RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant

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Since I came out yesterday with the first news analysis on the implosion at Religion News Service, two other publications have published solid stories on the imbroglio.

Then, as I was finishing this follow-up post, a Lilly Endowment press contact got back to me to confirm a whopping grant that RNS, through the Religion News Foundation, is poised to get. That's one of the major pieces of this giant, painful, puzzle.

There's been a lot of discussion about a pending deal between RNS, the Associated Press and TheConversation.com, a related web news curator (see this earlier post by our own Richard Ostling about this site), that will be funded by the Lilly Foundation, the base funder for RNS throughout the years. Communications director Judith Cebula just emailed me the following:

Lilly Endowment approved a grant to Religion News Foundation in December, 2017, in the amount of $4.9 million subject to a favorable determination regarding private foundation tax law requirements. Because the condition has not yet been satisfied, no grant payments have been made. For additional information about the grant, please contact the Religion News Foundation.

The words "subject to" are always important. So stay tuned.

I don't know who first suggested that Lilly facilitate broader distribution of religion news to publishers thru AP but the deal has been percolating for some time. AP would get the lion's share of the money, but RNS and TheConversation.com would also make out well.

Apparently enlightened minds at AP want to strengthen their religion reporting (AP only has one national reporter, Rachel Zoll, out of New York), via RNS content. This would be a major coup for RNS in terms of visibility and distribution of their work. What this would mean for their current subscribers, fees for content, etc., I have no idea.

So why the powers-that-be at RNS ditched their now-former editor-in-chief Jerome Socolovsky, who worked 12 years at AP and knows the system there well, remains a mystery. And whether AP will hire more RNS reporters and where they'll be officed has yet to be made known.

Meanwhile, covering this affair is like trying to sit on an octopus. There are tentacles everywhere, a cast of dozens and more than enough tangents to provide a headache for any reporter trying to get a grasp on what’s going on.

In recent days, it's been easy to spot the trails of other news organizations working on this story. I'll report on the latest news pieces plus add new information that's come my way.

In terms of new reporting, first out of the blocks this morning was Stephanie Russell-Kraft’s analysis for the Columbia Journalism Review. One way it differed from my piece was how she used a generous amount of leaked emails including this tense confrontation between  Socolovsky and publisher Tom Gallagher:

Ten days later, Gallagher wrote to Socolovsky, in an email obtained by CJR, “Given your publishing of personal opinions in the Sunday week-in-review email, e.g., the unwise public criticism of both Facebook -- a key partner of ours and a key relationship to the AP -- and Google for which I received a complaint, you are now prohibited from publishing personal stories, histories or opinions in the Sunday week-in-review marketing email.”
Gallagher also wrote, “I need to review and approve of your Friday Editor’s Note and any other proposed email to the staff prior to it’s [sic] distribution,” referring to internal communications between Socolovsky and staff members.

So here’s a publisher trying to muffle a top editor. That's something that’s Just Not Done In Daily Journalism, an occupation Gallagher had no previous experience in before assuming his current post in November 2016.

Socolovsky responded, “I am more than willing to let you review any part of my weekly email to staff that affects the business side, but I cannot comply with censorship and intimidation,” according to an email obtained by CJR. “I am disappointed by your bullying tactics, including your repeated assertion in yesterday’s call that my position here is ‘unsustainable,’” he added.
Asked to comment on this exchange, Gallagher tells CJR, “I haven’t seen that email since that time, but I recall the following: Jerome did not have authority to use our marketing emails as a personal platform to issue personal opinions and public complaints on behalf of RNS. RNS does not issue editorials. Jerome apologized for doing this; after that, I said I needed to review these marketing emails prior to them being sent to our subscribers.”

Wendy Gustofson, the marketing director for RNS (and the affiliated Religion News Foundation and Religion News Association) told me Gallagher would spend a lot of time berating Socolovsky in his phone calls on her.

Under former (2014-2016) RNS publisher and CEO Heidi Thompson, RNS was getting close to 1 million page views a month, she said. She doesn't know the current readership, but the lesser numbers are not Socolovsky’s fault.

“In my opinion, web traffic growth is the responsibility of the publisher,” she added. “It was Tom’s job to bring in the eyeballs. It was Jerome’s job to produce content.”

Later this morning, the New Republic team came out with its piece, written by Sarah Jones, opening with the reason why Socolovsky was fired -- something that he was only told Thursday night. He’d been waiting six days for an explanation.

Socolovsky told staff on Thursday evening that two members of RNS’s governing board, Jerry Pattengale and Nicole Neroulias Gupte, had informed him that he had been fired partly for failing to correct a story according to Gallagher’s stipulations. .. Socolovsky believes the story, which concerned a Chicago protest of a talk by Rev. James Martin, contained no errors. RNS reporter Emily Miller wrote that protesters numbered about 150. The archdiocese of Chicago claimed the number was much lower, around 50. Gallagher, who is Catholic, sided with the archdiocese. Socolovsky sided with Miller …

The contested story is here. There is also video with the report. Here is a screen shot of the RNS news page for that story:

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Look closely: Miller took the main photo herself, as she was physically there. In social media, right now, lots of religion-beat people are trying to count the protesters in the video.

Socolovsky obviously felt that she knew the difference between 150 and 50 protestors.

In my own conversations with RNS staff, I have consistently heard that Gallagher bent over backward to aid his fellow Catholics, albeit liberal ones, with not only coverage but free press releases. (I have no evidence that Gallagher gave similar aid to conservative Catholic groups. Also, the Rev. Tom Reese, the Jesuit priest brought on last summer as a senior analyst for RNS, is from the Catholic left.)

The New Republic reported that Gallagher gave out three free releases last fall to Catholic groups. I was told RNS gets $60,000 to $80,000 a year from its press releases, so even giving three away is significant change.

Then there was this interesting tidbit:

Gallagher, a former Wall Street attorney with no experience in editorial management, quickly set about reshaping RNS after his hiring in 2016. Less than three months after he started his new job, he fired columnist Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a liberal Protestant, for a satirical piece on the National Cathedral choir’s decision to perform for Donald Trump’s inauguration. (The piece suggested, among other things, that the choir would perform in Ku Klux Klan robes.) Emails show that Gallagher terminated Graves-Fitzsimmons’s contract after he received complaints from National Cathedral staff.

Who could that have been?  Well, former RNS editor-in-chief Kevin Eckstrom is now the chief communications officer for the cathedral. That's an interesting plot twist -- or simply another random piece of the puzzle.

I've spent three solid days untying some of the knots in this story and there's still stuff that hasn't been reported yet by anyone.

Definitely, there's more to come.

The above photo, which is used with permission, shows RNS staff in Washington, DC in the fall of 2016 just before Tom Gallagher's hire. From left: Former photo editor Sally Morrow, national reporter Emily Miller, former intern Kirkland An, managing editor Lauren Markoe, editor-in-chief Jerome Socolovsky, copy editor Mary Gladstone, national reporter Yonat Shimron, production editor/national reporter Adelle Banks and national correspondent Kimberly Winston Ligocki.

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