5Q+1 interview: Religion writer Bob Smietana on the Godbeat, #RNA2014 and, yes, GetReligion

Godbeat pros will convene in Atlanta this week for the Religion Newswriters Association's 65th annual conference.

In advance of the national meeting of religion journalists, RNA President Bob Smietana did a 5Q+1 interview (that's five questions plus a bonus question) with GetReligion. I'll sprinkle a few #RNA2014 tweets between Bob's responses.

Q: For our readers unfamiliar with you, tell us a little about your journalism career and your background in religion writing. And catch us up on how your beloved Red Sox are doing after winning a third World Series title in 10 years last season.

A: I’ve had a pretty fun career. I wrote a weekly religion column in college then decided to go out and save the world by working at nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity. Turns out I was terrible at saving the world.

So, in my mid-30s, I became a writer instead. I started small — my first freelance religion story paid $35 — and then landed a job writing for a small religious magazine in Chicago called the Covenant Companion, where I stayed for eight years. One of my big breaks came in 2001, when I got the chance to spend a summer at Medill, studying religion writing with Roy Larson.

Eventually I became religion writer at The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, which I loved. Spent six great years there. Now I write about research and church trends for Facts and Trends magazine here in Nashville.

As far as the Red Sox go — well, last I checked they are still the defending World Series champs. It’s been a tough year, but I can’t complain. Three World Series championships in 10 years is pretty cool. Just wish my grandfather had been around to see them.

Q: As religion writers gather in Atlanta for the RNA's annual conference, how would you describe the state of the Godbeat? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the present and the future?

A: I’m pretty optimistic. There’s a lot to be hopeful about, especially on the national level. Religion News Service (full disclosure — I’ve written for them since 2001) is stronger than ever. There are great religion writers at the New York Times and Washington Post, at CNN and other major outlets. Plus there are new publications like Crux — run by the Boston Globe — and the Deseret News national edition, which has a lot of religion stories.  Then there are some really sharp magazine writers and bloggers and book authors who cover religion in depth.

On the other hand, I do worry about local and regional religions. There are lots of cities, like Nashville or Seattle, where there are no full-time religion writers at the local paper. So the local religion coverage suffers and a lot of stories get missed.

Still, I’m pretty hopeful. I wish sometimes I was 25 years old and just starting – because there are so many great religion stories happening on the local level and no one’s covering them. It would be fabulous.

Q: What role does RNA play in promoting and improving religion reporting? Give us an idea of how many members you have and their various backgrounds and expertise.

A: The Religion Newswriters Association has more than 400 members, from a variety of backgrounds — newspaper and magazine reporters, television journalists, book authors, documentary filmmakers, freelancers — you name it. We run an annual conference, which meets this year in Atlanta. It’s a great place to meet fellow religion writers and hone our skills.

We also run a foundation that publishes ReligionLink, sources guides to covering the Godbeat, and does journalism training.

Q: What will be the big religion stories or themes over the next year?

A: Among our panels at the conference this year will be sessions on immigration, human trafficking, and God and guns — which will remain big topics. The Pope is still big, as are the culture wars and the troubles in the Middle East.

The meltdown at Mars Hill Church in Seattle is big for evangelical Christians. We’ve had this huge buildup of multi-site churches, including some like Mars Hill, that have spread out across several states. This is the first one to run into a major crisis.

The changing demographics in America are a huge religion story that’s still largely uncovered. Consider this: 70 percent of Americans over 65 are white Christians, according the Public Religion Research Institute. They were the dominant religious/social group in the country by far.

That's no longer true. Only about 1 in four younger Americans (those 18-29) is a white Christian. There are more Nones – those with no religion — than white Christians in that age group. And Christians of color make up about a third of that younger population. That’s going to change everything.

Q: You've been willing to engage the GetReligionistas from time to time, which is a nice way of saying you don't always agree with our analysis (of course, we don't always agree with each other). What do you like about GetReligion? And what could we improve?

A: I’ve been reading GetReligion ever since Terry Mattingly and Doug LeBlanc started it in back in 2004. And I probably started disagreeing with Terry on day one. But that’s OK — part of why the site exists, IMHO, is to get people talking about religion reporting. And disagreements make for lively conversation.

I like that I can always find something new here. You guys keep a pretty close eye on the Godbeat, and you’ll often find stories that I missed the first time around. Like the story about women imams in China. Or Lebanese Christians taking up arms and preparing to fight ISIS. Or the furor over the “Naughty Girls Donut Shop.”

As for what GetReligion could do better, bring in a non-Christian writer for starters. They’d probably spot some different religion ghosts than most of the other GetReligion writers. And perhaps be a bit less grumpy. Sometimes I get the impression that GetReligion writers assume the worst about the reporter they write about — as if those reporters are intentionally hostile to more traditional forms of religion. I find that’s rarely the case.

Bonus Q: You have the microphone. What else would you like to say?

A: Just a reminder that in the end, nobody really gets religion. Religion — both institutional faith and personal practice — is always changing and adapting to new circumstances. That’s good for reporters, as there’s never a dull moment on the Godbeat.

But it means that religion reporting will always be messy and there will always be, as tmatt likes to say, an abundance of religion ghosts. 

Please respect our Commenting Policy