Religion on the range: One reporter goes the extra miles to cover faith in Billings, Montana

I have a lot of sympathy for folks who work on small newspapers in out-of-the-way states.

Back, when I spent a year in northwestern New Mexico back in 1994-1995, I was the only full-time journalist in the state trying to cover the beat. I was also the city editor of my newspaper, so there wasn’t a lot of free time. Yet, I pulled in a Cassells award the following year for the little I was able to do in a market of that size.

Montana, at half the population of New Mexico, has some similarities: Large, open spaces, beautiful vistas, large populations of Native Americans and small newspapers. The Billings Gazette, at 45,000 circ., is the state’s second largest newspaper after the Missoulian to the west.

One thing the Gazette has that no other newspaper in the state does is a religion reporter.

I’ve never met Susan Olp, but she’s covered religion for more than 20 years for the Gazette in the state’s largest city. She’s committed enough to the beat that she visited Israel in 2011 courtesy of a Lilly scholarship. And she must know -- as I learned in my isolated post in New Mexico -- that religion stories don’t always come knocking at your door. You have to go looking for them.

One thing that you can do is nab any guest speaker who’s showing up in town. She wrote this in March:

Back in October 2010, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian author and speaker Larry Alex Taunton met at the packed Babcock Theatre in downtown Billings for a lively debate.
The two men, friends away from the debating stage, ate dinner together that night. The next day they enjoyed a seven-hour drive through Yellowstone National Park.
Fourteen months later, Hitchens died from complications related to esophageal cancer. Now Taunton has written a book about his relationship with Hitchens, their road trips together and the Billings debate, which he calls “pivotal.”
Taunton, executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation in Birmingham, Ala., will return to the Babcock stage on Thursday to speak about the his book “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.”

Searching about the Gazette website, I learned that this newspaper (contrary to trends across the country) had expanded their religion coverage last year by making "Faith & Values" a section front -- which means it was the first page you read in the B or C section. The newspaper then contacted about two dozen religious leaders and asked them to submit 850-word essays telling the world about their church or temple. About 13 did so.

The newspaper also posted a notice to leaders of any faith groups it might have missed, asking them to send in information. No one responded.

Now that was a year ago and maybe the newspaper has had a bit better luck getting response, as I saw profiles later that year on Mormon and Baha’i groups. But the initial reaction was a lot what I ran into in New Mexico. Most faith groups don’t see publicity as positive and they don’t have anyone on staff or a volunteer who can put together a story. In small towns especially, the religion reporter has to coax stories out of people.

And Olp appears to have been the person who did all the legwork. Occasionally, the Gazette runs a religion piece by someone else but most of the job is on her shoulders, plus she has to cover other beats as well.

So here’s a salute to the religion reporters working in small markets, who face pressures that reporters in large cities don’t face. When I worked in New Mexico, one of the biggest spiritual events of the decade was an upcoming Franklin Graham crusade. When I wrote about how disorganized the planning committee was, the publisher was angry that I’d made him look bad in that small town. That wouldn’t happen in a larger venue.

After my year in New Mexico, I got another job in Washington, D.C., which many would consider the world capital for journalism and light years away from the high plains of the Four Corners region. But many reporters don’t have the luxury of moving to another locale, so they do what they can where they are.

The bottom line: There is a surprising amount of religion news in the offbeat places but it takes a lot more work to find it.

IMAGE: Susan Olp of The Billings Gazette.

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