You have $1.25 million: Who gets that check if the goal is basic, balanced religion-news reporting?

Here at the Washington Journalism Center, the full-semester program I lead at the DC center for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, we have a number of sayings that are repeated over and over that they turn into journalism mantras. I imagine that will be true when we reboot the program next year in New York City at The King's College.

One of these sayings goes like this: Everybody in this city knows more stories than you do. I also like to stress this: The most important skill in journalism is the ability to accurately state the views of someone with whom you disagree. And then there's one that is discussed here frequently, in this Keller-istic, Twitter-driven age in which the digital line between newswriting and editorializing is often quite faded and hard to spot: Opinion is cheap; information is expensive.

Then there is another WJC mantra that moves us closer to some news sure to intrigue those interesting in religion-beat coverage in the mainstream press. This one isn't very snappy, but it's a concept that is crucial for young journalists to grasp. Here it is: In the future there will be no one dominant business model (think newspaper chains built on advertising, mixed with the sale of dead-tree pulp) for mainstream journalism, but multiple approaches to funding the creation of information and news.

I warned you that it wasn't short and snappy.

Obviously, one of the crucial emerging models right now is the growing world of non-profit and foundation-driven journalism. This has long been a major model in the world of magazines and opinion journals. Now this concept is offering glimmers of hope to people who are interested in hyper-local news (like this, in San Diego) and even in-depth investigative reporting (like this, based in New York City).

This approach has also been used with in-depth and hyper-local religion reporting, as in the A Journey Through NYC Religions project. Also, there was that small Stiefel Freethought Foundation grant to expand Religion News Service (now a nonprofit wire service) coverage of the “growing community of atheists, agnostics, humanists and freethinkers.” There are many, many other examples in the world of news and commentary (including, yes, GetReligion).

This brings us to this report in Inside Philanthropy, which notes the:

... word out of Southern California that a $1.25 million gift from Lilly Endowment Inc. and a Henry Luce Foundation grant will expand online religion coverage at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Lilly awarded $1 million for a project titled "Remapping American Christianities," while Luce awarded $250,000 to pursue an effort called "Innovating Coverage of Theology."
The grants will fund a new editor and freelance-reporting budget for Religion Dispatches, the award-winning online journalism magazine based at the school. Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC Annenberg, will direct the effort.

Now, I cheer for any efforts to try to help professionals in the mainstream press, well, get religion. That appears to be a key element of this project. Let's read on:

... (W)hy did both foundations feel compelled to open their check books?
The short answer, if you journalists out there can handle it, is that some journalists just don't get it. Facts are facts. Most journalists aren't entirely religious and they may view "red state" religion or any kind of fervent religious devotion with a kind of perplexed anthropological inquisitiveness that religious people find patronizing. (It also makes for bad journalism).
Is that a harsh assessment? Sure. But don't just take our word for it. "The next generation of reporters should understand the importance of religion in the daily lives of Americans and learn how ordinary people look for and find meaning, identity and purpose," Winston said, far more diplomatically.

That "facts are facts" language about reporters learning to "get it" when dealing with religion news sounds just fine to me, as one of the participants in the Oxford Press volume "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," a book that obviously shares quite a bit of DNA with this here blog.

I also like the language about digging into the lives of ordinary believers in this evolving American culture. I hope they base that research, in part, on the work of pollster John C. Green of the University of Akron and his trailblazing efforts to map the "mushy middle" of the religion scene, that emotional, often post-doctrinal and nominally Christian territory that I have called "Oprah America."

So let's be clear: I think this sounds like an interesting project and I welcome it. However, I do have one question related to this news, one based on recent emails from mainstream religion reporters.

Let's say that you had $1.25 million and your goal was to produce actual daily and in-depth reporting -- as in basic, balanced, accurate, American model of the press information -- about religion news in this culture and around the world. Where would you mail that check?

In other words, the goal is to produce basic reporting, not analysis work, educational projects or advocacy journalism. In other words, don't say that you'd mail it to GetReligion. This is an advocacy site FOR the old-school, American model of the press approach, but we openly doing commentary and analysis work, rather than hard news.

So where would you send that money if your goal was to produce hard, accurate, balanced, basic religion-news reporting?

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