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

Intrigue in the wide, wide world of the religion-news beat? July 19, 2013

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?

There is this:

But we need to do more. We have new competition that operates on the sly, quietly inviting elite journalists to a lucrative fellowship in tandem with a well-known international group stoked with an army of fundraisers. That group receives at least one-third to one-half of its funds from the U.S. State Department (as is clear on their 990s). Rather than being collaborative or collegial, the new religion journalists’ group operates in deceptive and exclusionary ways. It is fueled by bitterness over RNA debates more than a decade ago, debates they lost.

Regardless, we must continue to do what we have always done better than anyone: Our contests, our Annual Conference, our Lilly Scholarships for Journalists, our collegial networking and friendship. But we also need to improve some areas that have lapsed in recent years as our energies focus on new pursuits.

Whoa. Now, I realize that I’ve been locked up in my Capitol Hill office quite a bit, with my head under a rock-sized stack of academic work, for a decade or two, but this has caught me off guard. This is important information. I have written Mason and a few other Godbeat pros and have heard nothing in response.

I’m not interested in gossip, but I am interested in knowing if there is another organization that is directly competing — especially in the North American market — with the veterans at the RNA.

Thus, if readers know what is going on, please simply provide a URL and basic information on any other groups that might fit this profile. Keep it calm and factual. But what is going on?

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