Religion News Foundation

RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant

RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant

Since I came out yesterday with the first news analysis on the implosion at Religion News Service, two other publications have published solid stories on the imbroglio.

This, as I was finishing this follow-up post, a Lilly Endowment press contact got back to me to confirm a whopping grant that RNS, through the Religion News Foundation, is poised to get. That's one of the major pieces of this giant, painful, puzzle.

There's been a lot of discussion about a pending deal between RNS, the Associated Press and TheConversation.com, a related web news curator (see this earlier post by our own Richard Ostling about this site), that will be funded by the Lilly Foundation, the base funder for RNS throughout the years. Communications director Judith Cebula just emailed me the following:

Lilly Endowment approved a grant to Religion News Foundation in December, 2017, in the amount of $4.9 million subject to a favorable determination regarding private foundation tax law requirements. Because the condition has not yet been satisfied, no grant payments have been made. For additional information about the grant, please contact the Religion News Foundation.

The words "subject to" are always important. So stay tuned.

I don't know who first suggested that Lilly facilitate broader distribution of religion news to publishers thru AP but the deal has been percolating for some time. AP would get the lion's share of the money, but RNS and TheConversation.com would also make out well.

Apparently enlightened minds at AP want to strengthen their religion reporting (AP only has one national reporter, Rachel Zoll, out of New York), via RNS content. This would be a major coup for RNS in terms of visibility and distribution of their work. What this would be for their current subscribers, fees for content, etc., I have no idea.

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RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)

RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)

By now, news of the editorial bloodbath at Religion News Service is into its fourth day. The bare facts: A respected editor was ousted with apparently no warning or announced cause; two more veteran staff members quit within three days, two others had recently been let go and many others are looking to leave.

There’s a been a wave of postings on the Religion News Association’s members Facebook page. The topics: a campaign by current and former RNS employees to tell their story and –- in an unrelated matter –- a pending $4 million deal by which RNS material would be distributed by the Associated Press.

The conflict appears to have begun with two people: Tom Gallagher, the publisher of the Religion News Service and CEO of the Religion News Foundation, and Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Before arriving at RNS in November 2016, Gallagher was a corporate lawyer and one-time volunteer with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. He had been a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter since 2009. His detractors note that he has zero full-time, mainstream news experience (it’s certainly missing from his bio here). Also, the foundation manages RNS, which has about 100 media subscribers, and the Religion News Association, the global network of religion reporters. Its business office is housed at the University of Missouri and employees are paid through the financial structures of the university.

“I think we all knew when he was hired he didn’t have a ton of daily journalism experience,” Kimberly Winston Ligocki, a (now former) RNS national reporter based in California, told me. “We figured he would learn on the job. The thinking was he was hired more for his expertise with money and fundraising, which we needed.”

When I got ahold of Gallagher Wednesday morning, he refused comment on the RNS hirings and firings. When I asked him about his background, he said, “I have to run,” before hanging up.

When Gallagher came on board, RNS was already under the leadership of editor Jerome Socolovsky, a religion reporter for Voice of America and a multi-lingual correspondent for NPR, based in Spain. Socolovsky was hired in the fall of 2015.

This is a long, complicated story. But where did the conflict begin?

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