struck members was the informality of his approach.

“He came over like it was just another day at the office, with his lunch box,” Dolan said. “We couldn’t believe it.”

And this, too:

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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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