5Q+1 interview: From holy pig wrestling to Mass outside a Packers game, Holly Meyer has the Godbeat covered

Holly Meyer cheers for the Green Bay Packers, eats a lot of cheese and tells stories about northeast Wisconsin.

Meyer, a reporter for The Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wis., splits her time between early-morning breaking news and the Godbeat.

Her religion writing earned her the 2014 Cassels Religion Reporter of the Year Award from the Religion Newswriters Association. That award honors excellence in religion reporting at small-sized newspapers.

She grew up in rural Illinois and started her reporting career at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s student newspaper.

"That’s where I learned you can get paid to do this really neat job," said Meyer, a 2009 graduate.

Her first professional gig was at the Rapid City Journal in South Dakota, where she spent about three years and covered everything from ranch families to police shootings. She joined The Post-Crescent's metro team in 2012.

Post-Crescent Media is a Gannett-owned newsroom that produces a daily newspaper with circulation of about 35,000 and digital platforms that account for about 7 million page views a month. It’s one of 10 Gannett-owned newsrooms in the state, "which means we do a lot of statewide collaborations," Meyer said. "Plus, USA Today frequently picks up our stories."

Q: What percentage of your time do you spend on the religion beat? What's a typical workweek like for you (and yes, I know it's humorous to ask a journalist that question)?

A: I spend about 50 to 60 percent of my time on the faith beat. I’m the newspaper’s early-morning breaking news reporter, which means I start my days at 6 a.m. making phone calls to police and fire departments and checking the Internet for anything that I might have missed. I chase after whatever breaks until about 11 a.m. when I pass the baton to my evening counterpart.

I work on faith stories when I’m not reporting on mayhem, which thankfully is a decent chunk of time since Appleton can be a sleepy town. My faith coverage usually shows up on the front page or featured spot on digital platforms in the form of enterprise pieces, or as an anchor on one of our key inside pages as a short faith-and-values column that runs every couple of weeks.

On occasion these roles mix, like the time I covered the controversy surrounding a rural Wisconsin church’s annual pig-wrestling event that was drawing national ire from animal-rights advocates.

Q: What do you like most about your job? And what do you find most challenging?

A: My editors are cool with thought pieces and encourage them. This allows me to have some of the most interesting conversations I’ve ever had. When I finish interviews with ministers and experts in the faith world, I often think — holy moly, I just got paid to have that discussion and now I get to tell readers why they should care about it! Journalism is the best.

I would be lying if I didn’t say switching from breaking-news mayhem coverage to enterprise faith reporting isn’t challenging. But my editors recognize what they’re asking me to do and are flexible.

Nothing has pushed my writing skills quite like covering faith. It’s complex and nuanced, so it takes effort to keep my writing approachable and interesting. My goal is to get readers to care about my stories even if it’s not about their religion or they’re not religious at all.

The faith beat is tricky to hop into, and I want to keep my writing approachable, crisp, engaging and, most of all, accurate. Thankfully, I joined the Religion Newswriters Association. The organization offers a wealth of knowledge and has connected me to some wonderful people who are more than willing to share what they know.

Q: Green Bay Packers. Highway billboards. Tattoos. Based on your winning RNA entry, you seem to have a lot of fun on the Godbeat. Tell me about those stories and why you considered the topics interesting and/or important.

A: I feel like I hit the jackpot when the priest said Mass outside of Lambeau Field, because you don’t fully understand the love of the Packers in this state until you find yourself freezing your toes off alongside tens of thousands of screaming fans. It is a unique example of the resonant efforts the local Catholic diocese is taking to address problems the church is facing across the country.

The billboard story let me answer a question I’m sure thousands of drivers ask when they drive by those religious signs. I got to solve the mystery and explain how one man is spending thousands of dollars to save their souls.

In keeping with the evangelizing theme, tattoos were back in the religion news cycle, and I started searching for a local angle. I spent three years covering the Sturgis motorcycle rally, and that experience led me to a local biker church. Tattoos are popular but still seem rebellious until you use them to start discussions about God.   

Q: What key religion stories or issues do you anticipate in your coverage area over the next 12 months?

A: A couple of weeks after I arrived at Post-Crescent Media, the editors told me they wanted faith stories on the front page, and they wanted me to put them there. The cool thing about forging a new approach to the newsroom’s faith coverage is that pretty much everything is on the table.

Specifically, I expect the Supreme Court’s recent action on marriage for same-sex couples in Wisconsin will continue to spur stories for me as will the upcoming election and everything that follows our high-profile governor’s race. There’s a big Catholic community in my coverage area, which means Pope Francis will continue to be an interest to readers. 

Q: Who are your journalism heroes? What's your long-range career goal?

A: My journalism heroes are Kimberly Wilmot Voss and Lance Speere because they had the greatest impact on my decision to become a journalist. Voss was my academic advisor, and Speere was my student newspaper advisor. These two journalism professors inspired and challenged me every step of the way and taught me far more than what was on their syllabi.

Voss and Speere, who are married, are at the University of Central Florida now, training and encouraging the next generation of reporters, while writing women journalists back into history. I’m lucky to call them friends.

My career goal is to see how far I can go in this field. I hope that looks like me working at a major metro media company, preferably a newspaper, in the not-too-far future.

Q: Are you a regular GetReligion reader? If so, what tips or suggestions would you offer to help us improve what we do? 

A: I usually keep up with GetReligion. As Godbeat beginner, it’s helpful to see what you guys define as good and bad faith reporting. I’ve also used the “ghost” idea to tackle some stories, including the religious implications for a seven-day work week bill before the state legislature.

As a reporter at a community newspaper, I wouldn’t mind seeing you examine some of the work coming out of mid-size or smaller media outlets in the country.

Thanks for the interview!

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