For several decades now, I have been telling mainstream newsroom managers that all they have to do to improve religion-news coverage is to approach the beat the same way they approach any other major news beat that they respect, such as politics, sports, politics, education, politics and, of course, entertainment gossip.
What's the magic formula? Here is what I had to say in a 1995 lecture to the editors of Scripps Howard newspapers:
So, you’re a manager in a newsroom and you’ve decided to improve religion coverage. What can you do?
There are only three ways that editors show what they think about a subject: what kind of reporter covers it, how much coverage it receives and where the stories appear in the newspaper. Thus, the solution is obvious: hire one or more quality journalists who are committed to covering religion and give their work the kind of display that is granted to subjects editors consider important.
Religion is a stunningly complicated beat, with dozens of major and minor religious groups and institutions dotting the intellectual and emotional landscape. Buddhists don’t talk, pray or do business like Baptists. Catholics and Pentecostals have totally different concepts of what it means to be a “charismatic” leader, except, of course, for Catholics who also happen to Pentecostals. It’s impossible to navigate these waters without a working knowledge of the charts.
So with that in mind, faithful GetReligion readers will join me in celebrating this tweet:
Breaking news, this time not about Pope or Vatican but yours truly ... John Allen to join Boston Globe: http://t.co/yO4PaJ6xtG
— John L. Allen, Jr. (@JohnLAllenJr) January 7, 2014
In recent years, your GetReligionistas have sadly published more than a few "black flag" notices marking the closing of a religion-beat job in a major newsroom or the departure of a skilled Godbeat veteran from active duty in the news biz. Every now and then, we can cheer when a Cathy Grossman, after an exit from USA Today, is able to make a much-deserved comeback in a shop like Religion News Service.
So now we need to ask, what is the opposite of a black flag?
Obviously, a white flag represents surrender.
That's not what people who care about solid religion-news reporting should be feeling after that tweet from Allen, who -- while writing for the progressive National Catholic Reporter -- has won wide respect on both sides of Catholic sanctuary aisles for his informed and accurate coverage.
Thus, the press release from The Boston Globe:
John Allen, legendary Vatican reporter, to join staff of The Boston Globe
(BOSTON, Jan. 7, 2014) John Allen, a senior correspondent for the highly respected National Catholic Reporter, will be joining the staff of The Boston Globe in early February.
Allen, widely hailed as the best-sourced and most knowledgeable English-speaking reporter on the Vatican, will help lead coverage of Catholicism and the Vatican as an associate editor of The Globe.
“There is a resurgence of global interest in the Catholic Church, inspired by the words and deeds of the newly-installed leader, Pope Francis,” said editor Brian McGrory. “There’s nobody in the nation better suited. John is basically the reporter that bishops and cardinals call to find out what’s going on within the confines of the Vatican. His inexhaustible energy, supported by extraordinary insights, is legendary.”
This is where things, in the digital age, get rather interesting:
McGrory said Allen, 48, will play “several roles of prominence. He will be a correspondent first and foremost. He will be an analyst on all things Catholic. He will also help us explore the very real possibility of launching a free-standing publication devoted to Catholicism, drawing in other correspondents and leading voices from near and far.”
Freestanding publication? Thinking big in the digital tablet age, perhaps? And how will this affect the religion beat, period?
Allen’s coverage will supplement the work of the Globe’s award-winning religion writer, Lisa Wangsness. McGrory stressed that Allen’s role “will have no impact whatsoever on how we cover other religions. We will remain as dedicated to the mission of broad coverage of all faiths.”
Now, I am sure that some readers will have a variety to some parts of this press release. But, for me, here is the key.
They. Hired. A. Pro.
Just do it, editors.
UPDATE: Here is the early New York Times report on this move in Boston.
IMAGE: John L. Allen, Jr., at work for CNN.