5Q+1 visits with new Tennessean

SmietanapicThat would be GetReligion reader Bob Smietana, of course, along with the rest of his family. You see, Smietana has just made a very interesting and rare leap from the world of the denominational press back into a mainstream newsroom. He has joined the Tennessean as the new religion reporter in the very symbolic city of Nashville -- which is known as guitar town, the Baptist Vatican and lots of other names. (I interviewed for that same job a long, long, long time ago and the statistics on religion in that zip code are amazing.)

Smietana has been a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a correspondent for Religion News Service, and for eight years he served as features editor for the Covenant Companion, a Chicago-based publication of the Evangelical Covenant Church. He received more than a dozen national awards from the Associated Church Press for his work there.

A native of Attleboro, Mass., Smietana has a degree in religion from North Park University in Chicago, and he earned a master's degree in communication from National-Louis University in Chicago. In 2001, he completed a summer program in reporting on religion news at Northwestern University's the Medill School of Journalism. His freelance credits are extensive and he will soon begin blogging at GoodIntentionsBook.com, in support of what he calls a "Freakonomics-style" book on poverty, immigration, global warming and other related issues.

So here are his answers to the usual 5Q+1 questions from your GetReligionistas:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion?

These days I've been missing Ted Olsen's mighty, mighty weblog at Christianitytoday.com, which seems to have been phased out these days. It was a great spot to get a ton of coverage, all in one place, and it's sorely missed.

RNS remains a great source -- Kevin Eckstrom and Adelle Banks do great work. And the denominational press -- Baptist Press, Presbyterian News Service, United Methodist News Service, etc. -- give an insider's view of what's happening in those groups I just did a story on the effect of the weak dollar on missionaries and international relief groups, and got the inspiration from something the Baptist Press ran.

The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Business Week, all do great coverage when they take religion. And usually there's something in those publications that will spark a God-beat story. Religion is one of the world's largest industries, and the trends, like the weak dollar, that effect big for-profit companies also effect churches.

Probably the most important sources are religious folks themselves, especially the clergy and lay leader who know what's going on below the surface.

(2) What is the most important religion story right now that you think the mainstream media just do not get?

Here's one story that I, as newly minted member of the mainstream media didn't get -- the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. This year, Southern Baptist hope to raise $165 million, or more than half their annual budget, in that one offering, taken in December. In effect, every year they wager the future of their world-wide missionary enterprise, which is 5,300 missionaries strong, on this one offering. This past decade, they've raised more a billion dollars through the Lottie Moon offering. If the money doesn't come in every year, they are sunk. It's a fascinating story, one that reveals the priority that Southern Baptist place on missions. They have about 15 million members and 5,300 missionaries. The Methodists, with 8 million members, have about 400 missionaries. And Lottie Moon, who was a China missionary in the 1800, is an icon for Southern Baptists, who are the largest Protestant group in America. I've covered religion professionally since 1999 and had never heard of her before coming to Nashville.

I'm not sure the major mainstream media -- the New York Times, CNN, ABC, etc. -- get evangelicals or the faith of believers in general. They don't get the personal and grassroots nature of religion, and spent too much time looking at religious celebrities and not enough time looking at the day to day the lives of believers.

My younger brother died last year, suddenly and unexpectedly, while in the Philippines to finalize the adoption of his daughter. During that time, our church family, kept the faith for us. They carried us through that time of almost unbearable grief, with acts of kindness great and small. That close knit, grassroots community was our lifeline. (I wrote about it afterwards), and I can't imagine trying to go through that experience without faith and without the company of ordinary believers.

(3) What is the story that you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

At least three stories come to mind.

One of these days, and it will probably be soon the Southern Baptist are going to stop growing and begin shrinking. That'll be a huge story for them.

The growth of multi-site megachurches. They are becoming the Wal-Marts of the church world, and it's putting a tremendous amount of pressure on small congregations, some of whom are giving up and reinventing themselves as franchises of the brand-name megachurches.

Gay bishops get all the press when it comes to Mainline churches, and but I'm more curious about demographics and finances of those institutions. The denominational feuds are fueled as much or more by money and fannies in the pews as they are by sex.

Rockygloves(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Journalists are supposed to ask who, what, where, when and why. You can't get to why without asking about religion.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately?

It's got to be the Rocky boxing glove, which was sent out to pastors in order to promote Rocky Balboa as a faith-based film and attract some of the Passion of the Christ crowd. There was even a website, rockyresources.com/, with preaching tips, banners and even a video message from Sylvester Stallone for church leaders. Stallone was pitched as a true believer, with quotes like, "If you don't have a great relationship with God, you can go off the deep end." He must have been thinking about the new Rambo film.

BONUS: Do you have anything else you want to tell us about religion coverage in the mainstream news media?

In coming to the Tennessean, I moved from the magazine world, and mostly religious publications, to a daily newsroom. I've been amazed by the skill of my colleagues, who day after day produce quality news under unrelenting deadlines. As a magazine editor and writer, I had the luxury of time to dig deep into stories. I don't have that luxury anymore, and it's given me a greater respect for longtime daily journalists.

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