#RNA2017: Why USA Today's Washington correspondent is looking for faith and religion stories

As I mentioned Thursday, I'm attending the Religion News Association's 68th annual conference in Nashville, Tenn.:

Among the interesting people I've met: Paul Singer, Washington correspondent for USA Today.

I talked to Singer about why he came to Music City for this week's conference. Here's a quick transcript (please forgive any typos or other deadline sins).

Q: What is your job with USA Today, and what brings you here?

A: My job officially is running our congressional coverage for USA Today and the hundred newspapers and news outlets in the Gannett network. I have some responsibility for our coverage of the Trump administration as well. I am here on my own interest trying for some stories about faith and religion.

Q: Why do you think that’s important?

A: Because our readers care about it. It is something I know our readers have interest in. Every time we write a story about faith and religion, it gets a lot of traffic and interest. It is an area of interest for me personally because I cover politics, and a big question in the 2016 election was were evangelicals going to look past the personal failings of Donald Trump and support him for political reasons, (because) he’s going help them advance their political agenda.

Q: Do you think this election only makes the need for a religion emphasis that much stronger?

A: Yeah, and I think it’s a really good question to ask. I believe personally that you cannot swing a government policy without hitting a church or a faith group of some sort. So whether it is tax policy, whether it is infrastructure, whether it freedom of speech, they ultimately all run into some sort of interesting nexus with faith groups. Of all of this hurricane relief effort we’re watching, it’s going to be run through faith groups. When refugees come here from Syria, they’re going to be first met by faith groups. I think that’s a story worth telling. Faith is a sector of American politics and American economy.

Q: How hard is that to sell to editors, the need for a religion beat?

A: It’s not hard to sell them on the concept. And it’s not hard to sell them on the stories, either. I say I have a story, (and they say), "Oh, that’s a real interesting story." It’s hard to sell them on the notion that we need to clear up resources in a very constrained time to focus someone on religion when we have all of this political stuff going on around us, and we’re so understaffed in the first place. I have not done the best job of being persistent. USA Today used to a religion writer. That person, Cathy Grossman, took a buyout a couple of years ago, and we have not had a religion writer since then. We sort of let the thing dry up, and I think it’s a mistake. I believe somewhere in the range of 20 to 40 percent of our readers go every Sunday or Saturday to their faith organization regularly. That means they are automatically interested in topics that relate to their faith organization. We should be writing about that.

Q: Is this conference proving helpful to you?

A: Oh yeah. The best part for me is that I talk to people about story ideas. Because again, I’m dumb. I don’t know anything. I can’t tell a Baptist from a Methodist. My interest is, I’m listening for good story ideas. Oh, that’s a story about religion, people will read it because it’s interesting for a reason. Because it’s an interesting start. I’m just doing that this year, and I’ve been here less than 24 hours.

Q: Have you been here (RNA conference) before?

A: Last year I swung by a couple hours. It was in D.C. nearby, and I was just sort of starting my pitch to create this beat. What happened was shortly after I created this pitch to create the beat, we had another round of layoffs at the bureau, and I had to take over another dozen people because we lost our manager.

Q: It’s a challenging time always?

A: It’s a challenging time in journalism, that’s the problem. Journalism has this problem where we have to prioritize resources. This is not a place where USA Today has prioritized resources, and I argue we need to prioritize more resources to it. They let me come here, and they paid for me to come. That counts for something.

Q: Are there any particular stories about religion that you’ve been able to do over the past couple of years that you’re proud of?

A: Sure, I did one a couple of weeks ago I really enjoyed doing about the effort to repopulate the Christian territories of Iraq. ISIS chased all the Christians out. Now that ISIS is gone from the neighborhood, there is a massive effort going on right now to resettle these people. These are the first Christians. These are the people who were converted to Christianity by gospels, by the apostles leaving Bethlehem. They’ve been 2,000 years, and they were chased out. Really interesting story; people liked it and read it.

Then I wrote a story I really had fun with: Donald Trump has driven a surprising increase in interest in yoga and meditation. It makes sense, really. It’s not Trump necessarily, but it’s this whole era of nonstop hostility, always on your phone that people are just stepping away from. I’m actually exploring that. Are there other places where we can see the rise of our 24-hour bellicose news cycle to places where they can pray, reflect and meditate. That’s actually a story I’m going to follow-up.

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