Sign of the times? Henry Luce Foundation subsidizes Godbeat work at The Atlantic

Through much of U.S. history, newspapers and magazines were commercial enterprises where circulation and advertising revenues paid for journalism.

Times change. Obviously, both income streams are drying up in the Internet age. Cable TV news channels exist by delivering eyeballs to advertisers, but they’ve done little with complex and specialized fields like religion. (A notable TV exception is non-commercial, the “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly" show on PBS.)

A  future possibility is that subsidies from non-profits will largely supplant that business model.  If so, can reporters to support themselves? Will substantive news reporting mean chancey freelancing, or only part-time employment, or journalism as an unpaid hobby? Will reporters lacking old-style staff jobs make their actual living from public relations work, with conflicts of interest readers are unaware of? Will print media become expensive channels reaching a small elite audience?

Such grim thoughts are roused by the recent announcement of a significant $490,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation for religion coverage by The Atlantic and With this two-year grant, the magazine will hire a full-time religion editor and a second journalist with the goal of providing “the best conversation about global religion available today.”

An ambitious claim. But in its D.C.-based phase The Atlantic, at 159 years old, is the ASME’s 2016 Magazine of the Year and arguably America’s most important general-interest monthly. It has distinguished itself recently with a series of informative -- even definitive -- religion articles. Graeme Wood’s 2015 “What ISIS Really Wants” demonstrated that, yes, today’s terrorists are inspired by a specific heritage within Islam.

Staffer Emma Green has produced a series of notable pieces this year, e.g. “Trump’s Sunday School.” The current edition offers Ariel Sabar’s “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife,” a classic demolition of that fatuous liberal academic (and journalistic) fad.

The Luce Foundation, of course, evokes a journalistic dynasty. It was funded by donated stock from Time Inc. co-founder Henry Luce (1898–1967), a Presbyterian Misssionary Kid raised in China, and by his second wife Clare Boothe Luce (1903–1987), a onetime magazine journalist and, in 1946, a celebrated Catholic convert. Luce’s Time magazine pioneered in religion news coverage from its 1923 founding [disclosure: The Guy worked for its religion section 1969–1998].

The Atlantic’s form of magazine journalism is distinct from the Time religion format prior to the current shrinkage of its “back of the book” sections. Except for cover stories and “major takeouts” inside, Time items have been heavily condensed. The newsmagazine’s outlook regarding religion was quite interpretive, and yet was more or less nonpartisan, often with multiple staffers involved. Magazines like The Atlantic feature long-form articles with a strong point of view from a single bylined writer, an equally valid and valuable aspect of non-fiction journalism.

Related story ideas: (1) Michael Gilligan, Luce Foundation president since 2002, launched the “Initiative on Religion in International Affairs” that’s aiding The Atlantic. He formerly worked at the Association of Theological Schools and was academic dean of the Pontifical College Josephinum, and chairs the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia.

(2) Which foundations are today’s key players in religious granting? For example, Luce ($825 million in assets) also funds scholars through its Theology Program. The Lilly Endowment, stemming from the pharmaceutical giant ($11.8 billion in assets), is crucial because religion is one of three main program areas. Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts ($824 million in assets), from the Sun Oil clan,  was once a strategic resource for evangelical Protestantism. Now religion is merely one of 34 fields of interest and mostly that’s Pew Research Center polling about faith, a great resource for journalists and researchers.

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