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RNS as a nonprofit + Patch-like religion hubs

As several media outlets consider the move towards nonprofit journalism, Religion News Service recently took the plunge with a $3.5 million three-year grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc. RNS, the only nonreligious service covering religion and ethics exclusively, becomes a nonprofit tomorrow under Religion News LLC.*, a new parent company over Religion Newswriters Association.

Kevin Eckstrom says that while most religious subscribers have held on during recent cutbacks, about 25 to 30 percent of daily newspapers unsubscribed to the service in the last five years. The news service also dealt with reduced staff over the past 4-5 years, especially since Newhouse News Service shut down in 2008. Eckstrom says that while content will not change under the move, it will expand from three to four and a half employees and seek funding for multimedia journalism, Jewish beat coverage and theme story coverage of areas like Islam in America and religion and politics.

Eckstrom, who has been at RNS for 11 years and editor for five, will move to an office at the National Press Club while reporters Daniel Burke and Adelle Banks will work from home. I recently spoke with Eckstrom about RNS’ changes, future Patch-like religion hubs and what to expect from mainstream religion coverage during the industry changes.

How do you feel about all the changes? It’s been a rocky ride. It’s been a good ride on the other hand because we have really good staff and we’ve had really good owners. It’s been frustrating to try to keep up the same quality and quantity with fewer people. By being forced to pick and choose the stories I think they’ve gotten better. Lean times force you to make choices.

Do you think more media outlets will try to move to a nonprofit status? It doesn’t work for everybody. The scrutiny that the IRS conducts is extremely heavy. It took us much longer than expected to get approval. You will see more of it, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a panacea for the industry.

How do you differentiate your service from the Associated Press or religious publications? Do you see the AP as competition? Historically we have, but that’s changed last couple of years. The AP has resources and reach that we will never be able to have. If you’re an RNS subscriber, you can count on getting anywhere from 25-35 stories a week and you won’t find that consistent, knowledgeable coverage in other places. We’re trying to reach people on the Huffington Post, in USA Today, Christian Century, Christianity Today, so we have to write for a pretty broad audience.

People seem less interested in their particular region and self-identify more with maybe their hobbies or interests. Are people interested in broad religion stories simply because they are religious? We never had a public following before, but that changed when we started to put stuff online. We’re on Facebook and Twitter, and we have the religion news round-up and an e-mail subscription. Judging from the subscription lists, readers tend to work in religion, have an interest in it, are religious themselves or they’re part of the new atheist crowd. Judging from the comments, Catholics tend to comment on Catholic stories and evangelicals tend to comment on evangelical and general Christian stories. We get a lot of people interested in ethics.

If newspapers are cutting off your services, what does that mean for religion coverage in the mainstream media? You’re not seeing it regularly. Sometimes it’s in metro, sometimes it’s on A1, sometimes it’s in living. It tends to revolve around controversy, scandal or celebrities, and it gets superficial. When you’re not doing it all the time, you’re joining the herd on some big sexy story. That being said, there are a lot of people who are writing about religion online. I worry sometimes about the lack of professionalism where it can devolve into people in their pajamas spouting off. Their version of truth is different from everyone else’s but there’s no editor to tell them that. The online universe is a beast that needs to be fed constantly and is never satisfied.

Part of your plan is to create 20 local community-based websites for local/national religion coverage, which sounds like Patch.com. It’s kind of like if Patch.com and RNS got together and had a baby this is what it would look like. The idea is to create religion coverage where there isn’t anyone already. The entire state of New Jersey and places like Wyoming and New Hampshire do not have full-time religion reporters. Some of the content will filter up to RNS, and some RNS content will filter down.

Who will contribute to the sites or edit them? Each of the seven or eight sites will be run by a full-time veteran journalist who will rely on freelancers edit the content, post it, do sales and marketing and raise support on the local level. We already have a person to oversee the whole thing. I don’t know if it’s public yet, but it’s someone who is well known to RNA and to the beat in charge of orchestrating the whole thing.

You’re starting these in the coming year? We’re hoping to have the first test run in Columbia, Missouri in partnership at the folks at University of Missouri as a laboratory, starting it by the fourth quarter of 2011. Ad revenue will be a part of what we do, but you can’t run a business off of ad revenue online.

As part of your online strategy, do you worry about competing for traffic with your subscribers when you post stories? That’s a good question. We want to build an audience. When people are reading our story on Huffington Post, we’re happy they’re reading our story period. We wish people are reading it on our site. We know not everyone knows to find us and we’re not able to put everything on our site. We’re trying to build the brand, the audience and the visibility.

You’ve mentioned a push towards multimedia. Will you hire someone to do that or will you hope your current reporters do that? The plan is to have a semi-full time multimedia editor to figure out how to tell stories in a visually and audio. The model would be NPR, the gold standard in how to tell stories in various formats. We’re not going to give our reporters a Flipcam and tell them to do video and give us an 800-word story because it’s not realistic.

What kinds of religion stories do you think people want to see through multimedia? The way we’re thinking about it initially is not that there is print content, video content and audio content. There’s content and it comes in different forms as companion pieces. Maybe you pull together the best 2-3 minutes for audio excerpts from an interview. Instead of producing a fancy eight-minute piece, throw up a couple YouTube clips from previous speeches.

You seem to be producing more 2-300-word briefs instead of a few longer pieces. Before, we had at least three pieces and it had to be at least 350 words long. We felt like it was a straightjacket. We’re able to cover more things and give it the length it deserves. I noticed that when I read the paper, the briefs were three paragraphs when our briefs were seven or eight. Shorter is probably what people are going to read anyway.

With your D.C. presence, are you concerned with a potential political filter? D.C. makes a lot of sense because there are so many institutions here and so many stories that traditional media might not cover. For example, we were writing about the chaplains in “don’t ask don’t tell” six months before other outlets. Obviously CT did that, too. There are other stories here related to religion and international affairs, the Supreme Court and the budget. We’ll probably always have a Washington presence, but we’re so virtual that we’ll be in New York and we’re looking at possibly being in the Chicago area. It would be hard to write a lot about religion and moral values and national priorities from somewhere other than here.

*Updated per Ann Rodgers' comment below.

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