The Tennessean, Nashville's daily newspaper, gave readers an early Christmas present.
The gift: the Gannett paper's decision to restore a full-time religion writer to its reporting staff:
Why is this amazing news for everyone? Because so much of what makes headlines, from debates over Syrian refugees to battles over the content of public school plays (looking at you, Charlie Brown!), has a religion angle. And more often than not, the best coverage of such stories comes from full-time religion beat specialists.
Tennessee readers, feel free to insert celebratory whooping and hollering here (and don't forget to hit the play arrow on the Kool and the Gang video above).
The prodigal Godbeat has come home to Music City!
Just two years ago, The Tennessean boasted one of the best religion writers on the planet in Bob Smietana. But then Smietana, the immediate past president of the Religion Newswriters Association, left to become senior writer for LifeWay Research's Facts & Trends magazine. He later joined Christianity Today as senior news editor (where he continues to crank out amazing journalism):
After Smietana's departure, The Tennessean became just the latest Bible Belt newspaper to eliminate the Godbeat (The Dallas Morning News is perhaps the most prominent paper to make this boneheaded move).
Nearly a year ago, I noted:
The Tennessean does have an award-winning religion writer — Holly Meyer — on it staff, but she's covering crime and breaking news. Perhaps we could start a petition effort to transfer her to matters of faith?
Before joining The Tennessean, Meyer covered the Godbeat for The Post-Crescent in Appleton, Wis. 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. After winning that honor, she talked about her passion for faith news in a 5Q+1 interview with GetReligion:
I don't think anyone actually started a petition drive to move Meyer to religion writing at The Tennessean, but the Nashville paper did hire a new executive editor with a solid grasp of the Godbeat's importance:
Here is what Michael A. Anastasi, vice president and executive editor of The Tennessean, told me in an email:
I believe Faith is one of the foundational pillars of community. To truly understand and inform a community, rigorous news coverage of Faith is as important as other, perhaps more traditional, forms of hard news, such as education, government, politics, crime and business. This is particularly important in a state such as Tennessee where Faith often intersects with those other topic areas.
When I was an editor in Salt Lake City, we at one point had two full-time reporters devoted to coverage of Faith and I learned first-hand of the value of such coverage in informing citizens and providing a greater understanding of the culture, of daily life and of many different groups of people. The Salt Lake Tribune has been many times recognized among the nation’s best Faith sections by the Religion Newswriters Assn., including in 2007 when I was one of the editors.
I anticipate The Tennessean will provide a similar level of coverage.
Can I get an amen!? Or two? Or 20?
Might it be possible for Anastasi to share his astute understanding of the importance of religion news with his colleagues across the nation?
Meanwhile, speaking of early presents, Meyer produced this heartwarming front-page feature last week on a United Methodist agency adopting a Syrian refugee family for Christmas:
I covered religion in Tennessee for The Associated Press in 2002-2003 and never lacked for compelling stories (most of them national in scope). I can't wait to follow Meyer's coverage of this fertile field for faith stories in 2016.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year on the Godbeat!