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Memory eternal: Diane Connolly, who learned to get religion

It is impossible to cover sports without, somehow, studying sports. It's impossible to cover business without -- formally or informally -- studying business. Ditto for politics, the arts, science, etc., etc. Needless to say, it's impossible to do a serious, professional job of covering religion news without studying the stunningly picky and complex world of religion.

There are reporters who study religion before they reach the religion beat (the great Russell Chandler of The Los Angeles Times leaps to mind) and then they keep studying religion. These pros never stop.

Then there are solid, professional journalists who when -- for a variety of reasons -- find themselves assigned to the religion beat, they immediately dive into either formal or informal studies of all of the subjects that one runs into day after day, year after year, on the so-called Godbeat.

One of the best ever in this latter category was Diane Connolly, best known for her work with The Dallas Morning News and with the Religion Newswriters Association and its ReligionLink project. People who care about serious coverage of the religion beat in the mainstream press will be grieved to read the following news from Dr. Debra Mason of the RNA and the University of Missouri School of Journalism:

Eleven years ago, Diane Connolly called me to say she wanted to quit her post as religion page editor for the Dallas Morning News in order to help Religion Newswriters Association launch a new resource for journalists called ReligionLink. Although stunned, I knew RNA’s search for ReligionLink’s founding editor was over.

Diane, who died Tuesday morning, left her job at the Dallas Morning News in 2001, when the newspaper’s award-winning religion section was at its peak. At that time, Diane directed a staff of eight journalists who each week gave readers a stellar religion section that routinely won First Place in contests across the nation.

Diane walked away from a religion reporter’s dream job for an important reason: to spend more time with her daughters Catherine, now 17, and Erin, 14. ReligionLink gave her flexibility and removed the pressure of daily newspaper deadlines.

The essence of ReligionLink a decade after its launch remains in large part Diane’s vision of the perfect resource. Her insistence on excellence helped build its reputation and value.

I don't want to spend too much time talking about the rise and fall of the Dallas Morning News religion section.

I myself was an occasional critic of some aspects of that project (it was kind of a National Council of Churches section in America's hottest National Association of Evangelicals town), but let me stress that it is impossible to talk about serious religion writing at the end of the 20th century without discussing that project. It began for all of the right reasons. It ended, I am convinced, because there are still way too many editors who cannot or will not grasp that one cannot understand the facts of daily life in a place like Texas without taking religion seriously. (Click here for a GetReligion post about the pulling of the final religion-beat plug in Dallas. In DALLAS.)

The most important journalistic point to stress, in the wake of Connolly's death, is the essential nature of the contributions that she made to helping professionals learn the religion beat and then to keep learning how to cover it. Here is a long piece of a 2005 essay for Poynter.org that captures what this pro was all about:

I was, at best, an oddball choice to be editor of the most award-winning newspaper religion section in the nation.

I didn’t have any special knowledge of religion, beyond that of a regular churchgoer. I had never covered religion. I was a mainline Protestant raised among Roman Catholics and Jews in my suburban Cleveland hometown, but I was living in Dallas, land of Baptists. I hadn’t read much of the Bible, beyond what I had heard in church. And at the time, I was deputy arts editor, covering television, which, let’s say, involves a different set of morals and values.

A month after being named religion editor at The Dallas Morning News, a veteran religion reporter asked, “How does it feel to inherit the 500-pound gorilla?” It turned out to be a good wrestling match, one that taught me that the religion beat requires, first, our best journalistic skills and passions. In an industry confronting stiff challenges, covering religion well is about much more than hiring people with experience and expertise.

I am proud to be among the many “novices” to the beat who have “blossomed,” as Julia Duin wrote.

What did she look for, as an editor? Here's a big chunk of her list of essentials:

Immense curiosity about religion and a willingness to learn -- and keep learning -- about it.

Recognition that religion is a potent force that unites and divides people in powerful ways that affect everything from military conflicts to government policy to everyday actions in ordinary people’s lives.

Sensitivity to nuances of all kinds.

A commitment to covering all kinds of diversity -- of faith, both within Christianity and outside of it; and of ethnicity, gender, economic status, and geography.

Willingness to spend time with all different sorts of people in the places where they live, gather, and worship. Willingness to work through language and cultural challenges.

Strong news skills, because religion includes much more than feature stories.

An abiding sense of fairness and balance, and an understanding that there are often more than two sides to a story.

The ability to accurately and fairly describe very different beliefs, even if the journalist personally disagrees with them or if a news report raises questions about them. ...

There are other pieces of her work that remain essential reading, such as the 2006 booklet called "Reporting on Religion: A Primer on Journalism's Best Beat" (requires .pdf). Then, in 2007, she steered the next volume, "Reporting on Religion 2: A Stylebook on Journalism’s Best Beat.”

For those who want to share Connolly tributes and memories, there is a Facebook memorial page here. Please visit.

Also, Mason's RNA tribute ended with this more than appropriate educational note:

Diane’s husband Tim asked me how Diane’s friends and family could create a permanent memorial to our treasured colleague. He agreed that a scholarship fund in Diane’s name was both fitting and appropriate. So we’re pleased that those of us who wish can donate to the Diane Connolly Scholarship Fund at Religion Newswriters Foundation. The scholarship fund will assure that Diane’s legacy of excellence continues into the future.

If you care about the religion beat, let me urge you to follow some of these links. Read and remember.

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