Tom Gallagher

Flyover country: When it comes to big Lilly grant and all those Godbeat jobs, does location matter?

Flyover country: When it comes to big Lilly grant and all those Godbeat jobs, does location matter?

Location. Location. Location.

When it comes to that glorious, $4.9 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grant that will fund 13 new religion journalists at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation, exactly how much does location matter?

That’s the question some are asking after AP posted job ads for seven new positions last week and RNS did the same this week for its three grant-funded openings.

According to the ads, six of the seven AP positions will be based at AP headquarters in New York City or in Washington, D.C. The exception will be a Cairo-based newsperson who will cover Islamic faith and culture.

RNS, meanwhile, is hiring a managing editor to work in New York or Washington, along with a Rome-based Vatican correspondent and a Los Angeles-based national writer.

Sarah McCammon, an NPR national correspondent based in the Mid-Atlantic/Southeast U.S., grew up in a conservative Christian home in Kansas City and attended an evangelical college.

McCammon got more than 250 “likes” when she tweeted this suggestion to AP:

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Religion News Service touts its new 19-member advisory board -- but what does it mean?

Religion News Service touts its new 19-member advisory board -- but what does it mean?


We’ve been tracking the ups and downs of life at Religion News Service ever since editor Jerome Socolovsky got unceremoniously dumped in April. That led, of course to the departure of two veteran staff members and then a popular columnist on the evangelical left who felt they could no longer work there plus the unexpected dismissal of two other staff.

After much withering critique from fellow religion writers, the powers-that-be at RNS have been shoring up support in the past three months, putting out a job announcement for a new editor-in-chief, asking for more freelancers, the hiring of a Sikh columnist and now an announcement of a new advisory board loaded with names of revered professionals and people with links to major journalistic institutions.

So I’ll run the 19 names of the new board members, from the press release, with my comments:

Dilshad D. Ali
Richmond, VA
Dilshad D. Ali is the Editor-in-Chief at Altmuslim and was previously Managing Editor for the Muslim portal at Patheos.com. She has spent the past two decades covering and coordinating coverage of American Muslim communities for a variety of media outlets, including Beliefnet and Islam Online, and was a 2015 White House Champion of Change honoree for her autism reporting/writing and advocacy work.

Ruby Bailey
Columbia, MO
Ruby Bailey is the executive editor of the Columbia Missourian and holds the Missouri School of Journalism’s Missouri Community Newspaper Management chair, working with community newspapers across the state to help improve their coverage and operations. She previously served as news editor at the Sacramento Bee and assistant metro editor at the Detroit Free Press.

Vikas Bajaj
New York, NY
Vikas Bajaj has been a member of the editorial board of The New York Times since 2012. Earlier, he was a correspondent in Mumbai and covered the financial crisis based in New York. He previously worked as a business, metro and religion reporter at The Dallas Morning News.

This is a really large board. How are these 19 people going to communicate with each other? It is also appropriate to consider issues of zip code.

Also, do they have any power whatsoever? 

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Another shoe drops: Jonathan Merritt calls it quits at Religion News Service

Another shoe drops: Jonathan Merritt calls it quits at Religion News Service

Let's see: In the Urban Dictionary, the phrase "Waiting for the other shoe to drop" is defined like this (with a joke thrown in for good measure, in the full text): "To await an event that is expected to happen, due to being causally linked to another event that has already been observed."

However, one gets the impression that the words "the other" in that phrase imply the existence of only one other show. It still sounds like the newsroom at Religion News Service contains lots of other shoes and some of them have yet to drop -- following the now infamous meltdown linked to the forced exit of former editor-in-chief Jerome Socolovsky, after clashes with publisher Tom Gallagher, who is best known for his opinion work on the Catholic left.

Lots of digital ink was spilled during that episode, including two lengthy GetReligion posts by our own Julia Duin. Check out, "RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)" and "RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant."

Now there is this, from columnist and blogger Jonathan Merrett: "Why I am leaving Religion News Service after 5 years."

If you follow Merritt's work, you know that he is one of the most important journalistic voices who has emerged on the evangelical left -- both at RNS and at The Atlantic -- especially on issues linked to LGBTQ debates and women's rights.

Now, some of his critics would say the "post-evangelical" left, but I'm not sure that nuance is justified since it is almost impossible to define what the word "evangelical" means, these days. In terms of heritage, Merritt is best understood as a liberal Baptist. Yes, doctrinally liberal Baptists exist and there's a lot of history there. Ask Bill Clinton.

Anyway, Merritt has posted his take on what happened, at his own website. Here is that text:

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Religion News Service fallout III -- A press release sheds neither heat nor light

Religion News Service fallout III -- A press release sheds neither heat nor light

More fallout continueth from the Religion News Service explosions of two weeks ago with the release of a press release that sounds like a directive out of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984.

A quick review: tmatt’s April 24 post was the first reporting by anyone on this on RNS’s problems. Then I offered this mega-piece on the 26th,  which beat two magazine stories on the topic by almost a day. Then I followed up with this piece on the 27th, which looked at those pieces in The New Republic and the Columbia Journalism Review and then included the first official word of the Religion News Foundation's upcoming $4.9 million Lilly Endowment grant.

Make sure to bone up on the history of this conflict before going further. All that, plus Richard “Religion Guy” Ostling’s memo a few days later has resulted in some pretty decent coverage and commentary from the team here at GetReligion.

So this past Monday, RNS, through its crisis PR firm Athene Strategies, released the following:

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Recent announcements at Religion News Service, including new staff and a pending $4.9 million grant, demonstrate the strategic adjustments RNS is making to honor its 84-year legacy and ensure its bright future.

With these changes, RNS aims to do more than simply survive in a 21st century media landscape. Our vision requires bringing renewed energy and an innovation mindset to the field of religion journalism. By educating and informing a growing audience, we can help cultivate mutual understanding among people of different cultures, faiths and traditions. The result? More peaceful, pluralistic communities around the world.

So RNS holds a key to world peace? That's quite a journalistic mission.

We can do better. This reminds me of the “community journalism” craze of a few decades back mixed with UNESCO agitprop. Am also curious why the story is datelined out of Missouri. Yes, I know there are administrative ties to the University of Missouri, but why not dateline it in Washington, DC where RNS is based? 

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Religion News Service -- irreplaceable and rocked by turmoil -- faces key journalistic issues

Religion News Service -- irreplaceable and rocked by turmoil -- faces key journalistic issues

The specialized Religion News Service is irreplaceable, not only for its media subscribers but religious leaders and anyone interested in this complex field.

Now it has suddenly been rocked by turmoil as depicted by GetReligion here and here and then here. To grapple with the state of things, let's start with some history.  

America owes a debt to two Jewish journalists and this media innovation they built. Founder Louis Minsky ran “Religious News Service” (later renamed) from 1934 until his death in 1957. Then his longtime assistant, the inimitable Lillian Block (well remembered by The Religion Guy), took charge until she retired in 1979.

Through those 45 years, the agency was subsidized by the National Conference of Christians and Jews, established to counter prejudice when Catholic Al Smith became a presidential prospect. But RNS was strictly independent, not an NCCJ propaganda mill. It fused journalistic and democratic ideals, believing that reliable, knowledgeable and non-sectarian religious information enhances interfaith understanding. That remains true, and vital, in 2018.

With strong editors and NCCJ’s hands-off policy, day by day, year by year, RNS chronicled religious affairs with objectivity, accuracy, respect and fairness -- values then shared across the news industry.

The agency thereby gained the trust of “secular” media and, harder to achieve, from a wide range of religious outlets.

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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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Editor and publisher news at Religion News Service: Note strategic silences on Twitter, right now

Editor and publisher news at Religion News Service: Note strategic silences on Twitter, right now

If you care about religion news in America and around the world, then your business-day dose of email probably includes a copy of The Slingshot, the digital newsletter produced by the Religion News Service that summarizes the newsroom's latest offerings.

The typical edition includes a few hard-news pieces by the wire service's small, but in most cases highly experienced staff, as well as lots of links to RNS opinion columns and blog posts. The Slingshot also includes short, helpful notes pointing readers to religion features produced elsewhere.

In many ways, The Slingshot shows where American journalism is at the moment -- since opinion is cheap and hard-news information is expensive. The professionals at RNS are not alone in wrestling with that brutal equation.

Today's edition of The Slingshot leads with aggregation blurbs pointing to articles at The Orange Country Register, Religion Dispatches, NBC News and an RNS news piece from yesterday.

What the newsletter does not include is any information about the primary question that is currently being asked on Twitter. That would be: What is going on at Religion News Service?

At this point, it's best to back up and follow the shards of information that have been put on the record in social media.

Let's start with this announcement from the wire service's now-former editor, Jerome Socolovsky. Concerned readers will want to read the whole thread and keep checking back for updates.

However, journalists will certainly note this phrase -- "and that's about all I can say."

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