Taking one for the team (updated)

The e-mail came across my computer screen last week. The title of the note from Debra Mason, the highly respected executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, was cheery enough:

New contests expand recognition

Mason wrote:

In a time when the religion beat is challenged, adding new contests may seem counterintuitive. After all, fewer journalists are covering religion full-time and fewer media outlets pay the contest entry fees.

Yet, in times like these, we need more recognition and reward for quality religion news, not less. Examples of poorly written religion news -- nearly always produced by general assignment or non-specialist reporters -- are easy to find. But as an association, we need to shine the light on the journalistic jewels that may get little notice, despite their creativity, eloquence and accuracy.

The RNA Board, after recommendations from the Contest Committee, this fall approved the largest expansion of contests in RNA's history. We are growing from eight contests last year to 19. More importantly, we've added significant categories that were missing in past years, such as blogging, documentaries, books, TV news magazines, magazines design, online only publications and other categories.

Up until that point, Mason's note made perfect sense. Journalists love contests. What we lack in salary and benefits, we make up for in certificates and plaques. Our brother-in-law can keep his fat Christmas bonus. We journalists are perfectly happy with a box of candy canes and fifth place in third-day spot news coverage of weekend natural disasters in Division 15 of the state press contest. (I say this, tongue firmly in cheek, as someone who both enters his fair share of contests and has served the last few years as a judge for the Sigma Delta Chi Awards.)

But the next part of Mason's note surprised me:

The contests for the first time open up the awards to a classification of members who were in recent years eligible as active members but ineligible for our contests, namely, members at publications that only cover religion (but which are for-profit commercial ventures or otherwise financially independent of any denomination or religious group). Now Christian Century, Tricycle, Tikkun, The Forward, Islamica, Christianity Today and hundreds of other publications are eligible for the magazine category contests.

Read that again. It's a significant development. And not necessarily a positive one for those of us, such as your GetReligionistas, who value the secular Godbeat and consider it crucial.

What that change tells me (and I could be wrong) is that the RNA, which long has prided itself on being an organization for religion journalists, not religious journalists, no longer can support itself on mainstream journalism alone. Rather, it must hold its nose and take one for the team by inviting certain less-offensive religious publications to pay its contest fees and keep the organization going.

Now, just to be clear, this is no criticism of the publications suddenly eligible for RNA contests. I write freelance stories for Christianity Today, and my fellow GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey serves as CT's online editor. In my experience, CT's editors are every bit as committed to quality journalism as my editors in my Associated Press days -- and every bit as talented and professional.

The journalism produced by religious publications matches and sometimes exceeds that in mainstream newsrooms. My own publication, The Christian Chronicle, competes with Oklahoma's major dailies in the Oklahoma Society of Professional Journalists' annual contest and does quite well, especially considering the tiny size of our staff.

Maybe I'm wrong and this isn't about the money at all. Maybe this change reflects a belated recognition by the RNA of the excellent caliber of journalism produced in the religious media.

Somehow, though, I doubt it.

If that were the case, RNA would open more than just the magazine category to such journalists. It would let my friend Robin Russell, managing editor of the United Methodist Reporter, compete in the prestigious newspaper categories. It would open up the entire hen house to all journalists who write about religion and let the work stand on its own, rather than make statements about the funding mechanisms of certain publications. (I should note that I have no idea whether Russell would want to compete in RNA. I just brought up her name because she is an example of someone doing excellent journalism in the denominational press and someone honored by RNA during her secular reporting days.)

As its website notes, RNA was founded in 1949 to advance the professional standards of religion reporting in the mainstream media and to create a support network for religion reporters. It's difficult to do that if you don't have the membership base or funding to survive. Sometimes, you hold your nose and take one for the team.

Updated: RNA's Debra Mason responds to this post. Be sure to see her comment below.

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