It's time for a trip into my thick guilt file of news pieces that I wanted to get to a week ago (or more). However, most of my work this past week focused on Las Vegas, for reasons I am sure readers will understand.
Instead of Las Vegas, this post is about Southern Baptists and Phoenix. It's also about the negative side effects, in terms of news, of current trends in newsroom budgets (and I'm not just talking about editors declining to hire religion-beat professionals).
Now, please trust me when I say that I have spent lots of time studying the economic dominoes that keep falling in newsrooms during our industry's money crisis, which is primarily being caused by weak revenues from advertising, both digital and analog.
I know that there are fewer reporters, even in the healthiest of newsrooms. I know that those reporters are being stretched thinner and thinner, with some being forced -- often by editors -- to cut corners while delivering more news, in more formats, on shorter deadlines, with fewer copy editors watching their backs.
At the same time, travel budgets are thinner than ever (maybe even for crucial subjects, like sports and, gasp, politics).
So I understand why many newsrooms are not sending reporters -- in the flesh -- to cover some major news events that drew live coverage in the past. Take this summer's Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix.
However, CNN showed up -- in the person of feature correspondent Chris Moody. I will argue that, because Moody was there in person, the odds may have been tilted in his favor when it came time to land a major scoop the other day, the one with this headline: "Exclusive: Evangelicals urge more action from Trump against alt-right."
Hold that thought. Before we think about this new Moody piece, let me remind you what I wrote about his coverage this past summer:
... Let me stress right here that I have long ties to Moody and to his family. For starters, he was one of my best students at Palm Beach Atlantic University and then in the first, experimental Washington Journalism Center semester. Decades earlier, Moody's grandfather -- a legendary Southern Baptist preacher, the Rev. Jess Moody -- was a good friend of my late father.
Chris Moody headed to Phoenix while reporting a background feature on what everyone expected to be the hot story at the 2017 SBC meetings -- the battle over the future of the Rev. Russell Moore, the outspoken (and very #NeverTrump #NeverHillary) leader of the convention's Washington, D.C., office, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
Moody went to Phoenix to cover one story and walked into another -- the SBC's strong, if belated, resolution condemning white supremacy and the alt-right.
My hunch (I have not talked to him about this) is that while Moody was there, he also made the personal connections that led him to the story that broke the other day. As in:
A group of prominent evangelical Christians are calling on President Donald Trump to take further steps to condemn white supremacists -- specifically those in the alt-right -- following the August white nationalist demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, that left one woman dead.
A letter that has been circulating privately among a coalition of pastors notes Trump's efforts to denounce the white supremacists, but urges the President to go further in condemning the alt-right "by name."
"This movement has escaped your disapproval," the letter, obtained exclusively by CNN, reads. "We believe it is important for this movement to be addressed, for at its core it is a white identity movement and the majority of its members are white nationalists or white supremacists. This movement gained public prominence during your candidacy for President of the United States. Supporters of the movement have claimed that you share their vision for our country. These same supporters have sought to use the political and cultural concerns of people of goodwill for their prejudiced political agendas. It concerned many of us when three people associated with the alt-right movement were given jobs in the White House."
Initial signers of the letter include Southern Baptist Convention President Rev. Steve Gaines, former SBC President Rev. Fred Luter and the Rev. T.D. Jakes, a mentor of Trump's top spiritual adviser, Rev. Paula White. One member of Trump's informal Evangelical Advisory Board, Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, also signed the letter.
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
Later in Moody's piece, there was this:
The effort, a collaborative project drafted by Southern Baptists Rev. Dwight McKissic and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary Dean Keith S. Whitfield, comes after the Southern Baptist Convention -- the nation's largest protestant denomination -- grappled with its own decision to condemn the alt-right earlier this year.
So what is my point?
Simply this: There are things reporters cannot do when, in order to save money, they try to cover complex events simply by watching the streaming video feeds from the sessions. Trust me, I know. I have zero travel budget and I write many of my national "On Religion" columns after watching videos of major speeches, debates, etc. Reporters have to do what we have to do.
But something is lost when you cannot walk the halls of a convention center and hang out with participants later -- whether in bars (at some religious conventions) or buffets and ice cream parlors (in others). You lose something in terms of making the contacts that, yes, help you understand the story you're covering, but also (b) you miss the chatter and all the cellphone-number trading times that point to important stories in the future.
So it helps to show up. Editors understand that, when it comes time to cover IMPORTANT subjects like politics, sports and business. But religion?
Some editors just don't "get" this whole religion thing. You know?